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Pollyanna (1960), based on the novel by Eleanor H. Porter, was Hayley Mills' first film for the Walt Disney Studios and also her first American film.
Disney had made his name and fortune creating animated films but by 1960 he had shifted his focus to family-oriented live-action movies. Porter's novel was almost fifty years old and had been shot before as a silent film in 1920 starring Mary Pickford when Disney decided to film it. The story was already dated and the problem for Disney was finding a child actress who could play Pollyanna a guileless, optimistic girl without becoming saccharine. Patty Duke had auditioned unsuccessfully for the part and production was almost called off. By chance Disney's wife was visiting London and while out shopping with the wife of studio head Bill Anderson, happened to catch Hayley Mills' film debut Tiger Bay (1959). The two women lobbied their husbands to cast Mills and Disney was sent a print of Tiger Bay to view. Despite objections from David Swift (who Disney had chosen to direct Pollyanna), Mills got the part.
Filming took place from July to October 1959 in several California locations Santa Rosa, Napa Valley, and Petaluma, as well as on the Disney lot in Burbank, with the cast rounded out with Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead and Karl Malden, who played the Reverend Snow. In his autobiography he wrote "Pollyanna marked several firsts for me. It was the first time I worked for Disney, my first picture coming out of my Warner's contract, and the first time that I made a deal for the picture as a whole instead of getting a weekly salary. [...] The audience was to be introduced to my character, the Revered Snow, through his first sermon, several pages of chandelier-rattling fire and brimstone designed to put the fear of God into a church full of New England parishioners. It was that speech I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into when I first read the script. I decided to pattern the delivery after a Serbian priest I had known in Gary [Indiana], and, keeping him in mind, I spent a couple of months working on the speech every morning up in my little study, often waking up the girls by shouting at the top of my lungs. By the time I was ready to shoot the speech, Mila and Carla were letter perfect on it as well. To this day Mila remembers it better than I do.[...] The day after I shot my long sermon, Walt [Disney] made a point of seeking me out to tell me he had just seen the rushes and how happy he was with them. He even sent me a sixteen-millimeter print of the speech. He made working at the studio that bore his name a total pleasure. "
Malden was equally happy with his co-star Mills, inviting her to his house to play with his young daughters, "Hayley was about to become a star, but she was totally unaffected, a little girl just like my daughters, dashing through the yard trying to get 'home' before she was tagged. I think that quality came across on the screen and helped to make her so appealing. Like Natalie Wood, Hayley was a young actress whose performance never veered into the precious or self-conscious. You believed her one hundred percent; she was never condescending toward her own childhood, a trap so many young actors fall into.
"She also had the good grace to be nervous. If I remember correctly, Hayley's first day of shooting was in a scene with me. [...] We rehearsed the scene a couple of times and I was trying to warm up things up so much that I could feel the scene turning to mush. I was trying to figure out what to do when we broke for a few minutes. I looked at her adorable little face and said, "You know, Hayley, yours is a lot smaller, of course, but your nose is just like mine." She burst out laughing. Whenever I felt her tensing up, I'd just point back and forth between her nose and my own. We were friends from then on."
Mills also worked well with Jane Wyman, who played her Aunt Polly. "I was new at film acting then" Mills recalled, "and she was wonderful to me, so patient and kind. I feel that my good reception in that film was in great part due to her. She was wonderful to play off and to, and I found my own standards rising to meet hers. She was a no-nonsense lady. Oh, she could be lots of fun when time came to relax, but on the set, with the urgent business at hand of making a scene pay off, she led one a merry chase. I am grateful to have known her."
Neal Gabler, in his biography of Disney, wrote that "Walt broke down in tears watching Pollyanna in the sweatbox. Swift, who made the film, said he personally 'hated it," but when he told Walt that they would have to cut twenty minutes out of the picture because it was running long, Walt protested, "No, no, no, don't touch it!".By the time production was over, Disney had spent $3.2 million dollars on the film, which only grossed $3.75 million barely making back its costs. Disney blamed the film's title, "Because of the title, we had the women and the children, but the men stayed away." At its release in May 1960, the critics raved about Mills. Newsweek wrote "Part of its success can be attributed to a fine cast that does exact justice to a collection of assorted colorful characters. Its most remarkable member is 13-year-old Hayley Mills, who imbues Pollyanna herself with so much quiet curiosity and enjoyment that her unshatterable optimism seems delightfully plausible." Time was much less charitable: "Disney [...] photographed the little horror in throbbing colors, bloated it with big names...and generally calculated its gasps and sniffles, homilies and heehaws with such shrewdness that Pollyanna emerges on the wide screen as the best live-actor movie Disney has ever made: A Niagara of drivel and masterpiece of smarm."
Pollyanna may have divided audiences over whether it was a heart-warming family film or a sappy melodrama, but for Hayley Mills, it was a star-maker.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler
The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney by Michael Barrier
When Do I Start? by Karl Malden
Jane Wyman: The Actress and The Woman by Lawrence J. Quirk
Agnes Moorehead: A Bio-Bibliography by Lynn Kean
The Internet Movie Database