The Poor Little Rich Girl
Cast & Crew
Gwendolyn, a poor little rich girl, is neglected by her parents, who are more interested in the pursuit of social and financial status than their daughter's well-being. Gwen is left to the care of servants, who treat the little girl harshly. Because Jane, her nurse, desires an evening off, she carelessly gives Gwen an overdose of sleeping potion, and as a result, the child is taken dangerously ill. In a delirium, she sees her father, mother, servants and her few friends as they really are. These revelations are communicated to her parents as they lean over her bedside. They retain their vigil through the night, and in the morning, when Gwen regains consciousness, her parents realize that her life has been devoid of love and decide to start life over.
The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
Based on the play by Eleanor Gates, which opened on January 21, 1913, and with a screenplay by Pickford's best friend and frequent collaborator Frances Marion, The Poor Little Rich Girl was directed by Maurice Tourneur and shot at Pickford's studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. According to the American Film Institute, a production company is not credited, but Pickford had established her own, The Mary Pickford Company in mid-1916. Paramount handled the distribution.
The plot of the film revolves around 11-year-old "poor little rich girl" Gwendolyn (Pickford) whose parents ignore her and leave her to the care of abusive servants. One night her nurse gives Gwendolyn too much sleeping potion and she nearly dies. It was typical Pickford fare and this and many of her films would be remade in the 1930s with Shirley Temple, another girl with golden curls.
Working with Tourneur was not easy for Pickford, who had been known to practically direct herself. As Clarence Brown once said, she knew everything there was to know about motion pictures. Brown acted as Tourneur's assistant director. "Tourneur shouted at you, he'd blow up and scare everybody off the set, but that was his temperament. He wasn't malicious, but he did use sarcasm." One morning, while getting ready to leave for work, Pickford was sitting at her dressing table when she noticed something. "A small hand mirror lying at an angle caught the glow of the early morning light and reflected it flatteringly on my face. I went to the studio bursting with my discovery. The moment I arrived I asked my director, Mr. Tourneur, if he would have the cameraman place one of the spotlights down low. Mr. Tourneur laughed at me, enumerating several reasons why it wouldn't work. 'Alright', I said, 'let's first take the scene the usual way and then shoot it the way I suggest. You'll decide for yourself when you see it.'" Tourneur agreed to placate his star and as Pickford later noted, "The difference was so great that ever since that day they have used the low-lying light to reflect back onto the actor's face."
Besides not wanting to take lighting direction from his star, Tourneur also did not like the bits of comic slapstick that Pickford and Marion created on set, calling it "une horreur" (horrible). When The Poor Little Rich Girl was complete, it was shown to the bosses at Paramount who hated it, telling Pickford and Marion that it was "putrid" and that they would rather not release it than risk damaging Pickford's career. Pickford returned home, went to bed and cried while Marion crawled under her own bed and cried to her mother that she wanted to die because she'd destroyed Mary's career.
Luckily, the film had already been promised to exhibitors so Paramount had no choice but to release it. When it was screened in previews before an audience in New York, Pickford and Marion went in disguise and were overjoyed to see that the audience loved it. However, their joy turned to fear as Pickford was recognized leaving the theater and she barely escaped with her clothes shredded.
Mary Pickford and Frances Marion had the last laugh. As Pickford later wrote, "One morning late in March 1917, I awakened to find a deluge of telegrams - twenty-five of them, all stating in varying forms of rapture that our scandalous misfit, that ugly duckling of a comedy, Poor Little Rich Girl, was a smash success. That was twenty -three more telegrams than I had previously received after a first showing of one of my pictures!" The most effusive came from Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount. The studio was overjoyed, Pickford and Marion were vindicated and Marion was given $50,000 and hired "to prepare special features for Mary Pickford....Throughout the production," her contract read, "Miss Marion will continue by the side of the star and the director." She would remain there for many films to come.
The Poor Little Rich Girl became Pickford's greatest financial success to date. No doubt her treatment by Tourneur and Paramount influenced her decision a few years later to release her own films through United Artists, the company she founded with Fairbanks, Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith.
Producers: Adolph Zukor
Director: Maurice Tourneur
Screenplay: Frances Marion (writer); Eleanor Gates (play "Poor Little Rich Girl")
Cinematography: Lucien N. Andriot, John van den Broek
Cast: Mary Pickford (Gwendolyn), Madlaine Traverse (Her Mother), Charles Wellesley (Her Father), Gladys Fairbanks (Jane), Frank McGlynn, Sr. (The Plumber), Emile La Croix (The Organ Grinder), Marcia Harris (Miss Royale), Charles Craig (Thomas), Frank Andrews (Potter), Herbert Prior (The Doctor).
by Lorraine LoBianco
The AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
This film was selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, in 1991.
This film was made at Mary Pickford's studios in Fort Lee, N. J. Although contemporary sources do not credit a production company for the film, the Mary Pickford Film Corp., which was formed in mid-1916 to produce her films for distribution by Artcraft, probably was the production company. According to a modern source, Clarence Brown was an assistant director on the film. In 1936, Twentieth Century-Fox produced a film of the same name, directed by Irving Cummings and starring Shirley Temple, with an essentially different plot and based not on Eleanor Gates' play, but on stories written by Gates and Ralph Spence (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40).