Director: Marshall Neilan
Cast: Mary Pickford, Milla Davenport, Percy Haswell
Synopsis: Wealthy Jervis Pendleton acts as benefactor for orphan Judy Abbott, anonymously sponsoring her in her boarding school. But as she grows up, he finds himself falling in love with her…
Marshall Neilan’s Daddy-Long-Legs, the first screen adaptation of Jean Webster’s popular nineteenth-century novel, is a typical Mary Pickford vehicle in which, for much of the running time she plays a wilful but adorable child. That was how America liked ‘Little Mary’, and Pickford, then approaching the height of her fame, was a savvy enough businesswoman to know when to play to her strengths. Later remade in 1931 with Janet Gaynor and Warner Baxter, and then again — more successfully — as a romantic musical in 1955 with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, this version proved to be a box office hit and is considered by many to be one of her best movies.
Pickford (Mickey, True Heart Susie) plays Judy Abbott, an orphan at the kind of orphanage out of a Dickens novel. The matron is a monster who thinks nothing of scalding her charges hands on the stove and ensuring they’re regular by feeding them a constant diet of prunes. Judy’s independent spirit marks her out as a troublemaker, but she is a kind soul who takes the other orphans under her wing. One day, a mystery benefactor agrees to pay for Judy’s college tuition on the condition that his identity remains unknown to her. Judy thrives at college, and attracts a pair of rival paramours: the young and slightly immature Jimmy McBride (the movie’s director, Marshall Neilan — Judith of Bethulia, A Star is Born), and Jarvis Pendleton (Mahlon Hamilton), a much older man. Naturally, before the film’s end, she must choose between one of these two suitors, but which will it be?
There are few many silent movies that stand the test of the time, and sadly Daddy-Long-Legs isn’t one of them. The film seems undecided about whether it’s a knockabout comedy or a light romance, and its change of tone around the hour-mark is something of a jolt. Pickford was very good at portraying a child, and gives a convincing performance as the roguish Judy Abbott. She was also an adept comedienne, and some of the Daddy-Long-Leg’s best moments come when she and another orphan become inebriated on apple jack. Ironically, though, the film’s funniest moment features a couple of kids playing cupids who quarrel over one’s accidental shooting of both of Judy’s love-struck suitors with the same arrow. Apart from its historical value, there’s little here of real interest, and the episodic structure makes it difficult for the film to involve the audience in its story, or to care much for its characters.
(Reviewed 23rd October 2012)