Summer Silents – Mary Pickford and Daddy-Long-Legs (1919)

Insert poster for Daddy Long Legs (1919) Daddy-Long-Legs (1919) is a delight from start to finish.  The film came at a propitious moment in Mary Pickford’s career; tired of the bullying tactics resorted to by the studios through block booking, Mary, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin would soon break away from this control and engineer the creation of United Artists in 1920.  Although Daddy-Long-Legs was released through First National, it was the first picture on which Mary acted completely independently as producer.

Daddy-Long-Legs is the story of an orphaned baby, Jerusha “Judy” Abbott (Pickford), who is found in a trashcan swaddled in newspaper.  She is brought to a spartan orphanage that is run by Mrs. Lippett (Milla Davenport), a shrewish woman with sadist tendencies that are reminiscent of Valeska Gert’s matron in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929).  In one scene, she reprimands the mischevious Judy for an infraction by scorching her finger on a hot stove.  She admonishes Judy with “God will punish little girls who steal; He will send them into a burning hot hell….”  All this seriousness is outweighed by Pickford’s comic antics.  Judy joins forces with a fellow orphan and declares the “Great Prune Strike.”  Mrs. Lippett is not amused.  Ordered outside with no supper, the two are fed by some sacks of food and a jug of hard cider that is thrown over the wall by someone outside.  This scene reaches slapstick proportions when both Judy and her co-conspirator, clearly intoxicated, stumble back inside the orphanage, leaving the remaining contents of the jug overturned.  An unsuspecting dog feeds his curiosity, and in the next shot we see it walking on two legs, trying to maintain its balance against the wall of the orphanage.  These comic vignettes are balanced by some very poignant scenes, especially when Judy is shown tending to some of the children who are too ill to join the others.  One little girl even dies in her arms; the tragedy inherent in scenes such as this serve to showcase the brilliant range of Pickford as an actress, as well as lending her adolescent characters a very adult capacity for sorrow.

Mary PickfordThe film follows Judy through the rest of her childhood and moves into her young adult life.  She is given a college education, financed by a mystery benefactor, whom Judy calls her “Daddy Long Legs.”  She has no idea who the man is, but faithfully writes him of her progress throughout the ensuing four years.  Director Marshall Neilan makes an appearance as the amorous Jimmie McBride, who competes with the much older Jarvis Pendleton (Mahlon Hamilton) for Judy’s affections.  Neilan was said to have been Pickford’s favorite director, and his skill in bringing out the best in her work is evident in every inch of this film.  Mary’s ability to move from childhood to maturity not only displays her comedic brilliance, but also shows her to stunning physical advantage.  Her famous curls are abundantly displayed, framing her face in a lustrous halo.

At the time of its release, Daddy-Long-Legs was a smash hit at the box office.  Mary knew she could not go wrong with such material; the public clamored for her in these well-loved roles from children’s literature, and her uncanny ability to play children has hardly been matched by any actress since.  Pickford’s collaboration with director Neilan delivers a film that is all at once sweet, disarming, narratively fluid from beginning to end.  This is probably my favorite Pickford film to date.

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5 Responses to “Summer Silents – Mary Pickford and Daddy-Long-Legs (1919)”

  1. “Pickford’s collaboration with director Neilan delivers a film that is all at once sweet, disarming, narratively fluid from beginning to end. This is probably my favorite Pickford film to date.”

    And with very good reason as it’s a lovely film, one that has been given full justice with this wonderful review. Pickford of course of one of the greats in silent cinema, with only Lillian Gish as her (slight) superior among the women. But as you rightly point out here, her work as a child yielded some of her greatest work, namely this film and another I like, REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM.

    However with the advent of German expressionism in American silents, and the maturity evident in the comparative later phase of the silent era, I would site two films as the zenith of Mary Pickford’s pre-eminence: SPARROWS and MY BEST GIRL. The former is my own favorite Pickford of them all.

  2. leclisse Says:

    Thank you for your recommendations! I do have SPARROWS in the stack of Pickford films I checked out from the library for this weekend, as well as TESS OF THE STORM COUNTRY (the 1922 version).

    I’ll have to try and find MY BEST GIRL, too — I just finished reading Eileen Whitfield’s PICKFORD: THE WOMAN WHO MADE HOLLYWOOD and its glowing assessment of Pickford’s work in that film has made me rather excited to track it down. It was also on the set of that film that she met Buddy Rogers, her third husband. I’m curious to see what kind of chemistry they have on screen.

  3. Can you please tell me how much older than Judy Jarvis is?( in the novel or the movie)

  4. I read the speeches in the movie “daddy long legs”, and there was this dialogue :170
    “Yes – – I love you, Judy,
    and I’ll be your grandmother
    – if I may be your hus-
    band, too.”

    Can you tell me who says this? Jervis does?

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