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.
The 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.