I’ve always been nonchalant about The Secret Garden. I never read it as a kid, and while I saw the various film adaptations I was never particularly fond of them; I was a Little Princess girl (how funny that both Princess and Garden were written by the same author, and saw adaptations in the 1990s). This 1949 MGM drama is the version that I enjoy the most, although it’s riddled with flaws including Margaret O’Brien shaking off the mantle of child stardom with leaden results. Nevertheless, it’s a fun Gothic mystery that’s boiled down (while not talking down) for a child’s view.
Mary Lennox (O’Brien) has been raised in India her entire life, but when her parents die she’s forced to move to England to live with her reclusive uncle. As she roams about the mysterious house, she discovers her uncle is hiding his son, Colin (Dean Stockwell), as well as a secret garden that holds dark memories.
I can’t articulate why I’ve never enjoyed The Secret Garden, but I can appreciate its intent now. The story is a Gothic horror/mystery as seen through a child’s eyes. Mary comes to realizations about her personality and her life through discovering the hidden intricacies within the mansion she’s living in. Her first night culminates with hearing someone crying, only to be told she didn’t hear anything; it’s Jane Eyre for kids (minus the crazy woman in the attic). Set designer Edwin B. Willis evokes a dark and unknown atmosphere where the darkness dwarfs Mary, and corners cannot be seen. This uneasiness continues when Mary and Dickon (Brian Roper) enter the secret garden for the first time and discover a place abandoned right in the middle of tea, becoming a combination shrine and murder scene. Once the garden is brought back to life by Mary, Dickon, and Colin, the movie transforms into Technicolor which is jarring at first, but becomes a beautiful integration and culmination of an idyllic Eden; it’s always nice to see Margaret O’Brien in color!
I mentioned comparisons to The Little Princess, also written by Secret Garden author Frances Hodgsen Burnett. If you’ve watched both movies you already note the similarities: both deal with a young girl growing up in India who loses her parents and has to bring light to stuffy English millionaires. Little Princess certainly follows that to a “T” with the ebullient Sara Crewe, but Mary Lennox takes some getting used to. Does anyone know if Margaret O’Brien was considered for the role of Sara Crewe? Doubtful, considering she would have been two when the Shirley Temple version came out. It almost feels like Mary Lennox is a consolation prize for O’Brien’s inability to be Crewe. It’s obvious O’Brien is struggling with the formal accent and stiff acting in the first scenes, and her formality and anger comes off as utter madness at times. Once she settles into the exploration of the garden she falls back into the angelic O’Brien that she is; and she does have a few strong dramatic sequences, particularly opposite the spoiled brat, Colin. Unfortunately, the script sets up O’Brien to scream and yell “I hate you” so much within the first hour that it’s a test to get to the better second half of the film. One nitpick that irked me was the continual condemnations that Mary is “not pretty.” O’Brien grew into a lovely young woman as evidenced here; she didn’t go through an awkward phase! With the characters going on about her not being pretty, it’s almost in the hopes that the audience will believe it.
The rest of the cast is good, but it’s O’Brien’s show. Young Dean Stockwell takes a character that could be incredibly annoying, and adds a self-deprecating humor to him. He’s a match made in Heaven for Mary with a similar “I hate you” mentality, but he refuses to be wrong, right down to declaring he’ll die because “I shan’t live to grow up!” Brian Roper is the loveable English scamp who plays second-fiddle to O’Brien. Elsa Lanchester is also fun as the daffy maid, Martha. She’s only got a few scenes, but she’s the character you know possesses a lot of secrets about the house and wants to spill all. When Mary starts screaming at Colin, Martha hides a smile. Honestly, this is O’Brien’s to mess up and once she overcomes the haughty attitude (that doesn’t work for her persona) The Secret Garden becomes a sweet surprise.
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