the REEL WORLD: 1917

The Poor Little Rich Girl

This film is mostly a vehicle for Mary Pickford, "America's Sweetheart." Pickford was the most famous woman in the world in the first few decades of the twentieth century. The Internet Movie Database lists her as the seventh most prolific actress in the history of film (the first, Mae Questel, is credited mostly with voice parts in Popeye cartoons, and the next five are porn stars). Pickford also produced many movies and was one of the co-founders of the United Artists studio (the others were her husband Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin); not only was she wildly famous, but she was also remarkably powerful.

The Poor Little Rich Girl, like many other films described on this site, is about class and social standing. Pickford, 24 when this film was made, plays Gwen, an eleven-year-old girl sadly neglected by her social-climber parents. Eileen Whitfield, Pickford's biographer, notes that there was a tremendous demand for Pickford to play children; she was very talented at doing so, giving her characters what John DeBartolo calls "grit, heart, spunk, and depth."

Gwen is left by her parents to the care of unconcerned or even malevolent servants, one of whom insists that she take some sort of medicine so that she'll sleep (and thereby stop being such a bother). Gwen receives far too large a dose of the medicine and goes off into a hallucinatory haze, in a dream sequence that would never have made it past the Hays Office. As she is near death, her parents realize the price their social climbing has had on their daughter, and are overjoyed when she recovers, promising to get their priorities straight and raise her properly.

DeBartolo's review contains excerpts from several reviews of The Poor Little Rich Girl, indicating how well-known Pickford was for her characterizations of children, and how imitated and influential she was in the world outside the movies.

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Emily Way (
Last updated May 11, 1999