Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s classic The Secret Garden combines a strange and powerful ambience with intriguing character development. Being spoiled and willful and stubborn were bad traits for Victorian children, yet that defines her heroes here, and it gives them spine to subvert the world of grown-ups and effect real change (beginning in themselves). The most famous film adaptation is the 1993 version, though I recall a good 1970s BBC serial that aired in the U.S. on Once Upon a Classic. Other outings include a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV version and a Broadway musical. Fans of the story, or of classic children’s movies, should seek out this excellent MGM version from 1949 now available on demand from Warner Archive.
Margaret O’Brien is the initially unlikeable and proud heroine whose sorrow and dismay at being transplanted from colonial India to the mansion of her reclusive uncle on the Yorkshire moors triggers a personal transformation that involves being connected with other living things—plants, animals and people. Dean Stockwell plays well against her as the supposedly crippled boy (akin to a rajah) who orders the household about. A pleasurable cast of character actors surround them, including Elsa Lanchester, Gladys Cooper, and Reginald Owen as various servants, and a surprisingly jolly turn from the usually villainous George Zucco. Here he’s a doctor who barely needs to take a temperature before pronouncing an invalid healthy. If the resolution speeds along a mite quickly and conveniently in this 90-minute tale, at least it’s a satisfying one.
The scenes of the restored garden are in beautiful Technicolor (emphasizing its semi-fantastical nature), while the rest of the film is in often Gothic black and white, evoking the novels of Charlotte and Emily Bronte; characters even use the word “wuthering”. It’s fair to ascribe this tasteful yet sumptuous MGM atmosphere to producer Clarence Brown, though director Fred M. Wilcox had already established himself as a good director of children with Lassie Come Home. He later did Forbidden Planet, a different kind of fairy tale. Bronislau Kaper’s lovely, moody, delicate score includes a lullaby supposedly sung by O’Brien but dubbed by the ubiquitous Marni Nixon.
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