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Sunday, February 12, 2017

When Every Mother's Dream Was a Curly Locks Boy

Little Lord Fauntleroy a Classic Told and Retold

Illustration Art for the Novel by Reginald Birch

Nameless Youth Bears Burden of Fauntleroy Fashion
His name, if recognized at all, is an object of ridicule, an impossibly goody-good boy in curls and lace. The image was used to denote spoiled-rottenness in over-indulged Edwardian youth, a thing to be stamped out as the 20th century remade culture. David Selznick had read the 1886 novel as a boy and revered it. When he wanted to make his first independent movie of it in 1935, advisers warned that Fauntleroy was a hopeless "chestnut," best left to memories of Mary Pickford from a silent version in 1921. DOS went ahead anyway and got a hit out of Little Lord Fauntleroy. The story's been done since, several times, but I wonder how many cracked the book since a last World War. Past dwellers, adult and small fry, were enchanted by this tale of a Brooklyn lad who comes to inherit an English Earldom and wealth going with it, a dream Yanks harbored even if few would admit it. This was stuff of fantasy that made Little Lord Fauntleroy a cosmic best seller when new, and reprint stuff of folklore since.

Mary Pickford Essays a 1921 Fauntleroy ...

... and Plays Mother "Dearest" As Well.

I bought a copy off E-Bay, cheap as in nearly free. What a world the Internet has left us, where books have so little currency. Mine was clean, a reprint from 1943, and had a former owner's name written inside. Someone treasured this once. In fact, it was a Christmas gift. Can transferred ownership of a book also pass down luck or fate of a previous owner? Enough of that: Part of wanting this edition was color plates by illustration artist Reginald Birch, who had done pen-and-ink for the 1886 publication, and was called from obscurity to draw color updates for a 30's, and later, this '43 edition. Birch created the visual image of Fauntleroy, author Frances Hodgson Burnett having vividly, and lovingly, described the character in her text, but it was the illustrator that made a fashion plate of young Ceddie to delight of mothers who'd dress mortified boys in Fauntleroy outfits for decades to come. Orson Welles cited the fashion fad in The Magnificent Ambersons, where little Georgie Minifer, tricked out in Fauntleroy duds, is teased by a toughie ("Look at the girly-curly") and has to fight his way out of the insult.

Freddie Bartholomew Makes Boyish Merry On the Selznick-International Lot  

Burnett (and Birch) created a paragon child, flawlessly mannered, "with the mop of yellow love-locks." The author's was an era when children were seen more, heard less. It was joy to dress them up like little dolls. Ceddie wouldn't wait long to be pilloried. By time movies came, his image needed butch makeover, a boy wise to the streets and much more a fish out of water once taken to England. Mary Pickford made a highest-profile silent version where she'd essay both mother ("Dearest") and child. She kept signature blonde curls that a Jackie Coogan or others of child fraternity would not have dared wear. She was sorry later for doing both parts ("I should have used a little boy"), but her public was game --- worldwide rentals $1.5 million, lushest so far of her United Artists vehicles. Pickford was an event with each time out, being awaited like Christmas by filmgoers. Little Lord Fauntleroy amazes still for size and expertise, among its miracles a scene where Mary as Ceddie kisses Mary as Dearest on the cheek, a trick even talkies shrunk from trying. Pickford had put herself in a spot where each show had to top all of ones before, and that sometimes weighed on pace (Little Lord Fauntleroy nearly two hours long).

Director John Cromwell Goes Over Production Design with 1936 Staff

Reading Little Lord Fauntleroy roused fond memory for many well into a next century. 1880's setting was what Pickford called (in an introductory title) "the era of Mother and Father." Her 1921 audience would have looked back to then as we would to the late 70's, so yes, the story yielded nostalgia for simpler time, whatever its dated literary aspects. 1936 however, when David Selznick's remake appeared, was that much further out, and this audience would not countenance a Ceddie with curls of gold. Selznick and updating writers scrubbed influence of Reginald Birch art to look instead at recent hit that was DOS's own for MGM, David Copperfield, a boy-meets-world recount that worked and didn't seem old-fashioned beyond an also period setting. To further link his chain, Selznick borrowed Freddie Bartholomew from Metro. The project was class in all ways, Selznick knowing this first as an independent would sink him, or not, among majors he was set on competing with. Cost climbed to $585K, some said higher, this a-plenty, but got back thanks to $1.7 million in worldwide rentals. Selznick liked literary adaptations with his name affixed; it bespoke quality he'd want the new company to represent. To much of patronage, Little Lord Fauntleroy seemed like an MGM picture in all but logo.

A New Fauntleroy Day: Now The Fashions Are For Women 

Dolores Costello Is Back and and Selznick's Got Her

Selznick liked to use names others had laid aside. Dolores Costello as Dearest brought a Madonna quality untapped when she came to, then went from, Warner specials at dawn of talk. Bartholomew is obliged to take up fists and do minor mischief in accord with 30's expectation, whatever a break this was from Ceddie in the book. There was not a lot of action to the narrative, mostly talk to help opposing figures find common ground. Selznick would have noted slack in the rope, but felt the property good enough, beloved enough, to go ahead. 1936 was near a last year Hollywood could reasonably take on Fauntleroy, war and breakdown of a UK class system spelling all-stops to further Hollywood remaking. It took television to try again, much later, to kit out Fauntleroy as period quaint. Selznick's version remains a likely, if sentimental, best --- he took medicine straight and expects us to --- check the deluxe trailer on a now OOP disc (from Anchor Bay) where he shows players/staff backstage and on the lot, Little Lord Fauntleroy an event not to be '36 missed. Kino has a Blu-Ray, which I haven't seen (mixed reviews). Otherwise, there are numerous Fauntleroys at DVD-large, thanks to Selznick's version having lapsed into the Public Domain some forty years ago.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

This reminds me of a later remake with Alec Guinness. Even though that one was produced originally for television, in Argentina it went to movie theaters and I saw it in one of those movie palaces in downtown Buenos Aires with a packed audience. I think that this movie theater still exists.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

This essay reminded me of a remark someone once made about David O. Selznick and the type of literature he was inclined to film, to the effect that Selznick's problem was that he stopped reading when he was twelve years old. Cannot remember who said that about him, though.

7:49 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I think it was Ben Hecht.

8:49 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Recall that the movie gave Fauntleroy street cred with an American buddy -- Mickey Rooney -- who vouched for Faunt being a regular fellow and sided with him in a fight. Also, Mickey's gift of a prizefighter-themed handkerchief showed that Fauntleroy wasn't some eggheaded snob but an American boy who'd find that pretty cool. Was Mickey's character in the book?

1:45 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

The character is prominent in the book. Selznick's version is actually very faithful to its source.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Wow. That still with the three Great Danes is eerily reminiscent of the cover of my first K-9 CORPS novel. I never asked the artist where he came up the idea for the cover (my scout dogs are just very large dogs in the novels).

10:13 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

The comic strip character Buster Brown had a Fauntleroy-ish appearance, too.
Speaking of Busters: Keaton, as a young vaudevillian, was once called upon to play the Little Lord as understudy to an actor who fell ill. Buster loathed the star and the show's manager, as well as the role, so he would liven things up by tripping on the threshold and sliding on his face as he entered the stage.

3:18 PM  

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