“I suppose…I mean I suppose we’re not old enough. There must be an awful lot we don’t know. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to grow up.”
The Secret Garden is a breath of fresh air, starring children who would be immediately sympathetic…if they were allowed to be. Instead there’s a slow build toward any sort of positive change, in a deliberate story that made me yearn to seek out Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel upon which the film was based.
When Mary Lennox (Margaret O’Brien, Little Women) becomes an orphan, she is sent to live with her uncle Archibald (Herbert Marshall, The Third Day), who does not wish to have anything to do with her. Mary receives an equally cool reception from her cousin Colin (Dean Stockwell, Quantum Leap) who is unfortunately confined to bed. But Mary is convinced there is something to do in this giant mansion, which is when she meets young Dickon (Brian Roper, Hong Kong Confidential). The two soon begin to explore the garden outside the walls and, when it presents a unique mystery, they become caught up in something that will either bring them together or tear them apart.
If I had to describe The Secret Garden in one word, it would be “creepy.” Each character is creepy in his or her own way. Mary is discovered completely on her own, alone in a huge house with all the servants gone through choice or death. She talks to her dolls and we get the feeling she’s been a bit spoiled. Instead of acknowledging she’s clearly traumatized by this experience, everyone laughs at her or puts her down. Margaret O’Brien serves the character well, by bringing the same powerful affectation that made her stand out in Meet Me in St. Louis.
Martha, (Elsa Lanchester, Bride of Frankenstein) Mary’s caretaker of sorts, has one of the creepiest laughs I’ve ever heard; and Dickon is just a Class A weirdo in the way he interacts with animals. Then there are the nightly screaming sessions everyone is trying to keep hush-hush. When Mary discovers the screams are coming from her cousin Colin, their discussion is completely creepy. Colin quite blithely explains he won’t live to grow up, and if he does he’ll get a hunched back. He’s a perfect match for Mary’s creepiness. Mary’s Uncle Archibald dismisses them both, and the rest of the staff find them odd and distasteful, making it strange that they would care of either child. Mary and Colin eventually warm to each other, and it’s her desire to share the secret of the garden with Colin which propels them into the final act of the story.
I don’t want to give too much away, because there’s a twist to the tale I had not expected. If I had known it was coming, it would not have been nearly as effective. I will all this creepiness is absolutely necessary for the story to work. The heart of the film is this trio of kids who tend the garden. Who else is going to devote the weeks and months necessary to prune, weed, and replant a neglected landscape? If the kids are performing all this manual labor, you better believe they’re weirdos, latching onto the care and nurturing of plants when they themselves have been so neglected and misunderstood. Their eventual transformation wouldn’t carry nearly as much meaning, if they weren’t all a little left of center to begin with.
Even though there have been a half a dozen cinematic adaptations and a couple of TV series, I haven’t seen any of them until now. I’m glad this was my introduction to the tale, as later works would undoubtedly fail to capture the charm inherent here. Technology has improved to a point where the twist the narrative employs wouldn’t be needed. I was also drawn in by the children, who truly carry the film. Yes, they are creepsters, but they couldn’t sell the movie otherwise. I believed their performances in a way I’m not sure I could with child actors today. We’re far too concerned with likability, and Mary and Colin are not always likable.
Presented in standard def 1.33:1 full frame, The Secret Garden has a noirish atmospheric feel. It’s fairly obvious the backgrounds are matte paintings or rear-projection, as opposed to the actual scene’s natural location. And yet aside from a few scratches, I had no problems with Warner Archive’s Made-on-Demand transfer. The transitions between the house and the garden work well, utilizing a strong Technicolor palette and dramatic use of shadows. The audio is simple Dolby 2.0 Stereo, but has the potential to be re-mastered and really fleshed out. There are no bonus features.
Those with an affinity for Burnett’s novel will enjoy The Secret Garden. The tone, acting, and style are very much of the period and possess an appeal all their own. You can see why technological advances would be a reason for a studio to remake this tale, and yet this classic adaptation hasn’t lost any of its charms.