Classic Review: The Secret Garden (1949)

Old Hollywood and its book adaptations… that was a combination that could be not only hit or miss, but also hit and total insanity. In a way it still happens today, but not like that anymore. Those ones… some of them were priceless. The Secret Garden seems to be a good adaptation of the classic book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, even if it takes some liberties with the material.

The Secret Garden follows Mary Lennox (O’Brien), a girl who was raised in India and lost both her parents to disease. The spoiled girl is sent to live with her rich uncle Archibald Craven (Herbert Marshall), a closed off man who doesn’t give the girl any room for an actual relationship. Mary is quite headstrong, and she faces up to everyone at the estate. Running free, she befriends Dickon (Brian Roper), a boy who works at the farm and is the brother of her aid, Martha (Elsa Lanchester). Mary starts exploring the place until she finds a secret garden. But that is not all she finds out. She discovers she has a cousin, Colin (Stockwell), someone who was allegedly dying while told not to leave his bed. He is ferociously guarded by Mrs. Medlock (Gladys Cooper) who constantly clashes with Mary. In time, Mary manages to confront her cousin and helps him recover.

The Secret Garden is such a beautiful story and quite a simple one, but it is so touching. It deals with grief and how it can shut us down and pulls us away from everyone else. Somehow, we need to find a way to cope and go back to living. Meanwhile, it may not be the best version of the story (my money’s on Agnieszka Holland’s 1993 version) but it is still a pretty decent one nonetheless. While it is mostly done in a studio, which does weaken it a bit as it is intended to be a film about finding joy in the outdoors, but the story creates strong characters out of Mary and Colin, both of them stubborn and strong-willed, and the actors all bring their best game to the film. O’Brien and Stockwell are great child actors and they have an excellent chemistry together. You care for them and you easily understand these two cousins are meant to be best friends. Marshall, Lanchester and Roper are fine as the supporting players, and Cooper is right at her alley with the unflinching Mrs. Medlock.

The staging makes the film feel a little boxy for the most part, using a lot of interiors and not enough camera movements to create a more fluid narrative, but the story powers us through. And the film also makes great use of black and white and color to represent the blossoming of the garden and the emotions when the characters open up. In the end, this 1949 version of the classic book is not an unforgettable adaptation, but it is decent and engaging and sometimes that’s enough.

still courtesy of MGM


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