Thoughts On: “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”

If you asked me to recommend a good “starter” Mary Pickford film, one that captures her at her most Pickfordian (that can be a word, yes?), I would have to think it over. There’s so many classics to choose from…her Biograph shorts, features like Tess of the Storm Country (1914) and Daddy-Long-Legs (1919)…it’s a little like trying to decide which decadent cheesecake is the best. Every cheesecake is decadent.

Especially Mary’s recipe.

If I had to stick to short films, my choice would be The New York Hat (1912). But if I had to decide between her features, I might settle on the charming, funny Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917).It’s based on Kate Douglas Wiggin’s 1903 novel, although screenwriter Frances Marion takes a few liberties. Plucky young Rebecca is one of seven children on the impoverished family farm, which is run by her widowed mother. Having so many mouths to feed, her mother decides that Rebecca must live with her stern aunts Miranda and Jane Sawyer in the village of Riverboro, in hopes of giving her a better future.

Image result for mary pickford rebecca of sunnybrook farm

Lonesome Rebecca.

While Miranda and Jane are often cold toward Rebecca, she quickly takes to village life, both startling and amusing her fellow citizens with her prankish schemes. She also tries to help an unmarried couple with several children who she innocently believes are simply too poor to afford a wedding ring. (Their last name is Simpson, and yes, the references to “the Simpsons” are endlessly amusing in 1910s title card format.)  Her aunts begin to warm toward Rebecca and decide that she should attend a fine boarding school. When she returns, she’s an accomplished young woman.

Sound a bit strung together and episodic? Episodic, perhaps. Strung together? Heavens, no. It’s a breezy series of vignettes, often humorous, and reminiscent of those delightful old children’s novels that center around simply having adventures (always my favorites as a kid). It’s more a comedy than a drama, with gags spaced to satisfy Charlie Chaplin’s own standards. And like many 1910s films, it has plenty of period charm for anyone who likes peeking into early 20th century village life: quaint hats, horse-drawn buggies, sunny lawns and white picket fences that are still sturdy.

And parasols, baby!

It’s Pickford’s vivid performance that the film revolves around. In every scene her face is like an open book of emotions, from the moments of sincere pathos to all those comic scenes. Rebecca’s interactions with the Riverboro golk give Pickford plenty of opportunities to have fun with the character, especially in Rebecca’s undying feud with bratty Minnie Smellie (her cheeky insults toward Smellie become a running joke). She gets to do slapstick, too, especially in the scene where the village children put on a circus and Rebecca suspends from a wire so she can do some funny “bareback riding”–and ends up whirling in circles like an out-of-control Peter Pan. (The harness apparently made her ribs sore for days.)

She also beat the Stooges to it.

Sunny Rebecca shares some similarities with the well-known Pollyanna character (who Pickford would play a few years later in 1920). Rebecca is equally innocent, but less saccharine. A classic scene shows her trying to sneak a forbidden piece of pie. At the last moment her eyes fall on a decorative sign proclaiming “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” and she quickly puts it down. But when she spots another sign–“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves”–she gratefully takes its advice.

In general she is one of Pickford’s pluckiest and most well-rounded characters, a courageous little go-getter who can stand up for herself without a qualm. Pickford seems in her element, rather like a musician playing their favorite piece of music.

Image result for mary pickford rebecca of sunnybrook farmPeople today can find the idea of an adult woman playing a child grotesque. But in Pickford’s case, it works. I think this is for three reasons: A) She physically looked the part, being only five feet tall and, to be honest, having a large head–much like children do. B) Her characters often had a lot of depth–they weren’t just shallow impersonations. C) She wasn’t simply throwing on some kid clothes and acting immature–she actually studied children’s behavior and expressions and incorporated them into her performances as authentically as possible. In an article for the December 1917 issue of Vanity Fair she described her artistry:

There are many things to remember in impersonating a child role. For instance, the facial muscles of the grown-ups are controlled, while those of a child spontaneously reflect passing moods. A child pouts when it is displeased. When children are awed, or surprised, or frightened, their eyes open wide and their mouths droop, but their foreheads remain unwrinkled–and just there is another difficulty, for when we older people are under the influence of similar emotions, our brows have a tendency to become lined. Then there are the muscles about the mouth; those of the child’s, unlike the grown-up’s, are relaxed. Another technical problem that is difficult to solve is that of carriage. You see, the child moves about freely, its arms swinging carelessly, its shoulders droop very slightly, the knee joints are loose, and the toes point inward. An actress can’t be too careful in noting and copying such movements as these in the case of a child. It all takes time and study–more than my audiences have imagined.

Showing off her art.

Pickford’s director was Marshall “Mickey” Neilan. The two collaborated remarkably well, resulting in some of Pickford’s best films: The Little Princess (1917), Stella Maris (1918), Daddy-Long-Legs (1919) and more. The heroines of these films all have certain things in common: being lively and mischievous, being sweet and virtuous without being cloying, and appealing to audience sympathies without making them feel manipulated.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is America’s Sweetheart inhabiting the quintessential role that 1910s audiences enjoyed the best. It’s a delight, and much of it remains fresh. I’d say it can be equally enjoyed by silent film fanatics as well as kids–who will hopefully become Pickford’s newest generation of fans.

This film is available  in various places–bargain basement Alpha Video has a cheap (and cheaply produced) copy, and it’s also included on The Actors: Rare Films of Mary Pickford Collection Vol. 2. You can watch a YouTube copy below (the quality isn’t ideal, but Mary still shines through!).


P.s. Little Annie Rooney wishes all ya mugs a Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

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12 thoughts on “Thoughts On: “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”

  1. Good stuff Lea! I hope you can fit in a couple more “thoughts on Film” for Mary before this month ends. Having said that, “The most famous curls” article was very interesting and beautifully done!

  2. This sounds delightful! I am a growing Mary Pickford fan and just watched A Little Princess a few nights ago and really enjoyed it. I was wondering, which copy of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm do you consider the best (or has the best musical accompaniment)?

    That should definitely be a word – Pickfordian!

    • Unfortunately, the only version of the film available seems to be the rather blurry version that’s on YouTube. The scores, especially by Alpha Video, leave a lot of be desired since they tend to be cobbled together recordings of classical music, “old-timey” songs, etc. Alpha is probably the one to avoid–I’d maybe consider the Rare Films collection (there’s one other collection but it’s out of print and very expensive). Here’s one trick, though–sometimes I watch a silent on YouTube on mute, and then play another film in a different tab with a score that I like. They usually match up pretty well! (Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives has a nice score that matches with a lot of films–I don’t know if there’s a special copyright on the score, but it does pop up on YouTube all the time). Hope that’s helpful!

  3. Oh my god, did this make laugh: “She also beat the Stooges to it.”……HA!!!!!!

    One thing I just learned is: ok, so there’s not a great print of “Rebecca” available. It’s one reason I don’t recommend it to people! Other than that? Oh my god, the scene where she goes to take the pie into the kitchen?!! Heck, I’m laughing NOW! That scene actually pops up in two of the documentaries about her, and one of them has a particularly great score for it.

    I owe “Rebecca” a second viewing. “Poor Little Rich Girl” and “Daddy Longlegs” I’ve watched ad-infinitum, the first twenty minutes of both of those are among my favorites….but “Rebecca”, as much as I enjoyed it, I haven’t gone back, just because of the quality!

    But you’re absolutely right. Mary shines through. Mary could shine through even the most pixilated video clip, with a music track of Motorhead blaring over it. Though, now that I think about Mary beating the beejeesus out of so many of her on-screen adversaries…perhaps Motorhead would be somehow appropriate! Dare I say, there’s something about raging music that’s positively….Pickfordian!!! 😀

    • Clips of Mary set to Motorhead might make a really cool fan video…! 😉

      It’s so aggravating that Rebecca isn’t in better condition, it’s such a perfect example of one her “famous little girl character that are actually a heck of a lot spunkier than people think.” I’m hoping there’s a better print out there somewhere, the copy that’s circulating right now seems like a bad transfer rather than an actual restoration, you know?

      p.s. I LOVE the kitchen scene, classic Little Mary!

      • I think there must be, because there’s clips of it in the documentaries that look much better (kitchen scene, case in point). I know the Foundation is doing a lot of work on her films as we speak, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that one surfaces sooner than later. Can’t wait!

  4. One more thing, sorry, regarding her playing a child, you were totally right about…..these are all very considered performances, very crafted, 3-dimensional performances. They’re never caricatures.

    Every kid she played, child or teenager: they’re different people. They’re different characters! She didn’t have a child persona, that she put into whatever role she played, ala Woody Allen’s nebbish character, or…well, Charlie or Buster, or WC Fields, etc etc…..Each child was completely a different, vivid, 3-dimensinal entity. “Pollyanna” is absolutely not “The Poor Little Rich Girl”. Little Annie Rooney is obviously not LIttle Lord Fauntleroy (where she plays a boy!) (AND his mother!)…..but Little Annie is also not Rebecca! “M’Liss” and “Heart o the Hills”….both rural wildcats….but completely different characters.

    By the way, do we even know how old M’Liss is? It’s hard to tell! On one hand, she carries that doll around! On the other hand, she’s seemingly a teenager…on the verge of womanhood!

  5. Just watched that terrible Alpha Video version, and man, what a bad score. I’ve heard that the Pickford Foundation is working with new composers to create new scores for some restorations, but I can’t remember if Rebecca is in that group of films. I agree with you that this film is a great showcase for how expressive her acting was. I loved the scene where she was sitting waiting for her aunts and Minnie the other mean girls taunt her. The way she went from hopeful friendliness to sadness to belligerence was amazing!

    And hey, just curious, what did you make of the brief flash in the circus parade and circus scene of what appeared to be a kid in black-face and loin cloth chained to a person costumed like a pirate and then doing some sort of “primitive” dance? I’m wondering if this sort of slave character was a common act in circuses of the time. I need to look this up but wondered if you know anything about this. It startled me, because I hadn’t really seen that sort of depiction in any of Mary’s films that I’ve seen.

    • I REALLY hope REBECCA is one of the films due for a new score–it would be great to see a restoration of it, rather than having to make do with that sad little Alpha version. 😀

      I’m not quite sure what to make of the circus scene, except that the guy holding the chain appears to be a clown. The best guess I can make is that the kid’s supposed to represent some sort of “wild man from the jungle” sideshow, something akin to those “human zoos” they had at fairs way back when. I’m not sure if that was a well-defined trend or not, there’s plenty of info out there about general sideshow “freaks” but I haven’t run across anything about slave-like characters. I’ve heard of one or two “wild man” characters in circuses but descriptions were kind of vague. That shot definitely throws you for a loop, I agree!

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