Daddy Long Legs (1919) is a comedy drama starring Mary Pickford, Mahlon Hamilton, and Marshall Neilan. Directed by Marshall Neilan and adapted from the novel by Jean Webster, this film is about an orphan girl who is sent to college by an anonymous benefactor. The story begins with a baby girl found in a garbage dump. Orphaned, she is brought to the “John Grier Home” where boys and girls are treated more like convicts than children. By the time Jerusha “Judy” Abbott, played by Mary Pickford, is twelve years old, she is leading the orphans in a strike against eating prunes and even steals a doll for a dying child. Some years later, one of the orphanage’s new trustees, decides to sponsor an orphan’s higher education, and Judy is chosen. However, the trustee doesn’t care to see her or to know her. He just wants Judy to write him once a month about her progress in college and wishes her to know him as John Smith. At college, Judy befriends Julia Pendleton, played by Betty Bouton, whose forefathers came on the Mayflower and Sally McBride, played by Audrey Chapman, whose family are true American aristocrats. Julia’s uncle, Jarvis Pendleton, played by Mahlon Hamilton, a much older man, meets Judy and falls in love with her. Pendleton asks Judy to marry him, but she tells him that her heart belongs to someone else. Even though Judy has feelings for Pendleton, she is secretly in love with her anonymous benefactor whom she affectionately calls “Daddy Long Legs” after seeing his legs in a shadow. Meanwhile Sally’s brother, Jimmy McBride, played by Marshall Neilan, also falls in love with Judy, but she tells him that he is not mature enough for her. After graduating from college, Judy writes a book called “The Tragedy of Love” to start repaying her anonymous benefactor. Unfortunately, the publishers do not appreciate it. Judy’s second effort, a book about orphans, gets published and she becomes a successful author. Finally, Judy must pay back her anonymous benefactor and she heads off to his house to meet him face to face.
Mary Pickford had come from the stage and had began her film career with D.W. Griffith at the American Biograph Company in 1909, under Griffith’s direction. Often known simply as “America’s Sweetheart,” Pickford was the first female superstar and a shrewd businesswoman who took charge of her career. In 1919, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin formed the United Artists Corporation, the first major personality-based distribution entity. Mary Pickford emphasized youth in her films. She always played under age in silent features, and the long, blonde curls that she sported well into the 1920’s helped give the illusion of youth. Pickford was primarily a light comedienne, but she could turn in a dramatic performance equal to that of any silent film actress. Most notably, in “Stella Maris” (1918), under the direction of Marshall Neilan, she delivers a brilliant dual performance as the deformed and ugly orphan Unity Blake and the wealthy, sweet, and somewhat spoiled title character. Both are childlike roles, but both are very different in exterior look and inner concept. “Stella Maris” (1918) is just one of the 52 feature films in which Pickford starred between 1913 and 1933. In 1919, Pickford made some of the most successful films of her career: “Daddy Long Legs,” “The Hoodlum,” and “The Heart o’ the Hills.” “Daddy Long Legs” (1919) is my personal favorite of Pickford’s films even though it doesn’t have the appeal to modern audiences like “My Best Girl” (1927). The film is a little unusual for a Pickford film because it allows her to grow up. She is very convincing playing Judy from a 12-year-old girl to a young career woman. The first part of the film is mostly light comedy with Pickford playing the spunky orphan as Charlie Chaplin would have with lots of physical comedy, sight gags and pathos. The second part of the film is a sweet romance. I find the Cupid scenes incredible for their originality for a film made in 1919. I liked how the film is amply lit with silhouettes and dark photography aided by blue tinting. Charming with a splendid performance by Mary Pickford, “Daddy Long Legs” (1919) proves why she was “America’s Sweetheart.”