The Secret Garden (1949)
Directed by Fred Wilcox
The Wizard of Oz isn’t the only film that uses the motif of color to contrast with a world of black and white. In that film, it’s ordinary dusty old tornado-ridden Kansas that’s in black and white, with the life on the farm that Dorothy finds frustrating, so that she dreams of a place “Over the Rainbow,” and sure enough, while she’s unconscious, she “wakes up” to Munchkinland, the Yellow Brick Road, a field of red poppies, and the Emerald City, not to mention the wise Scarecrow who hasn’t got a brain, the sentimental Tin Man who hasn’t got a heart, and the blustery Lion who needs — courage.
”There’s no place like home,” says Dorothy, as she taps her ruby slippers three times. You might say the same of The Secret Garden, but with a couple of turns in the plot that make this film a good choice for our week leading up to Epiphany. In The Secret Garden, life is in black and white because human sorrow — and a sinful neglect — have made it so. Mr. Craven (played by Herbert Marshall, the brilliant understated actor who, unlike his more celebrated countryman Larry Olivier, never appears to be acting) has for many years been mourning the death of his young wife. In fact, he usually stays holed up in London, so that he does not have to be near the home that is painful to his memory. He ignores his son Colin (Dean Stockwell), who is apparently a cripple, and who torments the servants in the sprawling and spidery old mansion by his fits of screaming in pain. Mr. Craven has shut up the high-walled garden that his wife loved, where she suffered the accident that caused her death. The servants are forbidden to enter it. But, as in so many tales inspired by a Christian vision of the world, salvation comes to the man from a child, and in ways that he least expects. The child is his orphaned niece Mary (Margaret O’Brien, still with us at the age of 86), whose mother and father died of cholera in India. But she’s not alone in the enterprise. Just as at Christmas, it was the shepherds and not the learned men of the world who first heard the news of the Savior’s birth, so we cross the social classes here too. For Mary meets the kid brother of one of the servants, a country lad named Dickon (Brian Roper). Dickon knows all about birds and animals and growing things, and he is eager to show them to Mary, including his pet raven, Jimmy. It’s the raven that finds a key to the garden in the underbrush. Mary and Dickon enter, and all is color; and they tend the garden, at the same time as they befriend Colin — against the commands of his quack doctor — and take him outdoors, where he begins to live, for the first time in many years. Mr. Craven’s own conversion from death to life, from a death-like despair to love, is yet to come.
The film keeps very close to the children’s novel The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and I think that in this case, as also in The Wizard of Oz, the film is at least as good as the book. We see and hear the youthfulness, and its contrast with age, age not in the frolic winsomeness of old people whose very wrinkles seem to smile, but rather in a settled glumness, a conviction that nothing can ever be good or beautiful again. The child actors are terrific. Fans of the oddball television show Quantum Leap will remember Dean Stockwell as the balding and crusty admiral Al Calavicci, but he had a very long and celebrated career as a child actor, with a shock of curly brown hair and a face out of Botticelli. Margaret O’Brien, for my money twice the actress Shirley Temple ever was, might as well have directed on her own every scene she is in, so clearly does she know what she’s about. The country boy, Brian Roper, is at that age at which boys and girls become friends without a shade of suspicion that there is ever anything but friendship in the world, and he plays it without a flaw.
Here’s a film you can watch with all the children, the young ones and the old ones.