A Matter of Innocence / Pretty Polly (1967) ***

Dramatically undernourished coming-of-age tale over-reliant on “authentic” travelogue and continuing the transformation of Hayley Mills from child to adult star, although that change had been clearly wrought by her previous outing in  The Family Way (1966) which had contained her first nude scene. While there’s definitely way more sex here it’s all off-screen.

In Singapore, family black sheep Robert (Trevor Howard) tries to stifle romance blossoming between his ugly duckling niece Polly (Hayley Mill) and local king of the fixers Amaz (Shashi Kapoor), to quote from list of the clichés the screenplay happily summons up. Polly is the bespectacled, dowdy, shy travelling companion to snippy aunt (Brenda de Banzie) – Robert’s sister not wife – who resides in a magnificent suite in Raffles Hotel, consigning her niece to a hovel of a room. When said aunt drops dead in the swimming pool, Polly, wasting no time on mourning, is free to turn butterfly, channeling her inner Brigitte Bardot with bouffant hairstyle and tight red dress.

The genial Amaz is on hand as a guide, in sexual matters as well as tourist, until huffing-and-puffing plantation manager Robert threatens to intervene and smarmy American Critch (Peter Bayliss) attempts to sweep her off her feet. And that’s about it, plot-wise. The meandering story provides insights into different aspects of local culture –  Whicker’s World was the only globe-trotting television series available at the time so all this would probably have entranced moviegoers rather than, as now, bored them to death.

Perhaps what’s most interesting is what’s left unsaid or never dwelt upon, of the posh English girl having sex with a native of Singapore. In previous movies – Bhowani Junction et al – miscegenation would have been the sole plot point with Brits up in arms at the suggestion of it. Here, the only objection to Amaz is that he’s a bit of a Casanova, practised seducer in the main of older women. While Amaz falls in love, Polly is considerably more objective, viewing their relationship in terms of rite-of-passage, rather an un-British approach, more in keeping with the attitudes those bold females exhibited in pictures like The Group (1966).

Polly is a pretty cool-headed kid, with a good head for booze, not staggering in gutters or throwing up after imbibing too much, alert to the intentions of Critch and more than capable of putting her uncle in his place. Despite her delight at enjoying sex Polly is more independent than you might imagine and the film’s actually a character study of a woman refusing to be defined – or trapped – by love and its obvious consequence marriage and viewing this new freedom as merely the starting point of her life.

For Hayley Mills fans, of course, her career divides sharply into Disney and post-Disney. Few child stars ever manage to take the first steps to an adult career never mind sustain one, but the actress made a good stab at throwing off her previous precocious screen persona by taking on challenging roles that perhaps upset her core followers. But the film would have benefitted from a better storyline and minus the distracting tourist elements been a lot tighter.   

The career of Trevor Howard, long-time second male lead, was on a bit of an upswing after sterling roles in Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and The Long Duel (1967) and although he remained the scowler supreme he brings more vulnerability to this role. Bollywood heartthrob Shashi Kapoor had come to prominence as far as the English-speaking countries were concerned through arthouse director James Ivory’s The Householder (1963) and Shakespeare-Wallah (1966) but this was his mainstream debut. He certainly has a screen presence and enjoys the best character arc, going from the cynicism of sex to the innocence of love. I’m sure the title is intended to refer to Polly but she is innocent, in screen shorthand terms, for about two seconds. Pretty Polly, the title of the short story on which the film is based, was not usable in certain countries because the name was the trademark of a popular brand of hosiery.

This was the final film of Brenda de Banzie (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956) and the second for British television stalwart Patricia Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances, 1990-1995), while for Chinese star Kalen Liu (Welcome to Hard Times, 1967) it was both her second and last picture.

This was perhaps an odd choice for director Guy Green (A Patch of Blue, 1965) but he was mired in the on-again off-again saga of proposed MGM roadshow epic Forty Days of Musa Dagh and compared to those travails this may have been welcome light relief. Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (Lock Up Your Daughters, 1969) developed the screenplay from Noel Coward’s short story.

The Moon-Spinners (1964) ***

Every new Hayley Mills film was an exercise in transition. Would audiences allow the successful child star – the first for a generation – to grow up? Or would they turn against her as they had Shirley Temple? And would her paymasters Disney in the penultimate film in her contract assist her by offering more mature roles or insist she remained the cute kid? She had already ventured into more adult territory with the British-made The Chalk Garden (1964).

Set on the island of Crete, what starts out as typical Disney travelog – traditional Greek wedding and annual festival parade – soon morphs into darker sub-Hitchcockian territory. Nikki (Hayley Mills) on holiday with her aunt (Joan Greenwood), a collector of folk songs, becomes mixed up with skin diver Mark (Peter McEnery) who appears for reasons unknown to be on the trail of a local man Stratos (Eli Wallach). Young love looks set to blossom except for the villainy afoot. The picture holds on to its various mysteries for too long so exposition comes in a flood in the second act while the third act introduces a new set of characters including British consul (John Le Mesurier) and wealthy yacht owner Madame Habib (legendary silent star Pola Negri).

Along the way some excellent scenes feature: a nerve-tingling high-wire stunt on a revolving windmill, a punch-up on a speeding boat, the drunken wife (Sheila Hancock) of the consul, feral cats in an ancient monument, an old woman thinking she is going crazy when a bottle moves seemingly of its own volition, a hearse doubling as an ambulance, a cowardly leopard and a belter of a slap meted out by Nikki. Mark, physically inhibited by a gunshot wound, has to cede investigation into the nefarious activities to Nikki who in any case has already played the independence card.

Getting all the necessary information to the audience and ensuring various characters are properly introduced without the whole enterprise turning into a turgid mess is a tricky proposition but director James Neilson is equally at home with complicated plot and multi-character scenario from his experience on Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow (1963) and with Mills from Summer Magic (1963). And he lets mystery and action take precedence over budding romance, the kiss when it comes hardly going to make an audience swoon, and uses the traditional Greek elements to build up atmosphere.

All in all entertaining enough, especially if viewed as Saturday matinee material, but it’s clear that the leading roles would have worked better if played by older characters as was the case with the source novel by Mary Stewart. Hayley Mills (Pollyanna, 1960) makes a game stab at putting forward a more grown-up persona but relies far too much on the acting tricks that got her into the child-star business in the first place. Even so, once she exerts her independence, she becomes more believable although the idea of a teenager solving a crime creates more problems than it solves in attracting an adult audience.

In his first leading role Peter McEnery (Beat Girl, 1960) impresses. Villainy is a stock in trade for Eli Wallach (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) but here he dials down the brutality. Irene Papas (The Guns of Navarone, 1961) plays his sister and were it not for her husky voice Joan Greenwood  (Tom Jones) would have been a dead ringer for a dotty aunt. It’s a treat to see a famed silent star Pola Negri (Shadows of Paris, 1924) putting in an appearance. Character actors John Le Mesurier (The Liquidator, 1965), Andre Morrell (The Vengeance of She, 1968) and Sheila Hancock (Night Must Fall, 1964) complete the British contingent.   For British television writer Michael Dyne this proved his sole screenplay.

Catch Up: you can follow Hayley Mills’ unfolding career on the Blog through reviews of Pollyanna, The Truth about Spring (1965), Sky, West and Crooked / The Gypsy Girl (1966)  and her adult breakthrough The Family Way (1966). Eli Wallach films reviewed are: The Magnificent Seven, Lord Jim (1965), Genghis Khan (1965) and A Lovely Way to Die (1968).   

Pollyanna (1960) ***

This Walt Disney version discarded much of Eleanor H. Porter’s original best seller not to mention a great deal of the tear-jerking section that played to superstar Mary Pickford’s strengths in the silent 1920 adaptation. Pickford was in her late 20s at the time and a movie mogul to boot (having launched United Artists) so had a depth of emotion Hayley Mills (aged 13 during filming) could not hope to match.

The screenplay is a good lesson in how to retain the essential element of a story – a positive-thinking orphan alleviates the gloom in an embittered town – while providing more for adult audiences. Disney assembled an awesome cast with three Oscar-winners – Jane Wyman (Best Actress, Johnny Belinda, 1948),  Karl Malden (Best Supporting Actor, A Streetcar Named Desire, 1952) and Donald Crisp (Best Supporting Actor, How Green Was My Valley, 1942) – plus four-time nominee Agnes Moorehead and Adolph Menjou.

Despite no Oscar recognition Nancy Olsen had been leading lady to the likes of Bing Crosby, John Wayne and William Holden. In effect, parents would be very familiar with the stellar supporting cast. Unusually for a kid’s picture, Wyman, Malden and Crisp each are given a reflective moment to prove they are doing more than taking an easy salary cheque. 

At least in Hollywood terms (Mills made her debut the year before in the British Tiger Bay, 1959) Pollyanna falls into the a-star-is-born category. The actress acquits herself well, with her expressive face, while hearing the emotion she packs into the word “gorgeous” is word admission alone. With a healthy subplot about a town in thrall to matriarch Wyman, the weight of the movie does not fall on Mills’ shoulders alone and fire-and-brimstone preacher Malden and faded spinster Wyman are particularly good; Malden especially allocated more screen time than would be normal in a movie aimed at kids.

I have never read the book nor (to my shame) seen the Pickford version, so I came to the movie with low expectations, anticipating a lazy, maudlin effort. So I was quite surprised to discover how much I enjoyed it and was shocked by the final piece of action which turned the movie on its head. Sure, it relies on the feelgood factor but there is some decent stuff here – Pollyanna’s determination to find goodness in every event and every person takes her into some strange avenues – the rainbow playing on the walls, the “good parts” of the Bible – that these days makes for an entertaining matinee.  

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