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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