“Aye, I know wha’ tis said. He locked the gate and buried the key, and nary’s been in there since.”
A secret garden. Locked up for years. Now overgrowing with weeds and bramble for want of anyone to tend to it. When the young orphan Mary Lennox first discovers this enchanted place at the estate of her uncle, she views the garden as an amusing diversion from her loneliness and boredom, but she soon finds that the key that unlocked its door may hold the answer to unlocking the buried secret in her uncle’s past.
The Secret Garden was based upon a 1910 novel by the beloved children’s book author Frances Hodgson Burnett. To this day it remains her most popular book, along with Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Little Princess, all of which were adapted to film numerous times over the years. The enduring popularity of these stories can be attributed to Burnett’s flair for writing about story elements that children find appealing such as mysterious passageways, orphans from exotic lands, strange characters, locked doors, and hidden gardens. Her stories also consistently featured children as the heroes.
Mary Lennox (portrayed by Margaret O’Brien) is a strange heroine, however, for a book or a film. She is bratty and spoiled having been accustomed to servants waiting on her hand and foot in India. After her parents die from cholera, she is shipped off to England to reside in an oppressive mansion with her uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (Herbert Marshall), a bitter brooding man. Each night Mary hears a screaming voice echoing through the myriad hallways. The servants attempt to quench her curiosity, explaining it simply as “the wind howling from the moors”, but Mary finds that they are coming from the bedchamber of a small boy, Colin Craven (Dean Stockwell), her uncle’s son. From constant coddling, he has become an invalid and, believing that he will grow into a hunchback one day, finds living futile. Mary finds her match in Colin because he, too, is spoiled and prone to screaming temper tantrums. It is only after Mary befriends Dickon, a neighbor boy, and discovers the secret garden, that she learns to find contentment in the simple pleasures of life.
The Secret Garden is a Clarence Brown production and his visual style is evident throughout the film, but most of the credit for the quality of the film should be given to director Fred Wilcox who established a wonderful moody atmosphere through great use of light and shadow. As an added touch, a Technicolor sequence was utilized to give that extra emotional punch, while the beautiful Cedric Gibbons sets bring the story to life in a fashion that even location filming could not have equaled.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer excelled at adapting novels to lush film productions and, like most of their output in the late 1940s, The Secret Garden featured some of the best talent to be found in Hollywood, both in front and behind the camera. Those tried-and-true child actors, Dean Stockwell and Margaret O’Brien, were excellent in their roles, as was newcomer Brian Roper in the part of Dickon (interestingly, he was 20 years old at the time).
The adult roles are so well cast that one tends to forget that they are mostly caricatures: Dame Gladys Cooper as the stern housekeeper; Elsa Lanchester as the irrepressibly happy maid; dour Reginald Owen as the old nosy gardener. Even the small cameo performances sparkle with Metro’s character talents: Billy Bevan as an overheated British soldier in India; Dennis Hoey as Marshall’s stern valet; Aubrey Mather and George Zucco as young Stockwell’s doctors; and Norma Varden as his wise nurse.
Constance Metzinger is a blogger who runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”