After the death of her missionary parents, Pollyanna Whittier is taken in by her Aunt Polly Harrington (Jane Wyman). Aunt Polly takes her position as the leading citizen of the town of Harrington seriously, much to the disgust of Mayor Karle Warren (Donald Crisp). The Mayor feels that Polly's domination of the town's affairs demean his role as a voted official, and eliminates citizen involvement in the workings of the town. Aunt Polly also has very decided opinions on her late sister's marriage to a man who she saw as beneath the Harrington family, and about the rearing of children. But she is not prepared for is Pollyanna, a little girl secure in her parents' love and accustomed to making lemonade out of lemons. Pollyanna brings with her a determination to be happy and to teach everyone around her "the glad game".
Over the years, the name Pollyanna has become an insult. Merriam Webster defines the word as "a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything". Pollyanna has not had an easy life - her mother died when she was young, and she's recently lost her father. As missionaries, they were dirt poor, and couldn't even get their little daughter a doll. So, her father invented the glad game as a way to help his child appreciate what she had rather than bemoan what she lacked. Like all of us, Pollyanna gets angry, sad, and frustrated, but she tries to look for the good in people, for then (according to the medallion she has from her father), you will surely find it.
Hayley Mills is perfect as Pollyanna; then again, I'm rather biased when it comes to Ms. Mills - I think everything she does is great. I recently had the opportunity to see her in an Off-Broadway play, and was thrilled (Party Face). She brings a sincerity to the character of Pollyanna. She's not perfect. She becomes furious at Mrs. Snow (Agnes Moorehead) whose obsession with death frustrates the child. She scolds Jimmy Bean (Kevin Corcoran) for his tree-climbing, but finally climbs trees herself. She loves her Aunt Polly, but lies about her maid Nancy's (Nancy Olson) relationship with George Dodds (James Drury).
Several scenes have always stood out for me and cheer me when I'm down. After Pollyanna's encounter with Mr. Pendergast (Adolphe Menjou), she develops a fascination with the crystals that ornament his lamps - the rainbows they throw when held in the sunlight enchant her. So, in spite of his protestations, she begins hanging them from his window, to fill the house with rainbows - until finally he too is engrossed in the project. Another is her visit to the Reverend Paul Ford (Karl Malden), who has a fire and brimstone approach to religion (primarily at the urging of Aunt Polly). Though forbidden to talk about her father by Aunt Polly, Reverend Ford is intrigued by Reverend Whittier's beliefs, resulting in Rev. Ford's conversion to a more loving approach to God.
And of course, there is the relationship between Pollyanna and Aunt Polly - a woman who has rejected love (in for the form of Dr. Edmund Chilton, well played by Richard Egan), and is astonished by the instant love that Pollyanna lavishes on her. When Pollyanna runs to kiss her good night, Ms. Wyman's amazement sums up Aunt Polly in an instant. It's a marvelous moment.
Pollyanna's ability to try and see the glass as half-full is truly satisfying. She doesn't always succeed, but if she did, then she really would be the blissfully unaware creature of which she is frequently accused. But she's not. She's a wonderful, warm little girl who wants love (and a doll) and who has the magical ability to put a smile on your face. Don't believe me? Ask Tillie Lagerlof (Reta Shaw) or Angelica (Mary Grace Canfield). They will back me up!
I'll leave you with one of my favorite scenes: Pollyanna discovers a rainbow: