The 1960 film Pollyanna (an adaptation of the 1913 novel by Eleanor H. Porter) is the story of an impossibly optimistic and cheery orphan (Hayley Mills in her breakout role) who goes to live with her namesake and aunt, Polly Harrington (Jane Wyman), a woman so rich that she practically owns the town. While Pollyanna is impulsive, Aunt Polly is prim, standoffish, and positively bewildered by the antics of this child who now shares her home. Polly’s household staff, initially irritated by Pollyanna’s presence (no doubt because they anticipated the extra work in having to clean up after her), eventually is won over by her unfailing cheer.
Though the story’s main focus centers around the developing relationship between Pollyanna and Aunt Polly, played excellently and dynamically by Mills and Wyman, some of the most interesting characters in the film are in the background. It doesn’t hurt that they got some pretty prestigious names in the business to play them. From Adolphe Menjou who plays cranky recluse Mr. Pendergast, to Agnes Moorehead who plays equally cranky and reclusive Mrs. Snow, to velvet voiced Richard Egan as Polly’s ex-boyfriend Dr. Edmund Chilton, to Karl Malden as the dour Reverend Ford, to Disney’s It kid of the late 1950s and early 1960s Kevin Corcoran who plays Pollyanna’s orphan friend Jimmy Bean; the names go on and on. However, perhaps my favorite characters are the ones the background usually favors the most: the hired help.
Though Aunt Polly has many scenes where she delivers stern talking-tos, cold rebukes, and even outright shouting, these three women are just as formidable as their employer, in their own ways. They are:
Nancy (Nancy Olson), the downstairs maid, is determined to keep seeing her boyfriend George, even though their relationship has been forbidden by Polly, who makes it clear that Nancy’s job is on the line if she disobeys this rule while under her employ. Nancy agrees to Polly’s terms…but keeps seeing George anyway. When Nancy and Pollyanna come home late one day from shopping after running into George, Polly suspects their relationship is still on and confronts Nancy. Pollyanna comes to Nancy’s aid and fibs to her aunt, telling her that it was her fault they were late, winning her a lifelong friend in Nancy.
Tillie Lagerlof (Reta Shaw in a role she is not unaccustomed to- she plays an almost identical character in Mary Poppins), the cook, is a gruff woman with a dry sense of humor, prone to scoffing. She is not unkind, but comes across as so darn busy that she has no real time to be warm and fuzzy. She is clearly the boss of her domain and keeps everyone else on task, “I run a clean kitchen! No shenanigans in here, and you clean up after yourself!” she tells Pollyanna.
The upstairs maid Angelica (Mary Grace Canfield) is perhaps my favorite of the bunch. She is such a sourpuss that when she finally does smile, it looks almost unnatural. It takes her the longest to come around to Pollyanna; she has no use for her brand of cheerfulness. She seems overwhelmed by her workload (probably because Nancy seems to be off with her boyfriend every time Polly’s back is turned) and can’t help but fuss about it. In fact, fussing seems to be her stock in trade. After showing Pollyanna the attic room that her aunt picked out for her in the multi-room mansion, she tsk tsks at the stuffy, cramped space and mutters under her breath, “Think she’d do better than this for her own niece.” She can’t help but take another dig at her employer when Pollyanna asks if Aunt Polly’s ex-boyfriend Dr. Chilton wants to marry her, “Fat chance of that! Who’d want to marry old pickle-faced Harrington?”
“Here it comes. Miss Goody Two Shoes is gonna find something about Sunday to be glad about,” Angelica spats out at Pollyanna in one of my favorite scenes where the group of them, Pollyanna, Nancy, Ms. Lagerlof, Angelica, and the gardener Mr. Thomas (Nolan Leary) are sitting in the backyard shelling peas together. It’s a beautiful, sunny day and they’re sitting around a table, some working, some idle, griping about how they hate Sundays because they have to attend church where the reverend’s sermon is so fierce that it turns their stomachs. “Brimstone and damnation on top of ham and eggs!” as Mr. Thomas describes it. Despite the manual labor and the bellyaching, I always wished I could join them when I watched this scene. Their rapport is easy and looks like fun compared to Aunt Polly’s buttoned up way of doing things. Though they were Polly’s servants, she couldn’t tell them how to feel and how to act when she wasn’t around. They worked for her, but they weren’t owned by her, despite her wealth.
This is none more apparent than in the Bazaar scenes. Polly and some townspeople are at odds over the town orphanage. Polly’s father donated the current building to the town and she considers it a landmark to be preserved. The problem is, it’s falling apart and some of the townspeople (led by her ex-boyfriend Dr. Chilton) think the best option is to level and rebuild it. Polly refuses to support this idea so the townspeople openly defy her and organize a charity Bazaar to raise money for the endeavor. Polly has forbidden all of her staff and friends from attending the Bazaar (something she assumes she can do because she’s that rich). Despite this, Nancy, Angelica, and Ms. Lagerlof all go behind her back and lend their support for the Bazaar. In a move that would probably get her fired if Polly found out about it, Ms. Lagerlof goes even further and uses the household’s own flour and supplies (paid for with Polly’s money) to bake a truckload of cakes to sell there. They then all sneak out of the house while they are probably still on the clock and go whoop it up while their employer reads her book, oblivious.
Though there are moments when they are worried about the consequences, they do what they want anyway. Maybe because I grew up in a family of staunch union supporters, these women are instantly relatable and recognizable as the workers fighting for their rights against management (Polly). It’s impossible for me to not root for them.
This blog entry is part of the Always a Bridesmaid Blogathon for July 2: The Hired Help.
All images in this post are not owned by me and used under Fair Use Copyright for the purpose of education and discussion.