Plot: Pollyanna (Hayley Mills) arrives in Harrington to live with her wealthy aunt, Polly Harrington (Jane Wyman), after the death of her missionary parents. Polly is generous with money, buying Pollyanna lots of beautiful clothes, but is reserved and joyless. She uses her influence to run all aspects of the town, even telling Reverend Ford (Karl Malden) what to preach on Sundays. His fire and brimstone sermons make the congregation miserable. Pollyanna’s friendliness and her expectation that everyone else will be friendly, too, endear her to everyone from Polly’s servants and Reverand Ford to a cranky invalid (Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Snow) and the town recluse (Adolphe Menjou as Mr. Pendergast). She teaches her friends “the glad game,” finding something to be glad about in any situation.
When the people in the town decide that instead of accepting Polly’s charity, they will give a bazaar to raise money for a new orphanage, Polly forbids Pollyanna to go. She sneaks out by climbing down a tree and has a wonderful time, but falls on the way back in and is badly hurt. She no longer wants to try to play the glad game, until the whole town shows up to tell her how much she means to them. She leaves for an operation, confident that she will soon be well.
Discussion: This is Disney at its finest, a lavish and gorgeous fantasy of an idyllic American past. Using first-rate actors (including two former Oscar-winners) and sumptuous period detail, this movie is a delight for the eyes as well as the spirit.
Pollyanna is best remembered for “the glad game,” in which the challenge is to find something to be glad about, no matter how bleak the situation. But what really makes her special is the way that she expects the best from everyone, and the transforming effect it has on each person she meets. Pollyanna wears on a chain a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “When you look for the bad in men, expecting to find it, you surely will.” She thanks Aunt Polly for her generosity, and the clothes become a gift instead of a duty or a way of establishing position. (Cedric has the same effect on others in “Little Lord Fauntleroy.”) Pollyanna expects Mrs. Snow and Mr. Pendergast to want to participate in the bazaar, and they do. She quotes her father to Reverend Ford. He told her that with 826 “happy texts” in the Bible, God must have wanted people to be happy. Pollyanna helps Ford find again not just his own joy in preaching, but also his integrity in preaching what is in his heart, and not what Polly Harrington tells him to say. At his next sermon, he tells everyone to enjoy the beautiful day (and to come to the bazaar), and admits, “I should have been looking for the good in you, and I failed, and I apologize.”
Many of the mistakes people make in this movie come from trying to protect themselves from hurt. Polly, hurt by her estrangement from Dr. Chilton, relies on her sense of duty. Mrs. Snow, worried about illness and dependence, tries to blame others and achieves some sense of control (and some attention) with her contrariness. Mr. Pendergast just avoids any contact at all. Pollyanna shows them how to make sure that fear of pain and loss do not prevent opportunities for joy.
Pollyanna, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” gets a rare opportunity to have all she has done recognized and acknowledged by the community. Ask kids who in their community has had a beneficial impact, and how it could be acknowledged.