Secret Garden, The (1949): Fred Wilcox’s Version of Classic Children Book, Starring Margaret O’Brien and Dean Stockwell

Hollywood’s second screen adaptation of the classic 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett–the first was a silent in 1919–Clarence Brown’s version of The Secret Garden is a vividly detailed production, but harsh in tone in depicting the lives of orphans.

Toplined by two young and talented stars, Margaret O’Brien and Dean Stockwell, Fred Wilcox’s film boasts a distinguished cast of secondary players, such as Herbert Marshall, Gladys Cooper, and Elsa Lanchester.

Grade: B (***1/2* out of *****)

The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden FilmPoster.jpeg

Theatrical re-release poster

The screenplay by Robert Ardrey centers on a young orphan who is thrust into the dark and mysterious lives of her widowed uncle and his crippled son when she comes to live with them in their isolated country house in Yorkshire, England.

The MGM film was shot primarily in black-and-white, with the sequences set in the restored garden of the title filmed in Technicolor.

This was the final MGM movie for child star Margaret O’Brien, perhaps still best known for her scene-stealing performance in Minnelli’s 1944 musical, Meet Me in St. Louis.

When tempestuous Mary Lennox (O’Brien), born in India to wealthy parents, is orphaned by a cholera epidemic, she is sent to live with her reclusive and embittered Uncle Archibald Craven (Herbert Marshall) and her ill-behaved, bedridden cousin Colin (Dean Stockwell), about her own age, at their desolate and decaying estate known as Misselthwaite Manor. Dickon (Brian Roper), the brother of one of the house maids, tells her of a garden secreted behind a hidden door in a vine-covered wall. When a raven unearths the key, the two enter and discover the garden is overgrown from neglect since Craven’s wife died there in an accident. They decide to keep their discovery a secret, and begin to restore it to its original grandeur. Under the influence of the Secret Garden, Mary becomes less self-absorbed, Colin’s health steadily improves, and Archibald’s curmudgeonly personality fades away.

The film earned $610,000 in the US and Canada and $383,000 overseas, resulting in a loss of $848,000.

At the time, the film’s eerie terror was considered to be one factor why the movie was not popular with children and their families.

Recycling:

A 1987 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV film titled The Secret Garden stars Gennie James and Jadrien Steele.

A 1993 adaptation, The Secret Garden, starred Kate Maberly and Heydon Prowse. A 2020 version, set in 1947, was released in the United States in August 2020 on premium streaming video because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Cast
Margaret O’Brien as Mary Lennox
Herbert Marshall as Archibald Craven
Dean Stockwell as Colin Craven
Brian Roper as Dickon
Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Medlock
Elsa Lanchester as Martha
Reginald Owen as Ben Weatherstaff
Isobel Elsom as Governess
Aubrey Mather as Dr. Griddlestone
George Zucco as Dr. Fortescue
Lowell Gilmore as British Officer
Billy Bevan as Barney
Dennis Hoey as Mr. Pitcher
Mathew Boulton as Mr. Bromley
Norma Varden as Nurse

 

Credits:

Directed by Fred M. Wilcox
Produced by Clarence Brown
Screenplay by Robert Ardrey, based on The Secret Garden 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Music by Bronislau Kaper (composer), André Previn (direction/supervision)
Cinematography Ray June
Edited by Robert J. Kern

Production company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Distributed by Loew’s Inc.

Release date: April 30, 1949

Running time: 89 minutes
Budget: $1,432,000
Box office: $993,000

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