As a self-respecting guy, I never had any use for a movie entitled Pollyanna, especially a Pollyanna released as a live-action feature by Disney. All I knew of Disney live action was what I’d experienced as a kid in the 1960s; you know, computers wearing tennis shoes, slime that made you jump high, and monkeys going home. Even as a kid I saw this wing of the Disney studio as producers of ridiculous, cornball stuff.
Now here I am well past my wonder years and I stumbled on Forever Young, the Hayley Mills memoir, and had my eyes opened to a pop culture phenomenon I knew nothing about since most of it happened before my time. Apparently, Hayley Mills hit the 1959 motion picture landscape like a tidal wave, first in the independent British feature Tiger Bay, which led to her personal introduction to Walt Disney and a starring role in Pollyanna, which was the brainchild of a 1950s TV director named David Swift, who managed to convince the big man of the validity of bringing the goody-two-shoes character Pollyanna to the screen.
My only real-time connection to Hayley Mills was when as a late-teenager she starred in The Trouble with Angels, which I remember sitting through as one of the first pictures I ever saw on the big screen. It wasn’t made by Disney but it felt like Disney, and Hayley Mills didn’t make much of an impression.
Thanks in part to a diary she kept and in part to her 2010s deep dive into Disney production files, Mills was able in her autobiography to reconstruct the experience of that first trip to Hollywood to make Pollyanna, and her backstage view prompted me to block out time and give Pollyanna a try. I sat down with slime and monkeys firmly in mind, and two hours and 14 minutes later, I was sobbing. Yes, my friends, I confess I was sobbing at live-action Disney.
Now I understand why this girl proved a global sensation hitting midway between Elvis and the Beatles. She describes herself in Forever Young as an untrained young actress who just liked to be on-camera and this captures the utterly natural screen presence of a 12-year-old Hayley Mills, who as orphaned Pollyanna arrives in a small, uptight town circa 1915 filled with bitter people to live with her strict Aunt Polly, played in veteran style by Jane Wyman.
The term “pollyanna” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything,” and in dictionary.com as a person “excessively sweet-tempered and optimistic even in adversity.” The Mills/Disney Pollyanna is much more the former than the latter, an ingenuous yet canny observer of the human condition who barges her way into the lives of bitter recluses played by Agnes Moorehead and Adolphe Menjou and subtly brings them back from the brink of loneliness and despair to see the good in themselves and then in others.
Pollyanna’s positive influence on the town around her grows so slowly over two hours of run time that we only realize the girl’s impact when she faces a health crisis and the previously embittered townspeople respond by charging en masse to Aunt Polly’s mansion to show their support and then, cue the waterworks (I teared up just writing this paragraph).
Pre-pubescent Hayley Mills was a revelation, with enormous blue eyes that threaten to leap off the screen to devour the viewer. Her eyes are almost science fiction, they’re so powerful. My reaction to Pollyanna made me seek out the feature that preceded it, Tiger Bay. Boy, what a contrast in plots, with young Horst Buchholtz in his breakthrough role as a good guy driven to kill his girlfriend as witnessed through the letter box slot by Hayley Mills and her sci-fi eyes. In Forever Young Mills describes her agonizing 12 year old’s crush on the 24-year-old Buchholtz, who would soon go on to make The Magnificent Seven. Their chemistry in Tiger Bay is purely compelling and overcomes any audience notions to question aspects of the noirish plot.
Forever Young delves rather deeply into Mills family history, but then picks up steam when Hayley gets into acting—it’s clear that’s really when life began for this little girl. She takes you inside production of a 1950s indie feature and then suddenly we’re in Walt Disney’s office for meetings with the living legend and seeing blow by blow the back-and-forth negotiations between reluctant father John Mills and Disney lawyers who are on a mission to sign Hayley to a seven-picture contract.
I’m only halfway through the book but it’s already been something of a life-changer for me. For those not in the know, Hayley’s big sister is accomplished actor Juliet Mills, or “Bunchie” to those in the family while Hayley is “Bags.” On the set of Pollyanna Hayley meets actor Kevin Corcoran of the acting Corcoran clan, who is referred to in the book by his on-the-lot nickname of “Moochie.” I guess what I’m saying is the charm factor is high in Forever Young as we see stars of the screen and TV as regular people worth knowing.
So now you’re caught up on what’s been going on with me; I’ve seen Hayley’s comet for the first time and I’m getting up to speed on a talent who is proving, to me at least, quite capable of holding her own with Elvis and the Beatles.