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SECRET GARDEN, THE (director: Fred Wilcox; screenwriters: from the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett/Robert Ardrey; cinematographer: Ray June; editor: Robert J. Kern; music: Bronislau Kaper; cast: Margaret O’Brien (Mary Lennox), Herbert Marshall (Archibald Craven), Dean Stockwell (Colin Craven), Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Medlock), Elsa Lanchester (Martha), Brian Roper (Dickon), Reginald Owen (Ben Weatherstaff), Aubrey Mather (Dr. Griddlestone), George Zucco (Dr. Fortescue); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Clarence Brown; MGM; 1949)
“Too shrill in its performances to be completely winsome.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s not nearly as good as The Wizard of Oz but has the same method of going to Technicolor in its crucial scene and using the same theme: happiness can be found at home and not in some far away place. Fred Wilcox directs the first screen version of many to follow that is based on a popular 1911 children’s story by Frances Hodgson Burnett; the script is turned in by Robert Ardrey. The adorable star child actress Margaret O’Brien, now 12 and growing up too fast for MGM, stars in a role made to order for her; she retired from movies in 1951 and then made an unsuccessful comeback as an ingenue, but the greatest child actress of all couldn’t make it when she reached her teens. Cinematographer Ray June gets the proper gothic mood as the black and white film goes to Technicolor in the final shot of the secret garden, where health and happiness are miraculously restored.

Mary Lennox (Margaret O’Brien) is discovered by two British officers alone in the house of her parents in colonial India, and learns from them that they died from cholera and she’s an orphan. Shipped home to England, she lives with her grouchy, reclusive, wealthy uncle Archibald Craven (Herbert Marshall) in a creaky Victorian mansion. The girl is considered homely, given to temper tantrums, and generally disagreeable. But kindly Yorkshire maid Martha (Elsa Lanchester) only laughs at her impertinence and sends her young son Dickon (Brian Roper) to keep her company. The inquisitive girl learns her uncle is sad because his beautiful wife died ten years ago when a tree accidentally fell on her. She also learns that he has a ten-year-old son Colin (Dean Stockwell) who is crippled and bed-ridden, never leaving his room, displaying temper tantrums and seeing only the servants. Mary is curious that there’s a walled off garden on the premises that has been locked for the last ten years. Discovering where the key is hidden, she secretly visits the secret garden and starts taking care of it. She learns that’s where her uncle’s wife died, and on her daily visits to the garden some of her doom and gloom is lifted. She also makes contact with Colin and with the pruned garden more light gets into the dark mansion. It culminates with a more lively Colin getting around in his wheelchair and when his father enters the garden for the first time, bravely walks towards him.

George Zucco has a rare part as the good guy, as he’s the doctor who calls out the family physician as an incompetent and advises Colin gets some fresh air and move around. It’s a likable tale but is too uneven and too shrill in its performances to be completely winsome.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”