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The Secret Garden, Unlocking It's Mystery

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Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

Movie Poster

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The Cast

The Secret Garden

1 hr 32 mins Drama, Family 1949 7.5 stars

Director: Fred M. Wilcox

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


Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

The Movie Trailer

Mary and the Raven

Mary wearing mittens, communicating with a raven

Mary wearing mittens, communicating with a raven

Synopsis

The movie opens at a house in India. The house belonged to a well-to-do Englishman named John Lennox. Two military men, an officer and a private are going through all the houses to search for survivors. An epidemic of cholera had swept through the area and every house seemed eerily quiet. All had run away or gone to the hospital or succumbed to the illness. John Lennox and his wife also had died. While doing this inventory the officer discovers a little girl who says she’s Mary Lennox (played by Margaret O’Brien). The officer breaks the news to her that her parents are dead and she reacts, understandably, with a tantrum. This will not be the only tantrum because Mary Lennox is a proud and spoiled child brought up under strict discipline, but with a disposition to arrogance and privilege. She now learns that she is orphaned.

She is taken to England along with many other orphaned children and she is to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven (played by Herbert Marshall). When Mary arrives in England she does not mix well with the other orphan children that have come over from India; she brags that she will live with her rich uncle who has a hundred rooms in his mansion, which might very well be true. When Uncle Archibald’s servant, Mrs. Medlock (played by Gladys Cooper) arrives to retrieve her she comments that Mary is not very pretty. This comment is made by others in the movie in one form or another. (I don’t agree that it’s true, by the way, Margaret O’Brien was a popular charming and cute child actress – who is still living and acting today.) When her uncle meets her his mournful first words are, “I hoped you’d be beautiful”. Uncle Archibald has no interest in his niece. He is a very wealthy man and lives in a huge mansion in northern England, but he is terribly lonely living a reclusive existence in his mansion believing himself to be physically impaired. We, the audience, rather see him as being psychologically impaired.

Mary is not too keen on her new living arrangements. The mansion is very big and its size only serves to emphasize its emptiness. It’s a dark and foreboding house which seems to be not lived in at all. Mary’s room is bright with a wonderful view of the moors and she has her own servant, Martha (played by Elsa Lanchester). Martha has a Yorkshire accent and laughs at everything. She begins to set Mary straight about life in England and in this mansion in particular..

At night Mary hears howling and moaning. Some of that sound is the wind coming off the moors, but some of it seems to be coming from inside the house. She has been strictly warned by Mrs. Medlock not to go wandering through the house, but her curiosity is stronger than the warnings. At first she doesn’t get very far so as not to be discovered and sent back to her room.

The next day Mary goes outside to see the property. The house is surrounded by acres of topiary gardens. She meets the chief gardener, Ben Weatherstaff (played by Reginald Owens). As she’s exploring she catches the interest of a raven that plays around by a large wall. The wall is 10 to 15 feet high and its base is shrouded in shrubbery. She walks along the wall only to discover that it forms a large rectangle – an area that is walled in with no perceptible entrance.

At about this time she meets Dickon (played by Brian Roper), a local boy and brother of Martha, her servant (see video below). Dickon is a unique lad who has an aptitude for and fascination with animals. It is as if he can communicate with them. It’s not just animals that he bonds with; it’s the whole natural world for Dickon is a fount of knowledge on plants as well. He tells Mary about the legend of the secret garden revealing that it lies beyond that wall and that it has been closed up for 10 years. They both become instantly curious about it and endeavor to get in but they can’t find any sort of door.

At this time the raven seems to help Mary out and she crawls through the vines to discover a locked door. The raven then unearths the key to that door. Mary keeps it to have Dickon open the door the next day.

That night, again, Mary hears wailing and moaning echoing down the hallways of the mansion. She again goes to investigate and discovers a boy about her age named Colin. He is Mary’s cousin and neither one of them knew of the existence of the other. Colin is also a spoiled kid, but he has been told over and over again by doctors and his father (Mary’s uncle Archibald) that he is an invalid and will die young so he has some psychological issues going on. The wailing and moaning that Mary has heard has been Colin’s frequent temper tantrums. Colin is confined to his bed and is not permitted to go outside.

The next day Dickon and Mary try the key and open the door to the garden. It contains the ruination of 10 years of neglect, but both Dickon and Mary see hope of restoring it to its previous grandeur and they begin to work on it. It becomes their primary focus.

One day back at the house Colin is having one of his tantrums and Mary goes to confront him. The servants are beside themselves because this is one the worst of his tantrums and they can’t control him. Mary shows him that she can also throw a tantrum and the two end up having a sort of tantrum showdown. Mary “out tantrums” Colin which gets him to relent. The problem is solved and remains solved throughout the rest of the movie.

Mary brings Dickon to meet Colin and Dickon brings several animals along with him which delights Colin. They share secret of the garden with Colin. Just then Colin’s doctor arrives and brings a colleague. Dr. Griddlestone has perpetuated the notion of Colin’s bleak prognosis, but his colleague, Dr. Fortescue sees hope for recovery. Dickon’s animals all seem to know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. And they attack and pester Dr. Griddlestone to the delight of the children and to the delight of Dr. Fortescue.

The next day Dickon and Mary take Colin outdoors to visit the garden. It’s been quite some time now since Dickon and Mary started tending the garden and it is now vibrant and full of life. The flowers are in full bloom and the trees are trimmed. And, very importantly, the garden is in color. This movie is otherwise a black and white movie. To emphasize the resurrection of the garden its scenes were filmed in color. It’s a well-made point.

In the meantime down in London, Uncle Archibald meets with Dr. Fortescue who feels firmly that little Colin is not a hopeless invalid at all, but that with proper care he can learn to walk and even to grow into a healthy boy – if just given the chance. Furthermore he suggests that Colin’s ailments are psychologically induced, that his father’s projections upon him have caused his seeming disability. Archibald rejects the good doctor’s diagnosis out of hand and the doctor leaves. Archibald, however, decides to sell the property and travel with Colin to Italy presuming that the change will do him good.

But back at the mansion Colin is for the first time really enjoying his life largely due to his new friends, Dickon and Mary, and also their project of revitalizing this forgotten garden. But the gardener, Mr. Weatherstaff, knows of their activities and he confronts the children and explains to them why it’s been locked up for 10 years. It was at that time that a tree branch broke and crashed into Colin’s mother killing her instantly. Archibald’s reaction was to shutter the garden in perpetuity, condemn it to obscurity and he vowed that nothing would ever grow there again. Ben Weatherstaff warned the children of Archibald’s reaction should he ever learn that they were in there tending it.

Archibald has put the mansion on the market and an interested party has inspected the house and grounds. As he signs his check to finalize the purchase he comments on the lovely garden he saw enclosed in the wall. Archibald grows livid and rushes to see for himself. As he enters into the garden his wrath grows stronger. The children plead with him not to be angry, not to hate them. He is not swayed, but then Colin rises from his wheel chair and for the first time walks, haltingly of course, but walks nevertheless into his father’s arms. Archibald’s anger is broken; his heart is surrendered to the beauty of the garden and the healing results of the friends, fresh air and the garden. Upon seeing this scene, the purchaser rips up his check. He will not buy the property that re-united this family.

Lounging in the Garden

Dickon, Mary and Colin

Dickon, Mary and Colin

Analysis

I ask myself, is this movie geared for adults? Or children? My conclusion is that I think it’s a children’s movie with a message for adults.

To start with, the comments about Mary not being pretty are reflective of the morose negativity that pervades the house. Mary is not an ugly girl at all and viewers might scratch their heads and wonder why a comment like this would be made. But there is darkness in this house, a palpable absence of joy. It reminds me of other English stories like those of Charles Dickens. Very especially it brings Jane Eyre to mind especially with the moans coming through the house at night. But this story doesn’t dwell in the negative; it has a happy ending. It is the story of a family’s redemption. They say it is always darkest just before the dawn. That is where most of this story dwells. When the dawn comes it comes in the form of the coloration used exclusively in the garden scene and it comes with the apparent healing of Colin when he shows his father he can walk. This is a scene, incidentally, that takes place at the very spot where his mother was killed 10 years prior.

This is primarily a children’s story because the children are the heroes. The adults are all struck in a rut; they are depressed and they have burdened their depression upon Colin who has for many years seen himself as an invalid with no hope of a long or fruitful life. Colin is the first in that family to come out of his rut. There are only two adults who are pleasant, Martha and Dr. Fortesque. We see all the adults as the children see them. When Ben Weatherstaff reveals to the children that he knows what they’ve been doing, but doesn’t tell and he sympathizes with them they see him as good. (Incidentally, that is what today would be considered “cool”). We see him as good too. But looking back to the first scenes he was in we recollect that he was never really a bad guy to begin with.

There is another redemption of sorts that takes place in the movie that is not as readily apparent. The attitudes of both Mary and Colin are transformed throughout the movie. Mary you will recall is essentially a self-absorbed brat as was Colin. But throughout the movie their outlooks change and they are set correctly upon the road towards their own adulthood though that is not at all their ambition. In fact there is a moment when the children are talking and Mary say, “I suppose we’re not old enough. There must be an awful lot we don’t know. I don’t want to grow up.” Perhaps there is a fear of adulthood for many children, and I might add, for good reason.

In the scene where Mary and Colin are trying to “out tantrum” each other we see each of them breaking all sorts of furniture, but we also see them break each other’s wills. What is very evident near the end of that scene is the draining of the anger from each of them and the replacement of that anger with compassion (See video below). Colin has been imprisoned by hypochondria that had been placed upon him by the adults in his life. But Mary has seen right through that and has freed him from his prison.

It is a delightful story, almost but not quite a coming of age story with lessons for all of us no matter what age.

Uncle Archibald sees his crippled son walk

Dean Stockwell, Herbert Marshall, Margaret O'Brien, and Brian Roper in The Secret Garden (1949)

Dean Stockwell, Herbert Marshall, Margaret O'Brien, and Brian Roper in The Secret Garden (1949)

Mary Meets Dickon

Mary “out tantrums” Colin which gets him to relent

Mary introduces Dickon and his animals to Colin