When this you see, Remember me.
– Lord Fauntleroy’s poem to Mr. Higgins
During these distressing times we live in today filled with angst, loathing, political turmoil, rampant immorality and media propaganda, I thought I would depart from my regular political essays and direct my energies to the cinema and one of my favorite movie classics, “Little Lord Fauntleroy.”
According to the entry in Wikipedia, “Little Lord Fauntleroy is a 1936 drama film based on the 1886 novel of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The film stars Freddie Bartholomew, Dolores Costello, and C. Aubrey Smith.” Although there was a 1921 film version of the novel, my favorite version is based on the screenplay by Hugh Walpole. “Young Cedric ‘Ceddie’ Errol (Freddie Bartholomew) and his widowed mother, whom he calls ‘Dearest’ (Dolores Costello), live frugally in 1880s Brooklyn after the death of his father. Cedric’s prejudiced English grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt (C. Aubrey Smith), had long ago disowned his son for marrying an American.”
However, the sands of time were relentlessly falling though the hour glass as the earl is confronted with his imminent mortality; he is without a male heir to take over his vast estate. As this galling realization sets in, he grudgingly accepts the fact that though he has the wealth of kings, he knows that nobody loves him. They only fear him. This state of affairs has finally led to the Earl sending his faithful and wise lawyer-emissary, Havisham (Henry Stephenson), to bring Ceddie to England to live with him where before he dies the lad can be schooled in all the traditions and customs befitting a future earl. As the earl’s sons are all dead, Ceddie is the heir to the title. Mrs. Errol accompanies her son to England, however, because of the earl’s irrational but enduring prejudice against Americans, she is not allowed to live at Dorincourt Castle, but at a nearby estate that the earl owns. To protect her son and maintain Cedric’s psychological constancy, she does not tell him of his grandfather’s bigotry. The earl’s lawyer is impressed with the young widow’s wisdom. However, the earl expresses skepticism when Mr. Havisham informs him that Cedric’s mother will not accept an allowance from him and propelled by years of guilt and in an arrogant rage, forces the mother to take the money through Havisham.
My favorite scene in the movie occurs near the beginning when mother and son travel to England and Little Lord Faunterlroy’s first meeting with the earl. Ceddie, whose manner, character, intellect and psychology is truly transcendent beyond his young years, is oblivious to all of the inter-family political intrigue, and soon wins the hearts of the earl’s entire housekeeping staff and his stern, austere grandfather. Even the earl’s large, protective guard dog, who barks at most people, immediately falls under the spell of this little boy’s transcendent goodness and escorts him to the earl.
Later, the earl hosts a grand party to proudly introduce his grandson to British society, notably his sister, Lady Constantia Lorridaile (Constance Collier), who would later proclaim regarding the earl: “The boy is the first human being he ever loved.” The Lady Constantia character is the wise, matronly great-aunt. She was the only one in the earl’s vast circle of friends, relatives or colleagues in Parliament who had the courage to stand up against the earl. The tenor of her words were sublime. The Shakespearean unspoken dialogue she possessed with her eyes, with a wave of her feathered fan, would put the earl in his proper place every time he tried to act up and intimidate his invited guests with unkind words, which caused the earl to stomp away in frustration.
But there are grave tidings on the horizon. After the party, Havisham informs the earl that Cedric is not the heir apparent after all. American Minna Tipton (Helen Flint) insists her son, Tom (Jackie Searl), is the offspring of her late husband, the earl’s eldest son. Devastated, the earl accepts her apparently valid claim, through his mother, the classic gold digging strumpet and her son Tom, an imbecilic bumpkin.
Fortunately for Ceddie, his friends from Brooklyn, Mr. Higgins and Dick Tipton (Mickey Rooney), recognize Minna from her newspaper picture. He takes his brother Ben, Tom’s real father and the elderly shop keeper, Mr. Higgins, to England and dramatically exposes Minna’s false claim. The earl apologizes to Ceddie’s mother and invites her to live with the overjoyed Ceddie on his estate.
My favorite actors in the movie were Little Lord Fauntleroy and the earl, but the entire ensemble was first rate. Based in large part on his magnificent performance in this movie, young Freddie Bartholomew quickly became the second-highest paid child movie star after Shirley Temple. Bartholomew’s fabulous acting abilities, warm and amiable presence, intellectual range, psychological depth, refined English diction and angelic looks made him box-office gold and the studio smartly paired Bartholomew and Rooney in several subsequent box office hits. Ring Lardner, Jr. had high praise for him, saying of his performance as the star of “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “He is on the screen almost constantly, and his performance is a valid characterization, which is almost unique in a child actor, and, indeed, in three fourths of adult motion-picture stars.”
The movie, “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” teaches us so many enduring, inspiring lessons today: Love is greater than hate; turn the other check; love thy neighbor; goodness will rule out in the end and, perhaps my favorite, how the little boy’s transcendent goodness melted the cold, lonely, hateful heart of the earl like butter the moment he set eyes upon him. His first act as “earl in training” was the earl carefully examining the character and judgment of Lord Fauntleroy in his huge castle library. Would the impressionable young lad be corrupted by absolute power? Without hesitation, the saintly boy wrote a bill of forgiveness for the unpaid debt by one of the earl’s farmer/tenants who had repeatedly fallen behind in his rent. The earl’s nagging gout got better, he now wanted to go to church, and for the first time through the boy’s example he learned to consider the feelings of others. Through Little Lord Fauntleroy’s example, every character in the movie was transformed to become a better person by the end.
The movie can be viewed here.