Pam’s Pictorama Post: Just when I thought maybe I had come to the close of authoring my thoughts on Frances Hodgson Burnett I stumbled across a rather splendid DVD of the 1924 film, The Family Secret, issued by the film accompanist Ben Model under the Undercrank name. The disk (which can be purchased here) came out in 2015. We missed it then and I came upon this release while reading a blog post by Ben, via Twitter one morning about a week ago, concerning the short in the same package, Circus Clowns. (Ben’s fascinating blog post can be found here.)
Needless to say, when I realized that The Family Secret was based on a Frances Hodgson Burnett story published in 1888 under the title Editha’s Burglar, I almost spilled my morning coffee and couldn’t wait to get my hands on both the film and the story for comparison. (For those of you who have stuck with me through these several posts on Frances Hodgson Burnett and her adult fiction, you will remember that while discussing the women in her stories I also delved into the early films made of her work, many now lost. For new readers, that post can be found here. The other Hodgson Burnett posts can be found here, here and, yep, here.) The whole disk features Baby Peggy which is a super bonus as well.
The DVD arrived just in time for the commencement of our vacation. A short list had quickly formed for film watching vacation activity – Kim is working his way through the available films of Jessie Matthews with mixed results, and something called Faithless with Robert Montgomery and Tallulah Bankhead, 1933, is up next for me. We reconvene together over the ones good enough to share with the other. There’s also lots of trolling through what’s available on TCM – a trick I only recently taught our tv and we’re having fun with that. (A raucous sounding Jessie Matthews film is issuing forth from the television even as I write this. Sounds like a winner.)
The print quality of the film on the disk is really great, pieced together from a few sources, an Italian print and a Library of Congress one at a minimum, to maximizing all. It is a complicated and twisting melodrama, worthy indeed of Frances Hodgson Burnett (whose short story is credited), complete with separated lovers and a little girl who doesn’t know her father. I won’t spoil the plot, although I have probably already told you enough to figure it out. Baby Peggy was great. I don’t know what I expected, but she really sort of ruins me for other kid actors because she just sparkles on the screen in a way I hadn’t anticipated. She really had something.
This is definitely the print of the film you want and Circus Clowns is a treat too. The disk is topped off with another great short, Miles of Smiles (with Baby Peggy in a dual “twin” role), and some newsreel footage of Baby Peggy as well. All great and worth seeing – scoop up whatever copies are available immediately.
This time Google Books provided the short story in question rather than Project Gutenberg and it is a story that is appropriate for children as well as adults. I probably would have been better to have read the story first, but it didn’t work out that way. The version I downloaded provided very good original illustrations, by Henry (Hy) Sandham and I offer samples below. (I always select the option to include the illustrations if any when downloading, but they are rarely as good or as plentiful as these engravings.) I didn’t know his work, but Hy Sandham, 1842-1910, was a Canadian painter and illustrator.
I am a tad confused about the letter that appears at the opening of the book and which I offer in its entirety below. Elsie Leslie is identified as the inspiration for Editha although what that has to do with Jordon Marsh (which I believe was affiliated with the Boston based department store) or what was written to Frances Hodgson Burnett I cannot say. The letter seems to always be included with the short story and Jordon Marsh is the publisher of the elegant, fully illustrated 1890 edition of the book. Elsie Leslie was the first child to portray Editha in a one-act stage version two years after the original publication.
March 25 1888
Dear Mr Jordan Marsh & Co
Mamma has left it for me to deside if I will let you have my picture for your book I think it wold be very nice. wont it seem funny to see my very own picture in Editha like the little girl that used to be in st Nickolas. I think mrs Burnet writs lovely storys I wrote her a letter and sent it away to paris and told her so and asked her if she wold hurry and write another story just as quick as she could I am looking for an anser everyday. I like to write letters but I like to get the ansers still better I am going to play Editha in boston for two weeks and I will ask my mamma to let me come to your store and see all of the butiful things I used to come every day when I was in boston last winter
your little frend
72 West 92 Street
New York City
(Written by Elsie Leslie Lyde, the original Editha, eight years old.)
The play adaptation was written by Edwin Cleary and, from what I can tell from a (rave) review of 1887 which dates it to before the 1888 copyright of the Hodgson Burnett story – it is beyond my sleuthing to untangle what this means and if she adapted his play or the other way around, although the easiest guess is that perhaps the story was first published in a magazine under a different copyright, the thread of that tale now lost to us.
Interesting in her own right is Elsie Leslie (the Lyde somehow gets dropped in her professional moniker), who at age six was already three years into her stage career when she took the role of Editha which solidified her star billing. According to Wikipedia she is propelled into further stardom in her stage production of Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy and becomes America’s first child star, highest paid and most popular child actress of her day. William Merit Chase even paints her in the garb from Little Lord Fauntleroy. I have used a photo of her from the collection of The Museum of the City of New York to illustrate today’s post.
She doesn’t seem to make it into early film (an adult return to the stage in 1911 was not resounding), but was evidently a great correspondent and maintained contact with people from her stage career through her life. Wikipedia sites letters to and from her that can be found in the collected correspondence of such luminaries as Mark Twain, Helen Keller and Edwin Booth. Married twice, she was a great beauty, traveled the world with her second husband, lived to the age of 85 and in general seems to have lead a rollicking good life.
The bottom line is the short story is lovely with a very simple plot which is purely about Editha, a rather extraordinary small child, and a burglar in her home whom she convinces to burgle very quietly so as not to wake and upset her rather fragile mother. Instead Editha and the burglar have a conversation (he a snack as well, helping himself to the well-stocked larder including a very large glass of wine) where she also convinces him to take her bits of jewelry rather than the things of value which belong to her parents as it would make them very sad. He takes those, and also appears to pile up the family silver, although not much note is taken of that. The dramatic arc of the story is Editha meeting up with said burglar in prison later.
I can’t help but feel that if a film had instead been made of the original story Baby Peggy would still have been my pick to play her. I believe Baby Peggy could have pulled off the role that way as well, based just on the character of the little girl. I end by saying that I was anxious to compare one of her original stories to what was contemporaneously being made from and inspired by her work and I accomplished that here. To my amazement, very little of the plot survives and instead only the plucky spirit of the character Hodgson Burnett created.