David O. Selznick’s first independent production, 1936’s Little Lord Fauntleroy continued the producer’s penchant for bring “classics” to the screen. Adapted by Hugh Walpole from the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the film is a remake of two earlier versions, released in 1921, and 1914 respectively. The screen rights to the book were actually owned by Mary Pickford at the time (who had starred in the 1921 silent version), agreed to Selznick’s remake as his pictures would now be released through her company, United Artists.
Directed by John Cromwell (Of Human Bondage), the story concerns young Cedric “Ceddie” Errol (Freddie Bartholomew) and his recently widowed mother (Delores Costello) living an impoverished, but relatively happy life in 1880’s Brooklyn. Ceddie is a precocious boy, referring to his mother as “dearest,” and gets around town on a penny-farthing. To make matters worse, he speaks in clipped tones, much like an aristocrat. Of course, he doesn’t yet know that he is indeed an aristocrat.
On Ceddie’s ninth birthday, the lawyer Mr. Havisham (Henry Stephenson) arrives to inform the boy that his aging, cranky grandfather the Earl of Dorincourt (C. Aubrey Smith) wants him to move to England to prepare to inherit his rightful title and estate. You see, Ceddie’s father, an English army captain, had been denounced by his son for marrying an American. The Earl had refused any contact with his son, and his family. Despite the Earl’s hatred of Americans, Ceddie is the only remaining heir, and the title is rightfully his. Since the Earl is a snob of the highest order, Ceddie’s mother is forced to in servant’s quarters with scullery maids.
Now referred to as “Little Lord Fontleroy,” The little man seems unphased by his new social status. In fact, he seems to become an even nicer kid! Before leaving New York, Ceddie uses his newfound largesse to buy gifts for those closest to him. It’s only natural then, that Ceddie’s natural kindness slowly begins to win over the Earl, and it isn’t long before the two are inseparable. Just when things seem to be settling down, a counter-claim for the title of Lord Fauntleroy is made by another American woman (Helen Flint) and her bratty son Tom (Jackie Searl). The woman claims to have been married to the Earl’s eldest son. As such, Tom is first in line for the Fauntleroy title. The Earl of Dorincourt is floored by this news, and it seems that there is no way out until help comes from an unexpected source.
David O. Selznick’s smartest move was the casting of Freddie Bartholomew in the lead role. In doing so, Selznick was hoping to repeat the success he’d had when he cast the child actor in David Copperfield the year before. Bartholomew was the perfect choice; his genuine sincerity makes what could have been the character’s nauseating goodness seem appealing. While there’s no doubt Ceddie is somehow ‘different’ from the other kids, you’ll find yourself rooting for him from the get-go. A fast rising star at the time, Mickey Rooney plays Ceddie’s Brooklyn pal, shoeshine boy Dick Tipton with the energetic verve that would be a characteristic of his long career. A star of the silent era, Delores Costello had retired from the screen several years earlier, after marrying John Barrymore. Newly divorced, Costello returned to film with her role in Little Lord Fontleroy. She is very believable as a caring mother who just wants to do what’s best for her son.
The film may be highly predictable, and old hat—I think we’ve all seen at least one film about a lovable waif who suddenly finds the world is his oyster—but what makes Little Lord Fauntleroy memorable is the performances. Every cast member involved is well suited to their role. And though Freddie Bartholomew may not be well remembered today, the films I’ve seen of his suggest that he belongs near the top of the list when it comes to most talented child actors to grace the screen.
Having fallen into the public domain decades ago, Little Lord Fauntleroy has been given some forgettable home video releases over the years. Thankfully, Kino-Lorber has provided a full cut of the film in 1080p that is fairly clean. Given its status, it’s understandable that Fauntleroy isn’t in the best of shape. There are noticeable scratches that pop up throughout the film, as well as some flickering. With that being said, the film looks supremely better than any of the previous DVD releases. Blacks and whites are handled rather nicely, without any signs of crush. Grain is handled surprisingly well, with no evidence of DNR or edge enhancement. The film is framed at the 1.37:1 aspect ratio.
Unfortunately, the film’s uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 mono track really shows its age. Occasional pops and crackles are par for the course throughout the dialogue. The music is never full, sounding a bit tinny and hollow. None of this was enough to interfere with my viewing experience. Just be aware that the audio sounds like it’s as old as it is, at times.
No subtitles are available.
No special features are included, though you will find high definition trailers for Nothing Sacred, A Star is Born, and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.
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