When Mary Lennox (Margaret O’Brien)’s parents die in a cholera epidemic, she is sent from India to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven (Herbert Marshall) at Misslethwaite Manor, his large and lonely estate on the Yorkshire moors. A neglected, lonely, and disagreeable child, Mary changes through encounters with the gregarious maid Martha (Elsa Lanchester), an elderly gardener as irritable as she is, and Martha’s brother Dickon, a boy at home with nature who helps her rejuvenate the walled, neglected garden she finds on the estate.

Mary also unravels the mysteries associated with Misselthwaite Manor and her uncle’s family. A dramatically unhappy man, Lord Craven is a widower with a spinal deformity who fears he is losing his mind. He has locked the garden after his wife’s death, and similarly hidden away their son Colin, whom he thinks has inherited his bodily and psychiatric illnesses. When Mary discovers her cousin by following the sound of crying in the middle of the night, the two become friends. Whereas the domestic staff indulge Colin for fear of his temper, his reputed invalidism, and his father’s displeasure, Mary rebukes Colin, seeing her own former imperiousness in his bad behavior. She and Dickon bring Colin into the garden, where he grows strong and healthy, defying doctors’ orders and surprising his father—who has come home to sell the estate--by walking into his arms.


One of the most popular film versions of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, the film uses film noir techniques to emphasize the psychological aspects of Burnett’s novel, using low key lighting, dramatic sets in the grand MGM tradition, and memorable cinematography. Herbert Marshall plays Craven as dramatically melancholy, a man who smashes his brandy glass into the fireplace in front of a child; Ray June photographs him both in a chair and over his shoulder to dramatize his “hunchback,” borrowing the effects of techniques similar to those Otto Heller would use in the 1956 Richard III starring Sir Laurence Olivier. Colin’s first entry into the garden is dramatized with a surprise switch from black-and-white to Technicolor a la The Wizard of Oz.

The film includes fascinatingly dated elements, including evacuation scenes from India to Britain, scenes familiar to 1949 audiences from real-life evacuations of European children in World War II. More significantly to medical humanities, Colin’s invalidism is presented via leg braces, a familiar sight to audiences from the polio epidemics of the forties. While the novel itself has its gothic moments, this film version exacerbates them, for example, by having the children suspect for a time that Craven may have murdered his wife. It also adds a slapstick scene in which Dickon’s pet raven steals Colin’s doctor’s toupee. A comparison with the 1993 version directed by Agnieszka Holland yields fascinating differences, not only in terms of representing the Cravens' illnesses/disabilities/treatments, but also in terms of how India and England are represented as sites of illness or health.

The film’s continuing popularity suggests the allure of the  “take up thy bed and walk” tradition, which implies that fresh air and a good attitude can cure disabilities.


Both O'Brien and Stockwell were famous child actors whose careers were enhanced by this film.

Primary Source

MGM (Warner)