Two films made nearly 50 years apart of a turn-of-the-century children's classic provoke fascinating comparisons in two recently released laser discs. Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden" comes to life vividly, but quite distinctively, in director Agnieszka Holland's and screenwriter Caroline Thompson's 1993 version released by Warner Home Video ($35, letterboxed) and director Fred M. Wilcox and screenwriter Robert Ardrey's 1949 version on MGM/UA Home Video ($35).
In many respects, it is the earlier version starring a spunky Margaret O'Brien as Mary Lennox and the young Dean Stockwell as invalid Colin Craven that entrances and engages the imagination. Atmospheric black-and-white photography captures the gloomy, Gothic corridors of the English estate to which the 10-year-old cholera-orphaned Mary is sent. Spoiled and selfish, she finds herself isolated in a domain seemingly ruled by a spiteful, hateful, far-more-spoiled and selfish cousin. Herbert Marshall, Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester and Reginald Owen make up the rest of the stellar cast.
But it is the magic of the secret garden itself that casts its spell over the 1949 edition. Rarely has the contrast between black-and-white photography and the richness of Technicolor been so beautifully captured on film. When O'Brien and her young friend Dickon (Brian Roper) open the black-and-white door to the secret garden for Colin, and it erupts in a blaze of color, the effect is breathtaking. The crisp laser transfer retains it all.
In contrast, Holland's contemporary vision, executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola, was shot in color start to finish and while the garden is spectacularly reproduced, it pales by comparison to the older version movie magic. The newest version features a captivating Kate Maberly as the young Morrow. It departs somewhat from the 1949 version (Mary's parents die in an earthquake), yet brims with rich, burnished tones that could have come from a Merchant Ivory film.
Watching the garden transform under tender loving care from its winter slumber to a spring that few botanical staffs achieve is mesmerizing. Time-lapse photography brings forth daffodils and irises and roses almost simultaneously, a feat rarely accomplished in nature. The variety of animals that romp through the garden, including rabbits and sheep, would likely vanquish any such real garden, but this, after all, is the movies. Add to the sumptuousness a fine, tight-lipped performance by Maggie Smith as the chief housekeeper and you have a distinctive film to add to the family-films shelf.
Still, the old MGM version surprisingly packs more power and entertainment in its 98-minute version. Not a minute is wasted as one tour-de-force scene follows another (the shouting match between O'Brien and Stockwell is memorable). Marshall brings true anguish to the role of the father and the rewritten movie script uses every trick in the MGM book to keep the audience interested. Look for a young Andre Previn credit as music director and stay tuned for the trailer, which touts the film's literary roots, complete with a testimonial by the L.A. Times literary critic of the day.
The Holland version is classier, more like "Masterpiece Theatre." The MGM version is more like "The Twilight Zone," and a lot more fun.
New Movies: "The Program" (Touchstone, $40); "That Night" (Warner, $35); "Kalifornia"(PolyGram, $35); "Mr. Nanny" (New Line, $40); "Needful Things" (New Line, $40).
Older movies: "Mad Max" (Orion, 1979, $40), the first of the "Road Warrior" series, starring Mel Gibson; "Night and Day" (MGM/UA, 1946, $40), with Cary Grant in the glossed-up Cole Porter biography.
Upcoming: Due Wednesday from Columbia TriStar, at $35: "Striking Distance," starring Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker, and "Much Ado About Nothing," with Emma Thompson; Warner's "The Fugitive" is due mid-month, at $40.