Plot and cast
Pollyanna (Hayley Mills) is the orphaned daughter of missionaries who arrives in the small town of Harrington to live with her rich aunt, Polly Harrington (Jane Wyman). She is a cheerful youngster who focuses on the goodness of life and, in doing so, makes a wide variety of friends in the community including the hypochondriac Mrs. Snow (Agnes Moorehead) and the acidic recluse, Mr. Pendergast (Adolphe Menjou).
Aunt Polly's wealth controls the town, and, when Harrington citizens want a derelict orphanage razed and rebuilt, she opposes the idea. The townspeople defy her by planning a carnival to raise funds for a new structure, however, due to the control she asserts over every facet of the town, numerous townspeople are reluctant to show their support. Aunt Polly is furious with their audacity and forbids Pollyanna to participate. A group of citizens, led by Dr. Edmond Chilton (Richard Egan), attempt to persuade the town's minister, Reverend Paul Ford (Karl Malden), to publicly declare his support for the bazaar by reminding him that "nobody owns a church." Reverend Ford is reminded of the truth of this statement while conversing with Pollyanna, who is delivering a note from Aunt Polly with recommendations about his sermon content. At church the following Sunday, he declares his support for the bazaar and encourages all to attend, in defiance of Aunt Polly. On the evening of the carnival, Pollyanna is coaxed out of the house by playmate, Jimmy Bean (Kevin Corcoran), who reminds her that she is leading "America the Beautiful" at the highpoint of the event. With misgivings, she slips away and has a wonderful time at the carnival.
On returning home, she avoids Aunt Polly's presence by climbing a tree to her attic bedroom. She falls and is severely injured, losing the use of her legs. Her spirits sink with the calamity, jeopardizing her chances of recovery. When the townspeople learn of Pollyanna's accident, they gather en masse in Aunt Polly's house with outpourings of love. Pollyanna's spirits gradually return to their usual hopefulness and love of life. She departs from Harrington with Aunt Polly for an operation in Baltimore that, it is hoped, will correct her injury.
Subplots include one concerning the return of Aunt Polly's childhood sweetheart, Dr. Chilton, to the town; another, Reverend Ford, freeing himself from her dictates; and another, the union of her maid, Nancy Furman (Nancy Olson), with her sweetheart, George Dodds (James Drury).
Secondary roles are filled by a host of veteran film and television performers. Servants in Aunt Polly's home include Reta Shaw as cook Tillie Lagerlof and Mary Grace Canfield as the sour upstairs maid Angelica. Leora Dana plays Mrs. Paul Ford, and Gage Clarke plays the mortician Mr. Murg. Townspeople include Donald Crisp as Mayor Karl Warren and Edward Platt and Anne Seymour as Ben and Amelia Tarbell. Ian Wolfe plays Mr. Neely and Nolan Leary portrays Mr. Thomas. Director David Swift plays a fireman in an early scene.
Although the original book had a sequel, such was not the case for the film.
The film was filmed in Santa Rosa, California with the Mableton Mansion at 1015 McDonald Avenue serving as the exterior and grounds of Aunt Polly's house. Other California locations include Napa Valley and Petaluma. Interiors were filmed at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.
Jerry Griswold of San Diego State University wrote in the New York Times of October 25, 1987, "An attempt was made to resuscitate Pollyanna in 1960 when Walt Disney released a movie based on the book. Time, Newsweek and other major reviewers agreed that such an enterprise promised to be a disaster - a tearjerker of a story presented by the master of schmaltz; what surprised the critics (their opinions were unanimous) was that it was his best live-action film ever. But few had reckoned the curse of the book's by-then-saccharine reputation. When the movie failed to bring in half of the $6 million that was expected, Disney opined: "I think the picture would have done better with a different title. Girls and women went to it, but men tended to stay away because it sounded sweet and sticky.""
The film generated a trickle of juvenile merchandise including a Dell comic book, a paper-doll collection, an LP recording, an illustrated Little Golden Book, and a 30" Uneeda character doll in a red and white gingham dress, pantaloons, and boots.
Comparison with the book
- The book's town of Beldingsville, Vermont becomes the film's town of Harrington.
- The book's Mr. Pendleton and Thomas Chilton become Mr. Pendergast and Edmund Chilton in the film. Nancy's film sweetheart George Dodds doesn't exist in the book.
- In the book, Pollyanna has a tree outside her attic window but uses it only once - on the day she arrives in town. Shortly thereafter, Aunt Polly has her moved to a bedroom close to her own when Pollyanna negligently allows flies to enter the house through her unscreened attic window. In the film however, she remains an inmate of the attic bedroom until the day following her tragic accident.
- The film ascribes Pollyanna's injuries to a fall from her attic window; the book ascribes her injuries to an automobile accident.
- The book contains some satirical and pointed criticism of the charity-minded Ladies' Aid Societies of the early 20th century. Aunt Polly's film friend Amelia Tarbell sports something of the snobbishness associated with the "Ladies Aiders" of the book.
- Unlike the film Nancy, the book Nancy is a relatively unlettered country girl given to grammatical errors, slang, and repetitive phrasing such as, "It 'tis, it 'tis!" The book Nancy isn't engaged in a romantic affair Aunt Polly wishes to suppress (as in the film) nor does she have a sweetheart.