Control Nathan Rabin #22 Little Lord Fauntleroy (1980)
Welcome to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the column where I give YOU, the kind-hearted, compassionate and curious Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a film that I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account.
I’m not gonna lie: I have been dragging my feet on covering the 1980 version of Little Lord Fauntleroy for a couple of months now. If you were to ask me what kind of movie I like best, “Handsomely, if stiffly mounted period film based on a classic novel” would not make it into my top 50, or even my top 100.
But I am trying to write about all kinds of movies for this column, not just the oddball cult oddities you might expect. Besides, for nearly two decades I toiled primarily as a film critic and in those hazy, long-ago days when I made my living reviewing motion pictures for The A.V Club and The Dissolve, I didn’t just write about bad movies. Sure, that was my specialty and field of expertise but I wrote about all kinds of movies, including handsomely if stiffly mounted period films based on classic novels.
I even reviewed a movie once where beloved American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt got a handjob from his cousin! Imagine that! I didn’t have to: I saw it on the big screen so it is burned indelibly into my imagination forever.
Though I’d never seen any of the various cinematic versions of Little Lord Fauntleroy or read the novel upon which it is based that somehow did not keep me from referencing it occasionally in my reviews. For some reason (stupidity? ignorance?) my younger self thought that Little Lord Fauntleroy was a foppish, spoiled child of privilege so iconic that his name doubled as a catch-all for all foppish, spoiled children of privilege in television, literature and film.
For me, adulthood is an endless, endlessly humbling and sometimes humiliating process of coming to terms with the full extent of your obliviousness. In the 1980 version of Little Lord Fauntleroy, the title character is just about the least spoiled, least foppish child of privilege in recorded history.
Not only is blonde-haired, blue eyed moppet Cedric Errol (Ricky Shroder) not the fancy brat I had mistaken him for, he’s damn near the most perfect, sinless and big-hearted child since a little dude named Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem a few thousand years ago.
Child star Schroder had an unmistakably Californian, contemporary quality. He looked like he was born on a surfboard in Beverly Hills sometime in the mid 1970s. So of course before he rose to television fame in Silver Spoons he was typecast as iconic tenement-dwellers in a pair of period pieces: the 1979 Franco Zeffirelli-Directed remake of The Champ and this 1980 adaptation of Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, which is sort of the middlebrow literary version of Silver Spoons.
When Schroder’s irrepressible moppet squeaks, “Right now I’m Lord Fauntleroy. But someday I’ll be an oil!” he sounds like a lost blonde little Ramone who somehow got stuck in the wrong decade or century.
Schroder lends his oppressive adorability to the role of a magical little boy so pure-hearted and overflowing with love for humanity that he spreads and happiness and joy everywhere he goes. In that respect, he resembles less the prissy exemplar of upper-crust entitlement I had imagined than another staple of children’s literature, Pollyanna.
Cedric is enjoying a giddy’s boys life full of spirited games of Kick the Can and lengthy discussions about the inveterate cruelty of capitalism and the English class system with his best friend, a despairing, Leftist, rabble-rousing adult grocer when he receives life-changing news. Cedric’s curmudgeonly grandfather John Arthur Molyneux Errol, Earl of Dorincourt (Alec Guiness, who would undoubtedly be mortified to learn that you know him primarily, if not exclusively, from Star Wars, where he played Chewbacca) wants him to come to live on his enormous estate in England so that he can be raised in the aristocratic fashion in a manner that will prepare him for his eventual destiny as a member of the British aristocracy.
The Earl of Dorincourt is the sort of grinch-like grouch who smiles once a year, at a predetermined time and place. He’s all about propriety, and also feeling superior to commoners, so he wants to transform a scruffy street urchin into a proper English Lord so that he can die in peace, his legacy and heir in place.
Little Lord Fauntleroy is about a figure of modest means who is catapulted to a high-falutin’ realm of manners, society and money. In that respect, it resembles such classics of upward mobility as Citizen Kane and King Ralph.
Like King Ralph, the title character here embodies everything that’s wonderful and pure about our country. He’s American Democracy personified, a liberating figure who enters a rigidly class-bound British system with his miserable grandfather at the very top and everyone else on the bottom and uses his power and status to single-handedly make his community a kinder, more egalitarian place.
Little Lord Fauntleroy isn’t just ridiculously cute in a distractingly anachronistic sort of way. He’s also Christ-like in his selflessness and bottomless concern for his fellow man. He’s the sort of Good Samaritan who cannot be happy or comfortable if he thinks another person is suffering in a way that he could alleviate.
This stands in sharp contrast to the English class system, which encourages the people at the top never to think about the suffering and despair that makes their cushy lives possible, lest they revert into some manner of boorish, molotov cocktail-hurling Marxist.
Like all good kid’s movies, Little Lord Fauntleroy takes place in the endless shadow of traumatic and formative death. Our hero’s father is dead, as are all of the other potential heirs to the Earl’s fortune and the Earl hates Americans and America so much that he insists that he never have to interact with Mrs. Errol (Connie Booth), Cedric’s deeply proud American seamstress mother, despite them leaving nearby.
Booth gives her proud single mother tremendous strength of character and an iron will. Her performance subtly yet powerfully illustrates that there are few greater sacrifices any parent can make than to give up both time and ownership of your child for the sake of them living a better life than you can give them.
Our hero’s mother and his grandfather make for terrific antagonists. They’re a study in contrast. He embodies the stern, judgmental harshness of the English class system. She’s wonderfully, inveterately American, a brash outsider who will do anything for her son, including abiding by the terms and snobbery of a man who has only ever been awful to her for the pettiest of reasons.
Guiness and Booth are wonderful playing complicated, complex characters who have to figure out a way to live with each other and their mutual antagonism for the sake of a boy they both adore above all other things.
Schroder, in sharp contrast, delivers a one-note performance as a boy who is impossibly, frustratingly, unbearably perfect, a friend to the common man and Earl alike who always says and does the right things for the right reasons. In the process, he melts his grandfather’s icy heart and reignites his long-lost love for living.
Schroder squeaks all of his lines with a chipmunk ebullience everybody in the impoverished town finds irresistible. He brings out the innocent child in his cranky, misanthropic grandfather. He even gets him to play Kick the Can like one of his hardscrabble tenement chums from his old days back at Hester Street.
There’s a lovely moment late in the film when our hero’s now doting grandfather realizes just how much his grandson means to him. “I’m not well-liked, yet he finds me to his liking” he says to himself as much as anyone else, in the process capturing how being truly, deeply and honestly loved by a child can make you feel worthwhile and lovable no matter how deeply you might otherwise hate yourself.
I’m not too proud to admit that I got choked up and shed a few tears over how much this repressed, surly, classist, America and American-hating old bastard genuinely loves his grandson. I doubt that would have happened before I became a dad. I suspect I might have rolled my eyes at moments like that, pre-parenthood, snidely deriding them as rank sentimentality, mawkish nonsense. But life has changed me. It’s softened me and it’s hardened me. At forty-two, Little Lord Fauntleroy plucked the heartstrings in a way that was not ginger or subtle but successful all the same.
It seems like surly old, monocle-sporting grandpa isn’t the only one whose heart is profoundly touched by the irrepressible, infectious goodness of Little Lord Fauntleroy’s titular moppet, unbearably sweet and pure-hearted as he might be.
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