In ragtime-era Boston, widowed Margaret Carey (McGuire) and her three children, Nancy (Mills), Gilly, and Peter, are having financial problems. Nancy inquires about a yellow house in Beulah, Maine, and Osh Popham (Ives), the caretaker acting on behalf of a Mr. Hamilton, offers to rent it to them. When they move in, they find the house in a state of neglect, and with help from Mr. Popham, they begin to make repairs. As the Careys begin to adapt to their new town, they receive a letter asking for their orphaned Cousin Julia to stay with them due to the financial failings of her adoptive parents, the Fergusons. The Careys agree, although Nancy and Gilly are not very glad to have their stuck-up, disagreeable cousin live with them.
The film was loosely based on the 1911 novel Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin, who also wrote Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. The novel was previously adapted, under its original title, as a non-musical film in 1938.
This film contains examples of:
- Adapted Out: In the novel, the Carey family has four children. The film removes Kitty, leaving Nancy as the only girl. Incidentally, the earlier 1938 film version kept Kitty but removed Julia instead.
- Age-Gap Romance: Both Julia and Nancy are teenagers in relationships with adult men.
- Book on the Head: Lallie Joy practices walking with books on her head when Nancy and Julia are teaching her how to be feminine.
- City Mouse: The whole family, technically, but they mostly adjust without much trouble. Julia is really the only one who plays it straight.
- Dry Crusader: Mrs. Griswold, the old woman whose portrait gets passed off as Mr. Hamilton's mother. Mariah raves that "the demon rum would've been chased off the New England coast" had she lived. Despite the implication that Mariah herself is also this trope, she later has an I Need a Freaking Drink moment.
- The Edwardian Era: The opening titles identify the time period as simply "rag," with that word's appearance accompanied by a sudden burst of ragtime music. Nothing more specific is ever specified, but for what it's worth, the source novel was published in 1911.
- Exact Words: It turns out Osh has been writing letters to Mr. Hamilton. He just hasn't been mailing them.
- Fille Fatale: Julia, a young teenager, uses her feminine charms to secure the affection of Charles.
- First-Name Basis: After hooking up with Mr. Bryant, Julia calls him "Charles," to Nancy's indignation.
- Gendered Insult:
- Some bullies declare that Peter is a "girl" because he has "sissy hair" and then proceed to refer to him with female pronouns.
- At one point, Julia cattily remarks that Nancy is "so athletic," not-so-subtly hinting that she's mannish.
- Going Down with the Ship: According to Mariah, Mrs. Griswold "went down on the wreck off Nantucket Light" and "insisted on goin' down with the ship. Everybody else was saved, crew and captain."
- Hands-On Approach: At the lawn party, Charles shows Julia how to play croquet, much to her delight.
- I Choose to Stay: At the end, Julia chooses to stay with the Careys instead of going back to the Fergusons.
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Nancy sure sounds a lot more English than the whole rest of her family, who all sound American.
- Parasol of Prettiness: At the lawn party, Julia carries a parasol that perfectly matches her dress.
- Pink Means Feminine: Throughout the film, Julia is only seen wearing pink and purple tones.
- Tomboy and Girly Girl: Nancy and Julia form such a pair; although not exactly a tomboy, Nancy appears to be one compared to the extremely girly Julia.
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Lallie Joy, after Nancy and Julia have taught her how to be more feminine.
- Small Town Boredom: Digby wants to move to the city in order to get away from this. Of course, he changes his mind by the end of the movie.
- Spiritual Successor:
- Hayley Mills as a Plucky Girl who moves to a small American town in the early 1900s? Where have we seen this before? Although oddly, the lead role was originally intended for Annette Funicello.
- Or to Meet Me in St. Louis, oddly enough. The screenplay was by Sally Benson, whose semi-autobiographical novel formed the basis for that film, and both movies are musicals focused on the everyday adventures of a teenage girl and her family at the turn of the 20th century.
- Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Osh pretends to have an accident in order to prevent Mariah from talking to the Careys about Mr. Hamilton.