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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Radical Update For A Literary Favorite

Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) Is Now A Big Broadcast

Some months back, Greenbriar looked at Little Lord Fauntleroy, beloved novel source for adaptation right to present day. Cousin to LLF was Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm, published in 1903 and basis for multiple films both silent and talking. Hardship of farm life was keynote, but movies never sat well with that, and besides, Rebecca was for cheering fans of whatever child idol played her. First was not unexpectedly Mary Pickford, her own good will among a public meshing nicely with the book's. A first sound treatment (1932) was by Fox and reasonably faithful, though tough to locate now. Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm was by then purest soap for many who were fed up with grubbier precode, as illustrated by ad below that puts blunt one showman's outreach to clean entertainment, " --- escape from ruthless rackets and sordid crooks ... tinseled women and beady-eyed gigolos ... " Promotion like this was proof that not everyone was enamored of movies that spelled out sin. Not a few parents were forbidding film altogether to offspring, so raunchy had they gotten. Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm was then " ... as refreshing as a mountain breeze," and a show safe for "the Whole Family."

Few saw coming a wholesale revamp 20th would do when next came Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm in 1938, a singing reproof to no-fun on the farm too long the bane for previous Rebecca readers, and watchers of film versions gone past. Those who wanted fidelity to the book could go fish, for here was new day and one not to be disguised by advertising, Fox up front as to streamlining and "happiness hook-up" for the "great (old) piece of entertainment property." There was, of course, pecking order for literary classics, many for which a public built walls against Hollywood philistinism, while others less revered might be cut to fit current fashion. Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm appears to have been, by 1938, among the latter. I wonder how many, if any, complained upon exit from theatres crowding for Shirley Temple. She was still princess of all surveyed on the 20th lot, the more so because her vehicles were made economically and so showed profits habitually a best or near so for years they came out (Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm was surpassed only by Alexander's Ragtime Band for 1938 gain). Zanuck policy had lately eased Temple into re-work of Mary Pickford properties, plus explore of child stories everyone knew from their own youth, thus a pre-sold label shipping out with each. Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm then, would serve less its source novel than a ready audience for whatever showcased Shirley Temple.

Shirley Temple was approaching slicker ice, 1938 a last banner year before a decline wiser heads would have seen coming. Irony was her performing talent at peak, that a last line of defense against encroach of adolescence. DFZ and 20th handlers would not have kidded themselves that all this could last forever, though assurance Shirley showed ("I'm very self-reliant" her signature line in Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm) might argue to the contrary. Hadn't Variety assured that Shirley's "theatrical genius will carry her through the transition from chubby, imitative childhood to secure station as a great entertainer and money name in the adolescent phase of her career"? That wouldn't happen, as now known, though there would be an adolescent, then ingénue, career, if one far short of "money name" status Shirley Temple knew as a child. Variety's reviewer had not reckoned with a public's determination that she not grow up, doing so an affront to legions that loved Shirley.

If Disney's Snow White Had Been Live-Action, Would It Have Been Shirley Temple Who Met The Seven Dwarfs?

Proof that she had never been better came with wow finish to Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm that was "Toy Trumpet," a dancing duet with Bill Robinson and chorus. Variety blew trumpets of its own for Shirley's "extraordinary precision and skill" in doing the number "for seven minutes without a cut," the boost deserved but not accurate, as her sustained tap with Robinson goes just past two minutes w/o edit, still  extraordinary trouping on both their parts. Worthy of plaudits were five other tunes composed fresh for Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm, most hit-bound and positioning Temple for a next, Little Miss Broadway. Already there was nostalgia for Shirley days gone by, which she acknowledged by reprise of tunes from earlier vehicles, "On The Good Ship Lollipop" and "Animal Crackers in My Soup" having become standards over short seasons since she first performed them. Musicals might have been the genre to stay with, what with Shirley's increased aptitude for them, but later move to Metro, which would have seemed ideal strategy at the time, saw her left in dust by engine that was Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, two whose act could not be topped, or even approached, by added company. Unkindest cut was Temple told in tactless terms by MGM music and dance staff that she was nowhere near a talent standard they meant to maintain. Later pacting with Selznick would mostly exploit rather than exalt an awkward-aged Shirley (best of the bargain for DOS: her hugely publicized wedding to John Agar). Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm is available on quality DVD from Fox (with colorized viewing option), and Amazon streams the feature in HD.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I agree that 1938 was a banner year for Shirley Temple, but has anyone noticed that the scripts have her playing younger than she is? I like the films, but it's hard for me to reconcile the dialogue for a six-year-old coming from a taller and more experienced ten-year-old. I wonder if Shirley the Elder was being told to imitate Shirley the Younger.

This self-imitation actually did happen in Shirley's last picture, A KISS FOR CORLISS, in which teenage airhead Corliss Archer gets into a scrape and feigns amnesia -- and 21-year-old Shirley Temple pretends to be six-year-old Shirley Temple!

6:35 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

In the movies, Annette, Tommy Kirk and Hayley Mills all matured onscreen with a fair amount of success, although all three faded from starry peaks and only Hayley -- happy to shed her Disney image -- kept on working. Whether by design or lucky accident, their careers were built around the fact that their most faithful fan base was kids close to their own age. So for a long stretch all three hung onto that audience by aging with it. Annette the innocent crush of preteen boys became the object of the same boys' hormonal passion when she hit the beach (by and large, those movies now play as innocent and fanciful as Disney product).

Unlike Shirley, they never captured a wide age range the way Shirley did -- although theatrical re-issues and syndicated Mickey Mouse Club reruns helped secure some next-generation fans. And they couldn't compete for sheer volume of work. There were enough Shirley Temple movies to hold down a regular time slot on local TV.

Shirley's problem (or Fox's, anyway) was mirrored in the TV series "Dennis the Menace". In 1959 Jay North and his onscreen peers were already too old to play the six-year-old Dennis and friends. The show would last for four seasons, and if memory serves the characters never aged. At the same time the six-season "Leave It to Beaver" let its cast age and ended with Wally ready for college. Outside of animation, does any TV show or movie franchise try to freeze young characters' ages?

In our own time we've had the Harry Potter books and movies. While the Potter fan base is pretty broad, the core is kids who were about the same age as the characters as each new book and film appeared. Part of the wonder of the movies is that they assembled a bunch of child actors who grew up attractive, talented, and sane over eight years.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

" Outside of animation, does any TV show or movie franchise try to freeze young characters' ages? "

Well, Happy Days' high schoolers stayed 35 for a decade.

11:16 PM  
Blogger RichardSchilling said...

Shirley's "plucky" nature, which helped America survive the Depression, became far less appealing as an adult. The same issues were readily apparent in Deanna Durbin's career; her post-war films suffered the same way, especially in Because of Him.

Finally, since she was mentioned above, I'd like to just divert attention away from Shirley to for one moment to Hayley Mills, who was just interviewed last week on NBC by Kathy Lee and Hoda Kotb! Now this is how a child star should age! She was just delightful and she looked great, (without a surgeon's intervention IMO). Hayley is currently appearing at the Manhattan Theater Club in an off-Broadway play and she will even perform next month at Broadway Backwards!

1:03 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

For years the TV package of Temple's Fox films included little tease clips, self contained musical numbers to be used as promotion or simply dropped at will into local kids programing. I have several of these 16mm gems and I assure you plugging in 'Toy Trumpet' into the middle of ANY show means guaranteed applause.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"Unkindest cut was Temple told in tactless terms by MGM music and dance staff that she was nowhere near a talent standard they meant to maintain."

That's show business.

The attention so many children got when they could generate income for their producers and/or studios is exactly the attention lavished on children by child sexual predators who toss them away, as the studios tossed so many kids away when they grow too old to maintain the fantasy.

It is to me no mystery why Bobby Driscoll died in 1968 in an abandoned building, alone and destitute, fewer than four weeks after his 31st birthday.

No amount of money generated by his brief moment in the sun warrants the darkness into which he and so many others were plunged.

Shirley was one tough trooper. Gotta admire her.

11:19 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

That thing about Shirley Temple's helping America to survive the Depression is rather questionable and an exaggeration. Even if her films were popular and financially successful, which they were for several years they were not remotely the only ones accomplishing that.

The only time I remember that her films were prominently featured on television was in the seventies and until 1980 when in Argentina color television was officially introduced and black and white productions (except The Three Stooges shorts) vanished for at least four years. And when I encountered them, being a very young child, I was never impressed with that formula which I corroborated a few years later when I saw some of them again at a more mature age.

Except for a few titles, her vehicles as a child star are not memorable and that probably explains why the reissues and colorized versions have not succeeded.

12:12 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Has there ever been a more generous performer than Bill "Bojangles" Robinson giving it everything he had while knowing that not only are all eyes on Shirley but with every step she is eclipsing him? That man had one helluva generous spirit.

4:35 AM  

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