January 19, 2016
The books of my childhood have no hold on me, no permanent perch in my imagination. I was immersed in the boys-solving-crimes genre of The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown as a lad, and today I couldn’t dredge up a single plot point from the dozens I read. My wife, however, is continually revisiting the worlds of Laura Ingalls Wilder and L.M. Montgomery, with Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables deepening for her over time. They evoke a rambunctious, adventurous girlhood as well as a very tactile sense of place. The forbidding tundra of Little House’s upper midwest and idyllic Prince Edward Island of Anne are landscapes that she has incorporated into her being. If she ever goes starry eyed, she has probably escaped to the Ingalls cabin in her mind. As a selfish male, I desired access to this secret girls club. But as a lazy one, I haven’t had time to read the novels. So instead I viewed the 1934 adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, newly on DVD from the Warner Archive. It’s a polished RKO production that softens the book’s tragedies, but still captures the stumbling energies of Anne’s incorrigible youth.
Lucy Maud Montgomery’s mother died when she was two, and she was raised by her strict Presbyterian grandparents in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, where, according to her biographers, she never felt truly wanted. Anne of Green Gables was written by Montgomery and first published in 1908, becoming an instant success. Soon after its release Mark Twain wrote Montgomery, saying that Anne was, “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.” Anne Shirley is a flame-haired orphan who is taken in by the brother and sister spinsters Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert of Prince Edward Island. The Cuthberts requested a boy from the orphanage to help out around the house, but Anne’s creativity and klutziness endears her to them, and they keep her around. She then embarks on a series of episodic misadventures, motivated by cute schoolboy Gilbert Blythe’s chaotic pursuit of her affections. It is something of a picaresque adventure, at least until the melancholy close. Margaret Atwood, in the Guardian, wrote that “Montgomery was an orphan sent to live with two old people, but, unlike Anne, she never did win them over. Marilla and Matthew are what Montgomery wished for, not what she got.”
The movie was filmed by RKO in 1934, and marketed as “A Picture for the Millions who Loved Little Women.” George Cukor’s Little Women was a hit in 1933 for the studio, so they quickly turned around the similarly themed Anne. It had been filmed as a silent in 1919 by William Desmond Taylor, but this would be the first sound version. According to the AFI Catalog, Alfred Santell was initially slated to direct – he had helmed the girl-focused Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in 1932 – but was removed upon insisting he shoot on location in Santa Cruz. RKO replaced him with George Nicholls, Jr., who used the rear projection shots they preferred, doing Prince Edward Island on the cheap. The whole production has a rushed feel about it, with the screenplay collapsing entire arcs into a few scenes, such as Anne’s romance with Gilbert or Matthew’s illness. So much has been removed from the book that Montgomery described the film’s third act in her journals as, “a silly sentimental commonplace end tacked on for the sake of rounding it up as a love story.” All of the book’s melancholy is replaced with false uplift, which betrays the pain Montgomery poured into her novel.
It is a compromised film, but it holds wonderful performances. Child actor Dawn O’Day won the role of Anne Shirley, and in a publicity stunt legally changed her name to that of her character. She is credited as “Anne Shirley” in the film’s credits, and she sustained the stunt through the rest of her career, which included parts in Stella Dallas (’37, for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination) and Murder My Sweet (1944), her final film before retiring at the age of 26. Shirley plays Anne as wide-eyed and spazzy, a destabilizing force in the Cuthbert home. Matthew (O.P. Heggie) is a pushover, immediately charmed by Annie’s awkwardness. The Australian Heggie has a ready-made bemused twinkle in his eyes for all situations, and eases into each scene with a sideways lope, fingers locked under an overall strap. He is the picture of laid-back fatherliness. It is Marilla (Helen Westley) who is the harder nut to crack. Westley was a Brooklyn actress with extensive stage experience, and she inhabits Marilla as a starchy spinster all tucked into herself. Her hair is always pulled tightly back, with no loose ends detectable on her body. She is perpetually on guard against Anne’s cuteness. So she immediately suspects Anne of stealing her amethyst brooch when it goes missing. But when it turns up attached to her shawl, revealing Marilla to be a bit of a scatterbrain herself, the barriers fall, and Marilla admits that she loves the kooky girl.
It is a movie of great warmth and tenderness thanks to these performances, but it is missing the melancholy that makes the books endure. Atwood claims that, “the thing that distinguishes Anne from so many ‘girls’ books’ of the first half of the 20th century is its dark underside: this is what gives Anne its frenetic, sometimes quasi-hallucinatory energy, and what makes its heroine’s idealism and indignation so poignantly convincing.” This energy is missing from the film, hacked away in the hurried attempt to put it on the screen. In its place is a corny heart-tugger that resolves all of Anne’s problems at the end of 78 minutes. It is closed off where the book runs loose, unafraid to present children with images of irrevocable loss. But Anne will live on, in the books and in the imaginations of women like my wife, entranced with the image of that wild, lovable girl, who could wrap an entire island around her little finger due to the force of her untamed intellect.