Girlhood: Anne of Green Gables (1934)

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

3 Responses Girlhood: Anne of Green Gables (1934)
Posted By swac44 : January 19, 2016 4:21 pm

Hoo boy, do I ever have a lot of personal connections to this one. Of course, as a Maritimer, the myth of Anne extends all over the region, beyond the shores of Prince Edward Island. I was exposed to the story at a very early age, when my parents took me to see the musical stage version that has been running every summer at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts auditorium since 1965. It’s a shame there was never a film version of that production, the songs are quite charming and the original cast recording has remained in print in Canada ever since it debuted.

My father worked for Parks Canada for most of his adult life, and part of his job included overseeing the maintenance of Anne of Green Gables House in P.E.I.’s Cavendish National Park. Basically, it was an old house that fit the description of the one in the novel, which was restored and moved to the park, but it also reinforces the belief of many that Anne was a real person (as opposed to an idealized version of Montgomery’s own childhood). There was also some association with the museum in L.M. Montgomery’s birthplace, but I believe it’s now privately run. We usually had a family trip to P.E.I. every summer, which was usually a busman’s holiday for dad, who had to check up on various Parks Canada properties and make sure that contracts for maintenance and concessions were being followed to a T.

There’s a favourite joke that folks from P.E.I. come from the Land of Anne, and therefore should be referred to as “Annelanders”. You’re aware of her presence as soon as you cross Confederation Bridge from the mainland, there’s a booth where you can get photos taken wearing the trademark straw hat and red braids. It’s not uncommon to find folks from as far away as Australia and Japan (where Anne-worship is huge) lining up for the privilege. Given the nature of our up-and-down economy in this region, we owe Anne a lot for giving us something positive to be thankful for.

I’m sure many Anne fans are glad that this film version that they’ve often read about but rarely seen (I have a DVD-R copy…thanks TCM!) is finally available for purchase. I agree that it doesn’t always do the book justice, but the performances are still marvelous. I’m also reminded of a former thespian partner of mine who played Marilla in one local stage production, a fond memory of happier times. Oddly enough, I also went to the same university that L.M. Montgomery attended, Dalhousie University in Halifax, but to my knowledge there are no commemorative plaques on campus to mark this fact.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) : January 19, 2016 4:36 pm

I adore these lead performances as much as I still worship the “Anne” series of books. She was my first library loan and still holds a place of honour on my shelves. I could have wished so much more for the 1934 film, but the three actors you highlighted were perfect and my imagination fills in the rest.

Posted By robbushblog : February 5, 2016 7:42 pm

I’ve never read the books or seen this particular movie. My Anne experience is encompassed by the 1980s TV version starring Meagan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst, and Richard Farnsworth. It played on The Disney Channel around ’85 or ’86. I remember it being quite good and showing off some wonderful, idyllic scenery. One of my sisters became nearly obsessed with it.

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