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Poor Little Rich Girl

Poor Little Rich Girl(1936)


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teaser Poor Little Rich Girl (1936)

In the trading places drama Poor Little Rich Girl (1936), pint size 8-year-old cutie Shirley Temple is the spoiled only child of a widowed, wealthy soap mogul father Richard Barry (Michael Whalen) who finds herself suddenly living on the other side of the tracks. Richard Barry smothers little Barbara Barry (Temple) with love. An entire staff of butlers, maids and governesses fuss over Barbara and the mere hint of a cold sends the staff and her father into paroxysms of worry. Her doting daddy is prompted by his housemaid Woodward (Jane Darwell) to send Barbara to a school in the Adirondacks where she can live a normal life, like other children.

Disaster strikes on the journey to school when Barbara's governess Collins (Sara Haden) is killed in a traffic accident and the curious child is soon wandering the streets of the city alone. But Barbara's irrepressible charm leads to her rescue by an Italian organ grinder "Tony" (Henry Armetta) she encounters on the street. His vivacious, fun-loving family immediately takes to the little girl. But it's not long before Barbara's tap-dancing and singing abilities are noticed by their upstairs neighbors Jerry and Jimmy Dolan (Alice Faye and Jack Haley) who decide to integrate adorable Barbara into their radio show routine. Barbara has a transformative effect on all she meets, like the curmudgeonly soap executive Simon Peck (Claude Gillingwater) who frowns on radio advertising but is quickly brought around by the charm-bullet that is Temple.

Poor Little Rich Girl was conceived as a vehicle to capitalize on the box office magic of Shirley Temple, an important Fox bread winner. Among the featured songs were "But Definitely," "When I'm with You" and "You've Gotta Eat Your Spinach, Baby."

Twentieth Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck convinced Gloria Stuart, who appears as Michael Whalen's love interest in Poor Little Rich Girl, to star in the movie despite her haughty, stage-actress reservations by telling her, "Gloria, in a Shirley Temple movie you'll be seen by millions - millions all over the world." (from Stuart's autobiography Gloria Stuart: I Just Keep Hoping)

"He had a point," admitted Stuart who was "sick to my stomach at the thought of doing a Shirley Temple movie" but eventually went on to make another Temple film Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938). "I still hear from friends and fans," notes Stuart, "'Saw you last night with Shirley Temple.'" Co-star Alice Faye observed in Anne Edwards' Shirley Temple: American Princess, "We were all aware that to be an adult in a Shirley Temple film was a pretty thankless job. You had to work to hold your own." New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent observed "short of becoming a defeated candidate for Vice President, we can think of no better method of guaranteeing one's anonymity than appearing in one of the moppet's films."

Being Shirley Temple was not quite so simple. In Shirley Temple: American Princess her mother Gertrude testified to the great pains she took to keep Temple "grounded." "I do not let Shirley get the idea that she is too important in our scheme of existence...the mother of a famous star has a difficult road to travel. No mother can know how difficult until she has a small celebrity in her own home." Author Anne Edwards recounts that when Gertrude was being interviewed during the making of Poor Little Rich Girl Temple wandered over to ask "Why don't you talk to me? I'm the star."

The rights to Poor Little Rich Girl were acquired by Fox Film Corp. for $40,000 ($20,000 to novelist/playwright Eleanor Gates and $20,000 to the Pickford Co. which held the motion picture rights for a 1917 film, which was directed by Maurice Tourneur and based on the play starring Mary Pickford). Gates, however, stipulated that while Temple could sing and hoof in the film, a musical comedy with chorus girls or an operetta were not sanctioned. A memo from Darryl Zanuck quoted on the AFI website noted "I think we could take any liberties we wanted and write an entirely new story - something that is a light, bubbling musical comedy with plenty of opportunity for Shirley to sing and dance and do clever pieces of business...We should take a very funny story, a plot that has definite comedy situations, and probably adapt one of the adult parts to fit Shirley." The AFI site also notes that the film encountered problems with its German release when the censor authorities rejected the film for distribution because of "non-Aryan names involved" (Irving Cummings, Sam Hellman, Mack Gordon, Sara Haden and Henry Armetta were identified as problematic). Twentieth-Century Fox sent proof that the film actors were, in fact, Aryans. The film proved a great money-maker. By 1939 it had raked in over $2 million in foreign and domestic rentals. The New York Times reported "as a picture, Poor Little Rich Girl is virtually non-existent; as a display window for the ever-expanding Temple talents, it is entirely satisfying."

Director: Irving Cummings
Producer: Raymond Griffith
Screenplay: Sam Hellman, Gladys Lehman, Harry Tugend, based on stories by Eleanor Gates and Ralph Spence
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Production Design: William S. Darling, Rudolph Sternad
Music: Louis Silvers
Cast: Barbara Barry (Shirley Temple), Jerry Dolan (Alice Faye), Margaret Allen (Gloria Stuart), Jimmy Dolan (Jack Haley), Richard Barry (Michael Whalen), Collins (Sara Haden), Woodward (Jane Darwell), Simon Peck (Claude Gillingwater), Tony, Organ Grinder (Henry Armetta).

by Felicia Feaster

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