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Mary Pickford had become the world's most famous female silent film star for playing young girls while in her 20s and early 30s. Because of her short stature and aided by carefully crafted sets, Pickford was able to sustain the illusion until the start of the sound era. By the time Shirley Temple had become the world's number one child star in the 1930s, Pickford had retired, but her films were still remembered by audiences. Temple's image even mirrored that of Pickford, with her optimistic personality and her large curls, which had been Pickford's signature look. 20th Century-Fox chief Darryl Zanuck had further played up the resemblance by ordering Temple to remake some of Pickford's films and adjusting them for a child of Temple's age, as in Curly Top (1935), a remake of Pickford's Daddy-Long-Legs (1919). In all, Temple remade four Pickford films, including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938).
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was made as a replacement for another Temple had hoped to make, The Wizard of Oz (1939). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer assistant producer Arthur Freed had been interested in having Temple star as Dorothy, but producer Mervyn LeRoy wanted Judy Garland. Composer-arranger Roger Edens, who worked extensively with Garland, auditioned Temple but reported back, "Her vocal limitations are insurmountable," and Garland got the part. Decades later, Temple would write in her autobiography, "Instead of dancing down a yellow-brick road to see a wonderful wizard, I would return to retrace the path I had already traveled. It was time to recall sacred cows and Zanuck threw wide the cow-shed door. Any promise of new directions drained away. I would be a rehash of somebody else."
While Temple's mother had first suggested Pickford's old roles, the curly hairdo was getting old and she wanted to see Shirley with a different look. "But then, I'm only a mother. I don't shape her career. That's up to the studio." The studio wanted to keep what worked and Temple kept a modified version of the curls. Another actress wanted to see Temple in a different light as well. According to Temple, Helen Hayes told Mrs. Temple that she wanted to play the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet with Temple playing Juliet. It was an odd suggestion, as Temple was only ten years old. Like Dorothy, Juliet was a role Temple never played. Instead, she went into production on Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
The Shirley Temple version of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm bore very little resemblance to the Pickford film, other than the title and the names of the characters. Nor was it similar to the 1903 novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin, the 1910 Broadway play or Marion Nixon's 1932 Fox film. The screenplay by Karl Tunberg and Don Ettlinger was, as the film's credits noted, "suggested by" the novel. Instead of 1903, the film is set in 1938, with Shirley playing a talented girl who impresses a radio producer and his sponsor, but then goes to live with her aunt on a farm and is forbidden to associate with showbiz people. But fate takes a hand when the producer, who is trying to find Shirley, just happens to move in next door.
Included in the supporting cast were Randolph Scott, Jack Haley, Helen Westley and Gloria Stuart. The latter actress, who enjoyed a late career success with 1997's Titanic, hadn't wanted to take the role but Zanuck convinced her that Temple's popularity would ensure that she would be seen by millions around the world. Sixty years later, Stuart admitted that Zanuck had been right. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm also co-starred Temple's most famous dancing partner, the legendary Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
Robinson had worked with Temple in two 1935 films, The Littlest Rebel and The Little Colonel, and had become a good friend of the Temple family, often invited with his wife to the Temple's Sunday brunches. "Uncle Billy," as Temple called him, had several photos of her hanging in his home. To get to Hollywood, Robinson, who was afraid to fly, took a train across the country. En route, he sent Temple a telegram with his love, "From the bottom of my heart to the sole of your feet." On arrival, he gave her a charm bracelet featuring himself with his signature hat and cane, which he inscribed "to my best and smartest girlfriend."
With this close relationship, it is not surprising that Temple was confused to learn that Robinson, who came out to the Desert Inn resort in Mount San Jacinto to work on the dance routines for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, wasn't staying at the resort. Because of segregation, he was forced to lodge above a garage at a drugstore on the road leading into the resort. Temple was surprised, and, with a child's innocence, told him that that was where the chauffeurs stayed. Robinson smiled and assured her that his chauffeur was staying there, too. Temple later wrote that she was too young and too sheltered to be aware of racial prejudice.
The dance routines were grueling to shoot, as Temple remembered. "Our practice routine was long, incorporating jazz and blues with complicated nerve taps, all in an unbroken sequence. Even when we did the film I got a charley horse." She was also made to recall her former hits, singing a medley of "On the Good Ship Lollipop, Oh My Goodness," "You Gotta Eat Your Spinach, Baby," and "Animal Crackers."
Raymond Scott's orchestra (most famous for their music in the Warner Bros. cartoons) appeared in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Temple enjoyed playing the drums in between shots. Director Allan Dwan suggested they incorporate her playing into the film. Temple and drummer Johnny Williams rehearsed the drums in her dressing room cottage until the neighboring workers complained. To Temple's disappointment, the sequence was cut and the drums were donated to the local boys' club.
While Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was a modest hit, it did not make it into the top ten for the year, although Temple, with the help of two other films released in 1938, retained her title of top box office attraction. The world was changing, Shirley Temple was growing up and within three years she would leave 20th Century-Fox and her childhood behind.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck (uncredited)
Director: Allan Dwan
Screenplay: Karl Tunberg, Don Ettlinger (screenplay); Kate Douglas Wiggin (story); William M. Conselman, Ben Markson (contributor to treatment, both uncredited)
Cinematography: Arthur Miller
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Hans Peters
Music: Max Steiner
Film Editing: Allen McNeil
Cast: Shirley Temple (Rebecca Winstead), Randolph Scott (Anthony Kent), Jack Haley (Orville Smithers), Gloria Stuart (Gwen Warren), Phyllis Brooks (Lola Lee), Helen Westley (Aunt Miranda Wilkins), Slim Summerville (Homer Busby), Bill Robinson (Aloysius), Raymond Scott Quintet, Alan Dinehart (Purvis).
by Lorraine LoBianco
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