Hollywood loves the simplicity of recycling. What works for one star will surely work for another, and so it was when the studio discovered another pint-sized sprite with sausage curls: Shirley Temple. Temple was groomed and marketed as the next Mary Pickford so it stands to reason many of Temple’s films were previously Pickford vehicles, like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Based on the novel and play by Kate Douglas Wiggin this thinly plotted tale of a country girl grasping the mores of society will please fans of Little Women or, another Pickford film, Pollyanna.
Rebecca Randall (Pickford) leaves her mother and six siblings to go live with her two aunts. Rebecca tries to do right but finds herself at odds with her aunts law and order policy and a snooty rival named Minnie Smellie (Violet Wilkey).
A successful persona pigeonholed actors into various features, so repetition in film plots isn’t new. With filmmaking still in its infancy in 1917 films didn’t repeat themselves so much as live in the skin of a previous success, and Pickford’s films can get stale very quickly. Watching Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm after The Poor Little Rich Girl deviates slightly, albeit from the character’s monetary background, but it’s hard wiping away the stain of other films. If you’ve watched Shirley Temple’s take on the material, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’s treasure chest has been revealed.
Mary’s Rebecca is a plucky little girl with boundless energy and a kind heart, and Rebecca’s charms as a feature are due to Pickford’s vivacity. More so than in The Poor Little Rich Girl you buy into Pickford’s trick of acting younger, maybe because director Marshall Neilan lights and frames her in a way that makes her as youthful as she is gorgeous (or maybe it was the benefits of a better print).
Barely an hour the feature wanders from scene to scene with little connection then Rebecca Randall herself. Her aunts try to instill proper manners into her which Rebecca resists. Fun comedy arises when Rebecca is denied dinner and, while taking the dishes into the kitchen, tries to sneak a bite. A religious sign on the wall chastises her with “Thou shalt not steal” causing Rebecca to quickly put her hands behind her back before a contradictory message – “God helps those who help themselves” – inspires her to eat. The silent medium perfectly played up Pickford’s comedic timing regarding facial expressions and hand gestures. Her sideways glances, puckered lips and sneaky hands illustrate a rambunctious little girl far more clever than the average kid. And this scene, in particular, provides a nice little jab at religion’s mixed messages.
But Rebecca acclimates to life rather quickly, and though the aunts and her continue butting heads that’s not really the plot of the movie. Rebecca and her friend Emma Jane Perkins (Marjorie Daw) do a good turn for a neighbor by saving soap premiums, the group puts on a circus, and then Rebecca’s grown and ready for marriage with Adam Ladd (Eugene O’Brien) – you have no idea how many times I almost spelled Alan Ladd.
Everything remains consistently upbeat – even the death of Rebecca’s aunt has an air of happiness and peace to it – so there’s little reason to fear for Rebecca or wager any stakes. Things are focused on exploring the vivacity of youth and teaching children proper manners. The aimless plot can lead to watch watching since there’s no three-act structure or momentum.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm gives a great crash course in Pickford, but it lacks any thrust or memorable qualities outside of Pickford’s presence. It’s like a day on a farm, basic if not pleasant overall.
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