Finally, Judge Neal Solon gets to review Shirley Temple: The Don't Call Me Shirley Edition.
"My dear radio audience/
Shirley Temple's career in the movies lasted less than twenty years, yet she managed to appear in roughly forty films. In these films, she charmed her way into the collective heart of the American public. In fact, she just received a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild, despite not having acted in a film since 1949. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a somewhat contentious Shirley Temple film that appeared in 1938, roughly the middle of her career. It may not be the pinnacle of Temple's work, but it still stands up relatively well.
Facts of the Case
Rebecca Winston (Shirley Temple, Heidi) is a musically talented young orphan who is living in the care her Uncle Henry (William Demarest, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek). More realistically, she's caring for him. Henry has trouble feeding her or keeping a roof over her head, so the pair is using Shirley's talent and charm to put food on the table. When Shirley gets turned away from a radio audition for Little Miss America, Uncle Henry has had enough. He takes the girl to her Aunt Miranda's (Helen Westley, Heidi) farm and leaves her there. By chance, the man next door is the producer of the Little Miss America radio show, and he's been searching for Shirley since her audition.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm gets a lot of flack because it's not really an adaptation of the book of the same name by author Kate Douglas Wiggins. Apparently, the films and the book have little in common, other than a girl named Rebecca and a place called Sunnybrook Farm. I've never read the book, so I can't comment on that. I imagine that is better. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the Shirley Temple film, should evaluated for what it is, and as a Shirley Temple film, it has what fans will expect.
In Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Shirley sings a handful of songs, laughs, cries, and does a tap dance or two with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. One of the big highlights is, actually, a medley of the songs that she made famous in her earlier Fox films. Just to round things out a bit, the film also has an interesting plot. It is a story that touches on greed, morals, love, and even the generation gap.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm also stays in a realm that children can understand. Rebecca has a talent she wants to use. She has a love that she wants to give and to have reciprocated, but the forces of the world keep throwing obstacles in her path. Most children should understand having adults holding them back, and enjoy seeing Shirley sneak out of her window to get around Aunt Miranda. On a basic level, they should also understand the idea that sometimes people, mostly adult people, have less than ideal motives. Thankfully, things work out for Rebecca. Love and goodwill triumph over greed, with a little help from a few sly tricks from a cunning little girl. This little film has a lot to offer, not the least of which is a classic Shirley Temple performance.
Fox's presentation of this film on DVD is worthy, too. Of the three films that are a part of it's recent Shirley Temple Collection, Volume 2—Baby Take a Bow, Bright Eyes, and this film—this is the one that looks the best. The picture is clean and pleasing to the eye throughout. It is about four years younger than the other two, so it's not too surprising that print damage, seen extensively in the other films, is not as problematic here. Like the other discs, the audio track here does a good job of delivering what it needs to, and there is an included colorized version of the film that, on principle, I cannot recommend. Also like the other discs, there is a separate "special features" section on the disc that, unfortunately, is devoted entirely to three trailers for Fox's other Shirley Temple properties.
It may not be one of the films for which Shirley Temple is best known, but Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm contains all of the elements of the classic character that made her famous. Luckily, Fox has also done a solid job on the audio/visual side of this disc. It's worth checking out for fans and for parents everywhere.
Shirley, even though the court is pretty sure you have no idea how to do anything actually useful on a farm, you're just too damn cute. Case dismissed!
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