Since I last posted on The Littlest Rebel I’ve had a chance to examine both Edward Peple’s play and novel of that title (both were copyrighted in 1911, so it’s impossible, without input from Mr. Peple’s heirs and descendants, to know whether the play was based on the novel or vice versa). It’s clear that Variety’s reviewer “Land” misspoke when he said there was “no trace” of Peple’s play in Edwin J. Burke’s script. In fact, Burke followed Peple’s broad outline quite faithfully, making such changes as the passage of 25 years and the talent on hand would call for. The stagebound bombast of the play’s dialogue is purged entirely, as is the “colored” humor that was hopelessly dated by 1935 (albeit replaced with humor that looks equally dated to us today). In the play, Virgie saves her father from the firing squad by appealing for clemency to Gen. U.S. Grant; having her appeal to President Lincoln in the movie was an obvious improvement. And, of course, song-and-dance opportunities were inserted for Shirley and Bill Robinson because it would have been plainly stupid not to do so.
“Land” was being either forgetful, ignorant or unjust. If he wanted to see a movie that really had no trace of its original source, he need only have waited for the picture that 20th Century Fox hustled Shirley into immediately after shooting wrapped on Captain January.
Poor Little Rich Girl
(released June 25, 1936)
Don’t be misled by the picture’s title as it appears on the cover of the sheet music below (and on several of the posters and lobby cards); the title was Poor Little Rich Girl
, with no “The
“. Poor Little Rich Girl
has a distinction it shares with Our Little Girl
: They are the only two pictures from Shirley’s reign as Fox’s box-office queen (before and after the merger) that are not available on DVD; both can be seen only on out-of-print colorized VHS tapes.
There’s another distinction that Poor Little Rich Girl has all to itself: It’s one of Shirley’s decidedly odd, even bizarre, pictures. The oddity begins with the screenplay credits. Once again, as with Captain January, the script is by Sam Hellman, Gladys Lehman and Harry Tugend, this time “suggested by the stories of Eleanor Gates and Ralph Spence.”
In order to clarify that “stories of” credit, we need to go back to the beginning, and it begins with Eleanor Gates (1875-1951). She published her novel The Poor Little Rich Girl in 1912, then turned it into a play that ran for 160 performances on Broadway the following year. The novel tells of seven-year-old Gwendolyn (for the play her age was upped to 11 and she was played by 15-year-old Viola Dana, the future silent movie star). To all appearances, Gwendolyn is a pampered child of wealth and privilege, but she’s really lonely, confused and unhappy. She’s neglected by her workaholic father and social-climbing mother, who leave her in the hands of servants who bully her and treat her like a nuisance. One night her nursemaid, eager for an evening off, gives her an overdose of a sleeping medication that puts Gwendolyn into a near-death coma. In her delirium she has a bizarre Alice in Wonderland-style dream in which all her waking fears, confusion and insecurity take literal and symbolic form. By the time the crisis has passed and she is out of danger, her repentant parents have realized how important she is to them and vowed to neglect her no more. The play was filmed in 1917, with reasonable fidelity, and starring Mary Pickford.
A casual reading of Poor Little Rich Girl‘s credits might seem to imply that Miss Gates and Ralph Spence collaborated on the “stories”, but they didn’t; they may not even have ever met. Spence (1890-1949) was a writer of intertitles during the silent era who was famous for adding spice to otherwise pedestrian pictures (“All bad little movies when they die go to Ralph Spence,” read a full-page ad he took out in a Hollywood trade paper). Why he got story credit on Poor Little Rich Girl might have remained a mystery, but Shirley herself offers a convincing explanation in Child Star. It seems two writers filed a nuisance suit over Poor Little Rich Girl, claiming it had been stolen from a story they wrote on spec for Shirley and submitted to Fox in 1934. Shirley says Eleanor Gates herself resolved the issue by attesting that the title was hers, but the picture’s plot was taken from Spence’s story “Betsy Takes the Air”. So if Shirley’s recollection is right (and it sounds reasonable to me), 20th Century Fox bought Poor Little Rich Girl‘s title from Eleanor Gates and its story from Ralph Spence. In any case, one thing is abundantly clear: Fox may have made all the right payments to avoid any possible hassle, but Poor Little Rich Girl is in no way a remake of Mary Pickford’s 1917 The Poor Little Rich Girl, nor is it based on Eleanor Gates’s novel or play.
It is, however, about a
poor little rich girl. Shirley plays Barbara Barry, the daughter of young widower Richard Barry (Michael Whalen), multi-millionaire owner of Barry’s Beauty Soap. Barbara is pampered to the point of absolute boredom, with no friends or playmates. If she sneezes more than once in an hour, she’s shunted off to bed by her nursemaid Collins (Sara Haden). Mrs. Woodward, the housekeeper (Jane Darwell), convinces Barbara’s father to enroll the girl in a private school where she can be among children her own age, and he arranges for Collins to take the girl to the school in the Adirondacks that Barbara’s late mother once attended.
While waiting for the car to take them to the station, Barbara asks Collins what she’ll do while Barbara’s away at school.”I’m going to take a little vacation,” Collins tells her. Barbara asks what a vacation is. “It’s a rest, dear. It means getting away from people you’ve been with every day and seeing new faces. You really become another person on a vacation.”
The words leave a fateful impression on Barbara. When they get to the station, Collins stops to send a telegram telling the school that Barbara is on her way. That’s when she misses her purse; she must have dropped it as she got out of the car. She tells Barbara to wait, and rushes outside to search. There she’s run down by a car and winds up in the hospital, unconscious and unidentified.
Meanwhile, back in the station, Barbara gets tired of waiting and decides to take a “little vacation” of her own — and the “other person” she decides to become is Betsy Ware, an orphan in her favorite series of stories that Mrs. Woodward has been reading to her. In this guise she meets Jimmy Dolan and his wife Jerry (Jack Haley and Alice Faye), vaudevillians down on their luck and looking to break into radio. Taking little “Betsy” into their act, they rename her “Bonnie Dolan” and make the rounds as “Dolan, Dolan and Dolan” — and sure enough, before you can say “audition” they’ve landed starring spots on a radio show. On top of that, their show is sponsored by the Peck Soap Co., arch-competitor to Barry’s Beauty Soap, and little Barbara/Betsy/Bonnie has charmed the socks off cranky old Simon Peck (Claude Gillingwater), who had long vowed never to sponsor a radio program. All this happens within two days, while Barbara’s father, who assumes his daughter is safely ensconced at school in the Adirondacks, is romancing the Peck Soap Co.’s head of advertising (Gloria Stuart).
Well, all of this gets sorted out in time for a happy fadeout — that is, for everyone except poor Collins, the nursemaid, whom we last see comatose in the hospital while doctors puzzle over her identity, and who is never heard from again.
And then there’s this
character. He’s never identified by name, so I can’t even say who the actor is (if there are any name-the-unknown-actor buffs out there who can enlighten me, I’ll be eternally grateful). Anyhow, this guy shows up shortly after Barbara leaves the train station to embark on her “little vacation”. He stalks her for the rest of the movie, following her everywhere she goes and eavesdropping on her conversations with the people she meets. At one point he accosts her in the hallway of the apartment house where she’s staying with the Dolans, and he offers to buy her some peppermint candy if she’ll walk down to the corner with him. He calls her a “cute little trick” and tries to get her to tell him who her real
daddy is. Who is this guy??
A kidnapper for ransom? A child molester? His presence is never explained, but he gives Poor Little Rich Girl
a gruesome undercurrent of creepy menace that’s hard to square with the picture’s musical comedy trappings; he’s like a scorpion on a wedding cake. No two ways about it, the Hellman-Lehman-Tugend script for Poor Little Rich Girl
is one screwy piece of work.
The movie’s saving grace is its score by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, one of the best ever composed for one of Shirley’s pictures and one of the few that can properly be called a score as opposed to simply a collection of songs. Gordon and Revel’s numbers are clever, catchy and full of surprises. This is charmingly demonstrated in the very first song, “Oh, My Goodness”, which Barbara sings to four of her dolls after being banished to her bedroom for excessive sneezing. She begins by bemoaning her fun-deprived life:
I wanna make mudpies
In fact I’d like to be a mess
I wanna make mudpies
I know that I’d find happiness
If I got jam on my fingers, chocolate on my face
And molasses all over my dress
Then the number segues into the song proper, as Barbara scolds the dolls for their naughty behavior:
You’re the only friends I’ve ever had
But one minute you’re good
And the very next minute you’re bad
At times I ought to hate you
You make me feel so blue
But honest I can’t hate you
When you smile at me the way you do
…and then, exactly the right touch: the dolls jump up and dance for her. The whole scene is a perfectly delightful expression of the loneliness of a friendless little girl, presented in song (by Shirley) and dance (by the dolls).
Other songs round out the musical program with variety and a satisfying range of styles. There are spoofs of commercial jingles in the ditties for the competing soap companies, “Buy a Bar of Barry’s” and “Wash Your Necks with a Cake of Peck’s”. A standard love song, “When I’m with You”, introduced by an unbilled Tony Martin at the very beginning of his career — and one year before his three-year marriage to Alice Faye. The song is then reprised by Barbara, singing to her father (and including the rather alarming line, “Marry me and let me be your wife.”). These and other songs, often heard in different forms in the background, on pianos, hand-organs and what-not, add to the varied musical texture of Poor Little Rich Girl.
A highlight comes when Dolan, Dolan and Dolan makeemd_wKe their debut on the Peck’s Soap Hour with “You’ve Gotta Eat Your Spinach, Baby”. The number begins with Jimmy singing a conventional love song, which Jerry turns into a playful flirt-song. Then “Bonnie” stalks on and the number morphs into a sort of American variation on a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song: the girl sings a manifesto of youthful rebellion (“No-o-o-o spinach!…Halle-loooo-jah!”); Jimmy and Jerry counter with a stern assertion of adult authority (“Children have to do as they are told…Children shouldn’t be so very bold”), resulting in a sullen surrender (“Yes, sir…yes, ma’am…”):
Once the conflicts have been cleared up, and the Barry’s/Peck’s rivalry resolved with a merger, Poor Little Rich Girl goes out on a high note: a bravura song-and-dance number, “Military Man” (light on the song, very heavy on the dance). Shirley remembered nerves getting frazzled when she, Jack Haley and Alice Faye met to post-dub their taps to a playback of the silent image of their dance. All three knew the routine cold, but with no music to guide them, not even a metronome or choreographer Jack Haskell to give them the beat, matching their tap sounds to their mutely dancing picture proved tricky in the extreme. They finally got it, of course, and in recognition of their hard work I include this colorized clip here. Besides, it’s a whole lot of fun:
Years later, Alice Faye shared her memories of Poor Little Rich Girl with her great fan W. Franklyn Moshier, author of the self-published The Films of Alice Faye (which was picked up by Stackpole Books in 1974 and published as The Alice Faye Movie Book), and Frank Moshier shared those memories with me when I knew him in the early ’70s. Evidently, Alice rankled at having to play second fiddle to this eight-year-old; according to Frank, she never talked about “Shirley”, it was always “that Temple child”. Alice told Frank, and Frank told me, stories of Shirley throwing tantrums on the set — red-faced, stomping, screaming “Miss Faye pushed me! Miss Faye pushed me!” Frank had the good sense not to include such tales in The Films of Alice Faye, but he did assert that “while pure and wholesome in appearance and the darling of everyone from Key West to Puget Sound, Shirley was more than a little difficult to work with.”
Nonsense. I didn’t believe these stories in 1972 and I don’t believe them now. They simply fly in the face of everything — everything — that everybody else who ever worked with Shirley had to say about her. We can only speculate on what prompted such melodramatic yarns; both Shirley and Alice — and for that matter, Frank Moshier — are beyond asking about it now. In any event, Alice Faye was not through playing second fiddle to Shirley Temple. Within a very few months, she’d be doing it again.