Rebecca's Uncle Harry leaves her with Aunt Miranda who forbids her to associate with show people. But neighbor Anthony Kent is a talent scout who secretly set it up for her to broadcast. Written by
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REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (20th Century-Fox, 1938), directed by Allan Dwan, stars Shirley Temple as the title character in a screenplay suggested on but not entirely from the story written by Kate Douglas Wiggin. Returning to the formula best suited for Temple's musical talents following her performances in the more faithful adaptations to the literary works of 1937's WEE WILLIE WINKIE and HEIDI, REBECCA is actually a rehash of Temple's earlier effort, THE POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL (1936), which not only has her singing some songs composed for that production, reuniting her with co-stars Jack Haley and Gloria Stuart, with much of the setting taking place in a radio station, but another well staged military dance number finish.
The story revolves around Anthony Kent (Randolph Scott), a radio station manager, assisted by Orville Smithers (Jack Haley), on a promotional talent search auditioning hundreds of little girls for their upcoming "Little Miss America" campaign sponsored by Cyrus Bartlett (Paul Harvey), an important client for Crackling Grain Flakes. Enduring through the intercom of listening of one bad singer after another vocalizing the same song of "You Got to Eat Your Spinach, Baby" over and over again, plus having to deal with overbearing parents, Kent finally gets to hear Rebecca Winstead's (Shirley Temple) singing and is very much impressed by her. However, due to a misunderstanding by Orville, Rebecca, accompanied by her stepfather/manager Harry Kipper (William Demarest), leave the studio thinking the audition a failure. Now that he has found himself evicted from their 950 10th Avenue apartment, and flat broke, Harry, who is unable to support his stepdaughter, decides to have Rebecca live upstate with her Aunt Miranda (Helen Westley) at Sunnybrook Farm. Realizing Orville's mistake, and now at this point of a nervous breakdown, Kent decides to get away from it all by taking a rest on his farm in the country, which also happens to be at Sunnybrook. Eventually the paths of Kent and Rebecca meet, thanks to a little piggy, and discovering that Rebecca is the talented child he's been searching for, he sets out to star her on the "Crackling Grain Flakes Hour," but there's only one problem, Aunt Miranda, who detests show people, especially since her late daughter had married an actor, refuses to give Rebecca permission to perform on the radio. Gwen (Gloria Stuart), Rebecca's first cousin, also living under Miranda's roof, and in love with Kent, schemes in having Rebecca sneak out at night on a hook to book broadcast set in Kent's home. All goes well, even after Miranda hears her on the radio, until Uncle Harry, now remarried to a tough babe (Ruth Gillette), returns to Sunnybrook Farm with an attorney (Clarence Wilson) to reclaim his talented stepchild.
Amusing moments consist of Haley's love for Scott's temperamental fiancée (played by Phyllis Brooks), who performs with him but refuses to give him the satisfaction; William Demarest's frequent pratfalls on Aunt Miranda's loose board in front of her home; and Helen Westley as the strong-willed Miranda, who continues to hold a grudge on Scott's servant, Homer Busby (wonderfully played by Slim Summerville), her former fiancé, due to some misunderstanding 25 years ago. One thing about Wesley's character, every time she speaks, one expects her to lay an egg. Also in the cast are Alan Dinehart as Mr. Purvis, Kent's radio station rival; J. Edward Bromberg as Doctor Hill; and best of all, Franklin Pangborn as Hamilton Montgomery, a substitute organ player waiting for his big chance to go on the air; and Bill Robinson as Miranda's dancing farm hand.
The motion picture soundtrack includes: "Happy Ending" (sung by Phyllis Brooks); "You've Got to Eat Your Spinach, Baby" (sung by individual auditioning girls); ""An Old Straw Hat" (sung by Shirley Temple); "Crackling Grain Flakes" (sung by quartet); "Alone With You" (sung by Phyllis Brooks and Jack Haley); "Come and Get Your Happiness" (sung by Temple/by Jack Yellen and Sam Polgrass); a medley of Temple oldies: "On the Good Ship Lollipop" (by Richard Whiting and Sidney Clare); "Animal Crackers in My Soup" (by Ted Koehler, Irving Caesar and Ray Henderson); "When I'm With You," "Oh, My Goodness," and "Goodnight, My Friends (formerly "Goodnight, My Love" (all sung by Temple); and "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" (performed by Temple and Bill Robinson/by Sidney Mitchell, Lew Pollack and Raymond Scott).
One of the better radio musicals of the period, Temple shines as the little girl who is very self-reliant. This is also the initial film in which she loses her legendary curls, which comes after living under Aunt Miranda's roof on Sunnybrook Farm. And speaking of legendary, her tap dancing opposite Bill Robinson ranks one of their better team efforts, even if the tapping takes place on the radio for listeners to hear and not see, except for the movie viewing audience. REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM is not the sort of movie for grammar school students to base a book report on, for that this is the least faithful of the earlier screen treatments, 1917 with Mary Pickford, and 1932 with Marian Nixon. It seems interesting that the writers didn't come upon a musical version to the book from which it is based, as MGM later did with THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), and not stray away from its original concept, but overlooking these major changes, with no harm done, it does make fine family viewing.
Distributed on video cassette and later DVD, REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM is currently available in both colorized and black and white versions. Formerly shown on American Movie Classics from 1997 to 2001, other cable broadcasts include the Fox Movie Channel and Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: November 22, 2012). See youz in church.(***1/2)
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