Monday 26 March 2012

Movie Monday: Anne of Green Gables (1934 film)

Marilla, walking home one late April evening from an Aid meeting, realised that the winter was over and gone with the thrill of delight that spring never fails to bring to the oldest and saddest as well as to the youngest and merriest.

As in 1880 Prince Edward Island, so in 2012 on the Isle of Wight, spring begins to show itself. As the days grow longer, the sun becomes more visible and I find raspberry cordial for sale in Marks and Spencer, I realise it is time to be reacquainted with Anne of Green Gables. After a stressful week at work, my DVD and book came off the shelves almost of their own accord, and I took refuge with my oldest, most faithful literary friend.

Browsing Youtube, I found to my gratitude that someone had uploaded a much older Anne of Green Gables film, back from 1934. This is the film starring the actress who loved the character so much that she changed her stage name to Anne Shirley. Of course I had to watch it!

Being quite a short film, I felt that it was more "scenes from Anne of Green Gables" than a smoothly-run story,   though, at least to start with, it is pretty faithful. About the first half of the film is straight from the book, the dialogue lifted right off the pages. Mrs Lynde becomes Mrs Rachel Barry, and Diana's mother, which shocks the mind a bit when your mind knows the context inside out, knows the next word is "Lynde" and instead you hear "Barry." But it is a prudent choice for a film with a small cast and makes sense - or would do, if there were any reason to include Diana at all. In this film, Anne and Diana's friendship, which is much the heart of the book as the turbulent relationship between Anne and Gilbert, or Anne and the Cuthbert siblings, exists only to draw attention to how it is neglected. It would be less conspicuous if Diana were omitted entirely, as so many other characters are.

Anne Shirley (the actress) is sweet as Anne, and entirely convincing - part of the time. When Anne is caught up in her vivid imaginings and dreamworlds, "pretty nearly perfectly happy," she is as Anneish as anyone other than the Anne in my head could be (let's face it, as Anneish as anyone other than I could, if I had red hair, a Canadian accent and a pretty nose.) However, Anne Shirley (the character) spans a huge emotional range, from ecstatic joy to "the depths of despair," from intelligent, dreamy tranquility to a fiery temper, and Anne Shirley (the actress) only convinced me in the happy end of this scale. She was Anne, but not the whole Anne, the starry-eyed dreamer, but not the neglected, unloved orphan child. Anne was aged up to fourteen when Marilla and Matthew adopted her, but this didn't work for me. Much of Anne's appeal comes from the incongruity of having such a little girl with such a big vocabulary, and where I could expect an eleven-year-old or even thirteen-year-old Anne to break slates over Gilbert Blythe's head, or need to ask how to say her prayers, it did not quite ring true in this self-assured fourteen-year-old Anne.

But the most unconvincing part of this Anne was when Mrs Lynde - sorry, Barry - observed that "They didn't pick you for your looks" and called her "skinny and ugly."

Well, just look at her!

Matthew was quite adorable, all doleful-looking in dungarees and big puppy-dog eyes, shy but stubborn in his own way, and full of heart and a little more awareness of a sense of humour than Book-Matthew. He needs it - because by contrast, Marilla lacks the subtleties of the real Marilla, and comes across as usually, but inconsistantly angry, instead of merely repressed and strict. I felt that the filmmakers had looked at the words of the Marilla of the book, but failed to see the depths of a very complex character, taking all her words at face value and portraying the character thus. If this was all there was to Marilla, I didn't see that Anne would be much better off at Green Gables than at Mrs Blewitt's.

After the slate-breaking incident, however, the film goes off at a tangent, bending and rewriting the story to fit around the relationship with Gilbert and only the relationship with Gilbert, a Gilbert who, though kind of cute, is not Anne's match, a bit yokelly and telling her she reads too much.

Still, it's not a bad film, especially when you consider how old a film it is - older than The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind - with a tiny cast and running at less than an hour and a half. Curiously, I recognised some little moments in this film that were not in the book which must have influenced the makers of the later TV serial - notably when Anne attempts to "wrap Gilbert around her little finger," and get him to pay attention to her. Considering that Anne hated Gilbert at this point in the TV serial, it jarred with me as out of character (I ranted a bit about that in my review in 2009) but made a bit more sense if you include the earlier film in the Green Gables canon.

I missed many of the beloved scenes - the hair-dying, the raspberry cordial escapade, the story club - but the filmmakers had to pick and choose which story they were going to tell, and they went with the romance. And I'll admit it, I succumbed to the warm fuzzies, despite the omissions and changes to the plot.

It is Anne of Green Gables, after all.*

*which is more than I can say for the later installments of the Kevin Sullivan series. I refuse to recognise anything past Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel.

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