Eleanor Gates began writing novels just after the turn of the century, then turned to writing plays before starting a film production company in 1915. This same trajectory was taken by her most famous creation, The Poor Little Rich Girl, which after some success on Broadway in 1913 was turned into a vehicle for the biggest female star in the world, Mary Pickford. Two decades later, Pickford had retired from the screen, and Darryl F. Zanuck’s Twentieth Century-Fox acquired the rights to Gates’s story as a vehicle for another curly-haired star, Shirley Temple. Watching the two films back-to-back, we find that the stories have little in common. A child of privilege feels cooped up in her mansion and wants to go to public school, or at the very least go outside to bake mud pies and befriend the neighborhood organ grinder, but her overprotective parents and domestic staff try to prevent her. There the similarities end. Indeed, story credit on the 1936 film is shared between Gates and one Ralph Spence, with the film also taking elements from his story “Betsy Takes the Air.” The contrasts far outweigh the similarities here, even before we factor in the distinction between silent film and talkies, not to mention the double-digit age difference between Pickford and Temple when each played the title role.
Pickford was about a month shy of turning 25 when The Poor Little Rich Girl opened in May 1917, playing a character who’s just turned 11. At five-foot-one and with a girlish liveliness, Pickford was known for playing characters younger than herself for much of her career, something that’s harder to imagine without the protective coating of silence on these performances. This script, adapted faithfully from the Gates play by Frances Marion, is fully suited to the layer of unreality and mystery that silent films create. Pickford plays Gwen, whose parents neglect her — the mother by constantly entertaining her society friends and being active in the community, the father by constantly working to fund that social activity. As a result, Gwen is left in the hands of the help, who quarrel among themselves while keeping her on a short leash. Along the way, Gwen picks up and literalizes a series of figures of speech (“bee in her bonnet,” “snake-in-the-grass,” etc.) that the bickering adults use. This isn’t merely a juvenile affectation, but a reaction to a backbiting and mendacious world she’s beginning to understand for the first time. The climactic dream sequence cleans up these disparities by bringing all the accrued metaphors to life, presenting a world where “things appear as they really are.”
On paper, there doesn’t seem to be much here. Even the title seems to poke fun at the discontent of its comfortable protagonist, but the narrative does little to critique her. At most, it’s a nice story about a wealthy girl who enjoys the company of working class people and wants to join the kids playing baseball out on the street. Through near tragedy, she gets her parents to pay closer attention to her, cease their socioeconomic striving, and…remain wealthy, but now in the country. It’s all trifling stuff, but the visual imagination is enough to overcome any tedium. The director, Maurice Tourneur, had an eye for the darkly fantastic, from the apparition that accompanies the father’s contemplation of suicide to the multiple prosthetic and architectural oddities of that dream sequence, a delirium brought on by an accidental overdose of a drug meant to put Gwen to sleep. The visual strangeness combined with wordplay of course calls to mind Lewis Carroll and looks ahead to such disparate children’s classics as Mary Poppins and Spirited Away. As a showcase for Pickford’s deft portrayal of a girl’s charm, energy and mischievousness, the film is a success.
The 1936 Poor Little Rich Girl, directed by Irving Cummings, ditches most of the aforementioned weirdness in exchange for a much simpler helping of Depression-era comfort food. Temple, eight years old at the time of the film’s release, plays Barbara Barry, a similarly precocious and lonely girl. Her father is a widower, so right away the problem of absentee parents is softened in this version, a problem that dissolves completely when we see the father immediately rush home when he learns that his little girl sneezed and was sent to bed. This little rich girl might have even less to complain about than the other one. Nevertheless, she likes to imagine herself living a different life, and when a freak accident leaves her unaccompanied in the city on her way to school, she takes the name “Betsy Ware,” from an orphan in a storybook, when introducing herself to the series of benevolent strangers she meets. This is the first of two aliases she’ll take on over the course of the film. The other is “Bonnie Dolan,” a name she’s given while being recruited as the third member of a married song-and-dance team.
It’s not hard to see why the two films went their separate ways. There was never going to be any singing in a film in 1917, but by the mid-30s, musicals were all the rage, and Shirley Temple owed her massive stardom not only to her cuteness but also to some memorable song performances. Still, it can’t be ignored that the anxieties and suspicion of adulthood in the Pickford film are dumped in the Temple version in favor of a world where most people are nice and the few real threats are easily defeated. One couldn’t hope to find a better metaphor than the fact that much of the narrative of the 1936 film centers on a radio program sponsored by a soap company. With a couple bloodless romantic subplots and some anonymous direction from Cummings, the only interesting thing left is Temple. Fortunately, her general insistence on brightening the day of everyone she encounters never feels less than genuine. As a child actress, she doesn’t have Pickford’s range, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect her to, but there’s a similar command of facial expressions. Not every eight-year-old looks this confident, not only on camera but behind a microphone as well.
Pickford’s star has faded somewhat over the past century, as she represents an acting style that is more or less extinct, whereas Temple’s influence extends all the way to the child stars of today, all of them trying to blend simple authenticity with rosy-cheeked mugging but few finding the happy balance she did. Pickford wins this round, giving a more interesting performance in a more interesting film. (The Shirley Temple film also has the unfortunate handicap of only being available in a waxy colorized version.) Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and The Little Princess will have to wait for another day.