The Anne of Green Gables film that was released in 1934 is definitely not for purists. The author herself, L.M. Montgomery, said it was not her book at all. However, the film has a lot of charm and I thoroughly enjoyed it. And considering that the film is only 78 minutes long, it’s actually a pretty fair adaptation.
Anne of Green Gables is one of those stories that rarely needs an introduction. It’s like Little Women – Anne Shirley has a life of her own, just as Jo March does. L.M. Montgomery wrote the novel in 1908 and the book has had many adaptations – including during the silent era in 1919.
One year after releasing Little Women with Katharine Hepburn, RKO bought the rights to Anne of Green Gables and cast Dawn O’Day, a child actress who subsequently changed her name to Anne Shirley (and who I still associate with Stella Dallas and Murder, My Sweet).
Because the film is so short, the story becomes less about the life of Anne Shirley at Green Gables and more about her adoption, how she becomes part of the family and finds a home at Green Gables. Even Gilbert Blythe kind of ends up adopted at the end of the film.
The film begins fairly faithfully with Matthew Cuthbert (O.P. Heggie) and Marilla Cuthbert (Helen Westley) attempting to adopt a boy. They are sent a girl, however, who instantly captures the heart of the taciturn Matthew. Marilla takes a little longer to warm up, but you can tell she is more charmed than she lets on. Helen Westley does not look like L.M. Montgomery’s description of the angular Marilla, but there are few people who play a formidable curmudgeon with a warm heart better than Westley (I always liked her in Show Boat, too).
The actress Anne Shirley was sixteen years of age when she made the film and is suitably passionate, chatty, and imaginative. Gilbert Blythe (Tom Brown) seems little on the pipsqueak side of things, especially when the characters are supposed to be old enough to marry. It is definitely easier for an adolescent female actor to play an adult than it is an adolescent male actor.
The film is actually a compression of several books and even compresses some characters. Diana’s mother, Mrs. Barry, also becomes the nosy neighbor who says Anne is an unattractive child. The film, then covers Anne’s arrival to Green Gables and how she becomes part of the home and also her feud and romance with Gilbert Blythe and Marilla’s disapproval of Gilbert and Anne’s conflicting love of Marilla and Matthew and of Gilbert.
Spoiler Alert: Matthew even gets to live in the film (though I kept expecting him to die), but once again it actually makes sense in the context of the film. By the end, Anne gets Gilbert and Matthew and Marilla will have both Anne and Gilbert. Adoption and reconciliation. End Spoiler.
Because the location of Prince Edward Island is so important to the book (and beautifully part of the 1985 series), the film is not as stage bound as many films made in 1934. It’s not Canada, but some scenes are filmed outside on occasion and helps provide that sense of a breath of fresh air which is so a part of both Anne’s character and the story.
As I said, devoted fans of the book (and of the 1985 series) might be a bit irked by this film, but I particularly liked the emphasis placed on adoption, mutual gratitude, and love. It makes for a sweet film. It also makes me want to go back and watch the 1985 film (and 1987 Anne of Avonlea – did you know Wendy Hiller was in that film? I am a huge Wendy Hiller fan, but the last time I saw Anne of Avonlea, I had no idea who she was ).