Radio producer Tony Kent (western star Randolph Scott) needs to find “Little Miss America”, a junior singing sensation to headline a show sponsored by “Crackly Grain Flakes.” Fast-talking Harry Kipper (William Demarest) brings his sweet little niece to the audition, Rebecca Winstead (Shirley Temple) who has bags of pep and talent to match. Her rousing rendition of “An Old Straw Hat” blows listeners away. Unfortunately, thanks to a misunderstanding by radio host Orville (Jack Haley, later the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939)), Harry thinks Rebecca blew her chances. He dumps the unfortunate orphan with her Aunt Miranda (Helen Westley) and beautiful cousin Gwen (Gloria Stuart, later Old Rose in Titanic (1997)) at idyllic Sunnybrook Farm. By sheer coincidence, Tony has rented the house next door and, thanks to Orville, is delighted to rediscover his long-lost singing star. However, Aunt Miranda hates showbiz ever since Rebecca’s mother ran off with an opera singer. She forbids her niece from ever having anything to do with that radio show. So Rebecca comes up with the clever idea of performing in secret straight from her home in Sunnybrook Farm. Which is when the trouble starts.
Loosely based on the story by Kate Douglas Wiggins, this follows the 1917 silent movie version starring Mary Pickford and the 1932 talkie with Marian Nixon. Nowadays with people seemingly unable to take goodness or wholesomeness at face value, Shirley Temple is either parodied (as in The Simpsons episode where she gets eaten by that other Thirties icon King Kong) or maligned (as in the animated feature Cats Can’t Dance (1992) where she is unmasked as a malicious brat). It’s easy to sneer but Shirley brought a lot of joy to America during the Great Depression. Indeed her catchphrase here (“I’m very self-reliant!”) encapsulates the can-do spirit of the age, as well as being very apt coming from a future Republican senator.
By this stage, Shirley Temple was the biggest star in America and Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck saw to it her vehicles had bigger production values and better directors. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm sees her reunited with Allan Dwan, director of her previous hit Heidi (1937). Once heralded by the likes of Peter Bogdanovich and the French New Wave, Dwan is barely remembered today but brought his skill to a variety of genres including musicals (Calendar Girl (1941)), swashbucklers (The Three Musketeers (1939)), flag-waving war movies (Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) starring John Wayne) and even a Ritz Brothers comedy-horror (The Gorilla (1939)). Towards the end of his career Dwan even dabbled in science fiction with The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961).
While the plot is feather-light, Dwan’s snappy direction, combined with sparkling gags and some especially charming songs, imbues the film with vitality to match its bouncy, bright-eyed star. Shirley looks adorable in pigtails and, having developed from precocious poppet into a seasoned song-and-dance star, gives her all alongside regular tap-dance partner Bill Robinson. At midpoint she performs a medley of her biggest hits (whilst pretending to play the piano), including “On the Good Ship Lollipop”, “Animal Crackers in My Soup” and “Goodnight, My Love”, then conducts a group of identically-attired chorus girls. In between flogging Crackly Bran Flakes, of course. It’s utterly charming. They must have sold a truckload of that cereal.
Even belligerent Aunt Miranda comes around to letting Rebecca sing on the radio. Whereupon the story takes a more tear-jerking, melodramatic turn that must have influenced Annie (1982), as slimy Uncle Harry resurfaces eager to cash-in on her newfound fame. His girlfriend Melba is a hardboiled broad, who threatens to slap Rebecca silly if she doesn’t play ball and since Harry is her legal guardian, there is nothing Aunt Miranda, Tony or Gwen (whose romance Shirley has been coaxing along, as in all her movies) can do. But being cleverer than the bad guys give her credit for, Shirley/Rebecca gets herself out of this fix and the film ends with her performing a much celebrated toy-soldier themed song-and-dance number with Mr. Bonjangles. She told them she was self-reliant.