Siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert (Helen Westley and O.P. Heggie), own a farm in Prince Edward Island, Canada. Neither are young and Marilla worries that the farm is too much for Matthew to manage alone. So, she decides to foster an orphan boy who can help with the work. They are both surprised when the orphan who arrives is a girl - Anne Shirley (played by Anne Shirley - she officially changed her screen name from Dawn O'Day with this film). Anne (Ann with an "E" as she insists) is a talkative and imaginative young thing, and Matthew is immediately taken with her. Though Marilla is at first resistant to the idea of a girl child, she too becomes fond of Anne, and Anne stays on to help Marilla in the house. The film recounts the "adventures" of Anne Shirley as she grows up on Green Gables.
There are some differences between the book and the film, as is to be expected. The character of Mrs. Rachel Lynde merges with Diana's mother, Mrs. Barry (the Anne of the book has misunderstandings with both of them, so this is not an unlikely union. The part in this film was played by Sara Haden). The novel ends with Matthew's death, and Anne's return to Green Gables (and in the novel, Gilbert Bythe is studying to teach, as Anne does). Finally, in the book, there is no animosity between Marilla and the Bythe family. If there is one change to the book that irked me (this was my favorite book growing up), it was the film's alteration of Marilla. While sometimes stern, Marilla is the epitome of fairness. The film's Marilla, while generally an excellent role model for the growing child, has a tendency towards pettiness, which is just not necessary to carry the story forward. Anne's own antipathy for Gilbert (based on the incident portrayed in this film, where he calls her "Carrots") is really all that is needed. This TCM article quotes a very favorable New York Times review, which lauded the film's faithfulness to the novel, but points out that author Montgomery found the film "entirely different" from her conceptualization. Regardless, the film does one very important thing right - it captures the spirit of Anne Shirley.
Helen Westley started her film career the year of this film (by the end of 1934, she had 6 film credits to her name. With Anne of Green Gables opening for Thanksgiving, this was final film of that inaugural year.) By 1942, the year she died, she had appeared in 38 films, including Banjo on My Knee and Adam Had Four Sons (which we had previously discussed). Westley, who primarily played cantankerous old women on screen, had a notable stage career prior to and during her tenure in Hollywood. She appeared in 53 Broadway plays from 1915 through 1939 (including the stage version of The Primrose Path - the filmed version had Queenie Vassar in Ms. Westley's part.)
Dawn O'Day's new name was a publicity stunt concocted by RKO, but Ms. Shirley opted to continue with her new name as her career flourished. (See this article from the AFI article for more information). She would revisit the role of Anne Shirley in Anne of Windy Poplars (1940), but within 4 years of that film, Ms. Shirley retired, following her marriage to her second husband, Adrian Scott. (She had previously been married to John Payne; they had one child together). After the union with Scott ended, Ms. Shirley married again, this time to Charles Lederer, a marriage that lasted from 1949 until his death in 1976. Ms. Shirley died at the age of 75 in 1993.
Tom Brown's (Gilbert Blythe) career started in the silent era (when he was 11 years old) and continued, into talking films and television, until 1979. He was a regular on the long-running soap General Hospital (appearing as Al Weeks), and had a recurring part (Ed O'Connor) on Gunsmoke. He died in 1990.
A few small bits of trivia: both Bonita Granville and Ann Miller appear in small parts (as school girls. If you blink, you will miss them). More obvious is June Preston as the little Bluett child (she actually gets a mention in the credits!). She's not really remembered today as a film actress - she did a few Our Gang films in the 1930's, but is listed in all of her 15 films as some variation of "little girl". However, Preston had a second career as an adult: she was a internationally known soprano with the Metropolitan Opera's touring company, later doing recitals in major venues all over the world.
We will leave you with this introduction to Anne Shirley, and also mention that PBS did a remarkable series on Anne of Green Gables and some of the subsequent books (that remained very true to Ms. Montgomery's novels), with Megan Follows as Anne (she is, in fact, nearly perfect in my humble view) and Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla. Regardless, this version is excellent, and Ms. Shirley is a joy as Anne. We highly recommend it.