Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

'A New and Exceedingly Brilliant Star': L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, and Mary Miles Minter

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

'A New and Exceedingly Brilliant Star': L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, and Mary Miles Minter

Article excerpt

Following the success of Anne of Green Gables (1908), and of the first film version (1919), both L. M. Montgomery and the actress Mary Miles Minter found themselves being reinvented in Anne's image. The relationship between author, heroine, and actress was played out through the public circulation of celebrity names and images. Journalists projected onto Montgomery the qualities they discerned in her heroine, notably wholesomeness and an association with the pastoral, while Minter strategically identified herself with the same values. But whereas Minter turned Anne into an American girl, the media image of Montgomery-as-Anne depended on a conception of Canada as a refuge from American modernity.

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In 1919 Mary Miles Minter played Anne in the first film version of L. M. Montgomery's bestselling novel of 1908. Three years later the film's director, William Desmond Taylor, was murdered. Minter, thought to be Taylor's lover, was suspected of some association with the case, which was never solved, and this ended her Hollywood career. (1) Paramount executives were convinced that in future Minter's typical role as a demure innocent would be unsustainable. Later she began writing for magazines, and instead of signing her work with her own, rather tainted, name, she used the name 'Anne Shirley', evidently seeking to evoke the sweet, childlike image on which her screen appeal had been based. Dawn O'Day, the actress playing Anne in the next Hollywood adaptation in 1934, went one better, permanently changing her name to Anne Shirley for this and all subsequent roles, in an attempt to appropriate Anne's famous, widely circulated image and the associations of charm, freshness, and purity which had accrued to it.

Similarly, though less willingly, Lucy Maud Montgomery herself found that she was being reinvented in Anne's image. Newspaper reviews and profiles projected onto Montgomery the qualities they discerned in her heroine, notably wholesomeness, youthful modesty, and a close identification with a rural environment. But while Minter, O'Day, and the Hollywood studios sought to turn Anne into an American girl, the media image of Montgomery-as-Anne was intimately connected with the perception of Canada, and specifically Prince Edward Island (PEI), as a refuge from the materialistic modernity of the American city.

Montgomery is the most successful and best-known Canadian writer of all time, and Anne of Green Gables, as Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond note, is 'the most widely read Canadian book ever written, and the basis of one of the most popular and enduring Canadian pop-culture phenomena'. (2) Yet Montgomery's fame has always been contingent on the much greater renown of her heroine, and today, even the official PEI car licence plates proclaim the province 'Home of Anne of Green Gables' rather than 'Birthplace of L. M. Montgomery'. Anne might be considered a celebrity sign in her own right, and like a 'real' celebrity, she has her identity appropriated and imitated by others. The relationship between Montgomery's celebrity image, that of Anne, and those of the actresses playing Anne on screen is a fascinating one.

Montgomery's fame is documented in several ways, and it is illuminating to compare the forms of self-mythologization discernible in her own writing with the way she is constructed by the media. Her personal writings, including letters and an extensive journal, provide one set of narratives of her rise to fame, and the publication of selections from the journals has led to increasing critical interest in her life and life writing. Much less attention has been paid to her clipping scrapbooks, which attest to her interest in the way she was reviewed and profiled in the media. The clippings reveal that different periodicals appropriated Montgomery into different ideologies, including Canadian cultural nationalism, regionalism, Protestant ethics, and literary idealism (which included a resistance to naturalism, and its association with the perceived corruption of urban America). …

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