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That Hagen Girl by Edith Roberts

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That Hagen Girl is a curious read. I managed to source a copy (they are rare and it was expensive) because I had seen the movie a couple of times and it bewildered me. That Hagen Girl (1947) stars Shirley Temple and Ronald Reagan, along with a supporting cast of other well-known stars.

But it’s uncomfortable and odd viewing. In the film, Tom Bates, the male lead, is suspected by the entire village – and Janie herself – of being her true father. (He’s not, and this is pretty clear from the start – in the book, anyway). He meets her as a young woman, about seventeen, tries to help her. The town get meaner and meaner, because they view her as “of bad stock” because she’s believed to be illegitimate and adopted. Then suddenly right at the end he’s proposed and they’re getting married. There’s no build up. It’s jarring and odd.

Ronald Reagan apparently viewed the age gap as problematic, and wanted to change the ending. This left me wondering whether – rather like Girls’ Dormitory (1936) – they changed the ending of the original story. In the play Girls’ Dormitory is based on, the headmaster ends up marrying a colleague of a similar age who has loved him for years. In the film, Herbert Marshall ends up proposing to Simone Simon, his teenage student, leaving his poor colleague with a broken heart.

In That Hagen Girl there’s a similar character: a homely but kind and intelligent teacher, who urges Tom Bates to help Janie, then falls in love with him. It’s then agony for her to see him falling for Janie. In the book, at least, there is clear relationship development on his side and on Janie’s: though she is conflicted because she’s in love with someone else. For what it’s worth, Janie seems to get turned on by every guy that kisses her, even ones that don’t sound attractive and are quite pushy/coercive. One could doubtless psychoanalyse this, but in my view the author uses it more as a plot device than one of character development.

The book still isn’t satisfactory though. It could have been, I think, were the whole interlude with Janie’s penultimate beau removed. As it is, she’s half-fallen for Tom, but he goes away for a host of reasons, largely because she’s secretly engaged to someone else. Then she’s heartbroken to get jilted by her (same-age) fiancé. Then she ends up going around “living wild” and dating another (disreputable) young man who has returned to the town from war, and whom she obvious doesn’t love. Then Tom arrives back in the nick of time and they leave. But at that stage, it’s all a bit rushed and quick, and you kind of wish Janie would just stand on her own two feet for a while: go to college, get a job.

That Hagen Girl is well written. It captures the poisonous, spiralling sense of gossip, snobbery and social ostracism that has blighted the lives of so many (often innocent) people living in small towns. In fact the film is remarkably like the book in the most part, and captures the same atmosphere.

Ultimately, I’m left unsatisfied, the conundrum unresolved. My guess is that scenes between Temple and Reagan were cut – either from the script, or in editing – because they just weren’t deemed palatable. Temple was a child star, after all. It’s one thing for her to evolve to “grown up” roles, like other child stars (Hayley Mills managed this smoothly). It’s another to cast her alongside a much older man, in a story with deliberate and pervasive nuances of incest.

What I would recommend is that if you do manage to get a copy of the book, see the film. You can find it online fairly easily.