Kit Kittredge Tackles the Great Depression


Under the full realization that few girls under the age of twelve read, one might wonder why Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, the first theatrical feature film based on the national doll phenomenon, might be of any interest to CS readers. (Maybe there’s a few young dads out there with daughters who don’t know anything about the movie they’re being coerced to see.)

Based on the character created in Valerie Tripp’s book “Meet Kit,” the movie stars Abigail Breslin as Margaret Mildred “Kit” Kittredge, a young reporter wannabe experiencing the tragedies of the Great Depression in 1934 Cincinnati firsthand. Her father (Chris O’Donnell) has moved to Chicago to find a job and her mother (Julia Ormond) has taken in a group of eccentric boarders played by Stanley Tucci, Joan Cusack, Glenne Headly and Jane Krakowski. At the same time, Kit’s hobo friend Will (Max Thieriot) has been accused of stealing, and Kit and her friends have to band together to find the true people committing the robberies.

For those not into the dolls or the books, the movie is an interesting look at the era with a good amount of drama and fun that’s not too painful for grown-ups dragged to the movie by their daughters. Recently, spent a couple hours with the cast and crew of the big screen debut of the American Girl line, and we decided to spend that time seeing if they could convince us why the movie might be of interest to entire families, rather than to just young girls.

We began our questioning with producer Elaine Goldsmith, who explained why they decided to make a theatrical “American Girl” film after a number of television and DVD movies. “I think it was the right time,” she said. “I think you have to seed it. I don’t think you come out immediately. I think that television is advertiser revenue driven and they don’t care about the family audience, but guess what? The feature film business does.”

“I think it was also a test for American Girl,” Ellen Brothers, President of American Girl and the film’s co-producer, agreed. “We were very respectful in the early years, because these characters always existed in a girl’s imagination from a print story. We’re all about intellectual property, so we wanted to make sure we did it right, and we were new at it. We picked wonderful partners and one of the great things about our partnership is that American Girl controls the intellectual property very closely. We will tell Elaine and Lisa ‘No, that doesn’t feel right’ and we’ll listen very respectfully to them when they say: ‘Okay, you need this to make a movie. You need to have an arc here and action here.’ I think that’s what’s probably been really, really good for the relationship. We let these guys make movies and we direct from the brand perspective what feels good.”

“The deal we had to make with these studios is that (Ellen) had complete control on marketing, on script, and she does. Nobody has that,” Goldsmith continued. “First, I had to convince her to do a movie, but we found amazing partners and she was always willing to walk. She’s a very successful businesswoman, probably the smartest businesswoman I’ve met ever, and I respected it. She’s very smart on business and we are more creative. When we were developing things, I would call Ellen once every couple days to tell her where we were on the script and marketing.”

The third producer Lisa Gillan (who happens to be Julia Roberts’ sister), talked about the decision to cast Abigail Breslin as the title character. “She came on so early. It was mutual. Elaine did all of that, it was easy.”

“We knew she was a fan of American Girl,” Goldsmith explained. “She had four or five of the dolls—and we called her and she said ‘Yes.’ The wonderful thing about this is that Ann Peacock did a really good job and we got our first choices. That honestly never happened to us on our other movies, and I’m just not talking about American Girl movies. It was an embarrassment of riches because people love the brand and most of them knew the brand.”

Abigail Breslin certainly has been keeping busy since being nominated for an Oscar, and playing Kit Kittredge was a no-brainer for the young actress. She told about some of the things she learned while preparing for the role. “My grandmother grew up in the Great Depression, so I asked her about it, and she said that they used to put sugar lumps on their tongue and drink tea over it. I didn’t know that. Probably what surprised me the most was the typewriter, because I never used a typewriter before and I said, ‘Where’s the screen?’ and they said, ‘No screen, then I said, ‘How do you backspace?’ and they said, ‘You don’t. You start over.'”

Breslin’s older co-stars were impressed with her professionalism, especially the two actors who play Kit’s parents, Julia Ormond and Chris O’ Donnell. “She’s very professional, and I never had a sense that I was working with a kid,” Ormond told us. “She’s also very much still a kid and that’s a delightful part of her that’s incredibly charming. She’s preserved her innocence and she’s enthusiastic and she’s not jaded. She’s been doing this since she’s three, so she’s kind of amazing in that respect.”

“She’s got such a great attitude about the whole thing because (doing interviews) is the hardest work you do in the whole thing,” O’Donnell confirmed, sharing an anecdote about the actress on-set. “The only time I saw her complain was when I saw her do a scene where she had to chase this bus down in these really uncomfortable shoes and do take after take after take and she was really hurting. She wasn’t complaining but she was crying. She couldn’t be more professional and she knows what she’s doing.”

“It was cool, because I’d never done a period movie,” Breslin gushed about dressing up in Kit’s signature outfits. “Once you got hair, make-up and wardrobe, and on the set, it was sort of like you were back in that time. I got to keep the overalls, which was really cool, because I love the overalls.”

“When you play chess, you play by the rules,” director Patricia (Mansfield Park) Rozema said about creating the time period. “When you say it’s 1934, you make sure everything is 1934. Well, not even 1934 because people didn’t change their furniture, or their cars, or their fashion as quickly as we do now. So, it had to be 1925 or 1929, so you really had to think through as much as possible, “What would it like to be a kid in that era?” I would try to avoid the ordinary as much as possible.”

Wallace Shawn is best known as Vizzini in The Princess Bride and his distinctive voice has been heard in many animated movies, most notably the “Toy Story” movies. In “Kit Kittredge,” Shawn plays the hard-nosed editor of the local Cincinnati paper who butts heads with Kit and her eagerness to get a job at the paper. He had some insightful things to add to the mix. “I would say this is a surprisingly frank picture of society and a surprisingly truthful view of inequality and the way the poor are blamed for both being poor and for other problems in society. Even though it’s very delightful and has beautiful performances and is great fun, I take it rather seriously, so I’d recommend it on that basis. I’d say, ‘You’ll be surprised because it’s a kids’ movie but it’s one of the few I’ve been in that presents a point of view about life that I can share, rather than being totally nauseated by.”

“What I liked about it was that it harkens back to films I remember like ‘The Railway Children’ or ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,'” Ormond added. “There’s something traditional about it that doesn’t patronize kids by saying, ‘All you can deal with is the happy stuff and the fun stuff and laughs.’ At the same time, I think it’s tremendously entertaining. It’s about the Depression and all the stuff our characters are going through, but then you see the film and it’s a comedy. It reminded me of ‘101 Dalmations’ because we’re the straight characters and then there’s the villains who are really funny characters, and then there’s all these puppies, that are the kids.”

“It was a trick to find the balance of tones because there’s tragedy, then there’s comedy, then there’s a slice of life feel to it, then there’s the history to it,” Rozema confided. “Shifting between those tones was quite a challenge. When I did a polish on the script, that’s exactly the sort of thing I considered–tension, then release, then gravity, then levity. That’s my job to really navigate through those tones and it’s hard. I didn’t want to make a frothy Depression movie, but then, I couldn’t make a depressing kids movie. There were a lot of pitfalls I had to avoid in making it. ”

Two of the older actors found themes of interest within the story that they could latch onto. “I felt the connection of having to leave your kids for work, which is always a tough thing to do,” O’Donnell admitted. “I remember my parents always trying to protect us from really horrible news or from tough situations. I feel he’s trying to do that until she catches him at the soup kitchen and he loses his job. That was something I really connected with as far when your kids ask you a question you’re not really prepared for and it’s not just some quick answer. He is struggling to talk to his daughter and explain what’s going on. I think about that all the time. I have those moments where my daughter asks me something and I’m calling my sister, ‘What do you tell them when they’re asking about this?'”

“I think kids do have to confront serious stuff,” his movie wife agreed. “I think giving people a vehicle that can then open up discussion for families that might be really hard for them to articulate. It’s really hard for any dad who loses his job and is trying to support his family or happened to change a home and bring in boarders and get through the stigma and prejudice and all those things. I think when you have a story is grabbing for kids and entertaining, it allows them to talk about it.”

We asked Ms. Brothers whether the decision to tell Kit’s Depression-era story had anything to do with the resonance it might have with those in our country currently suffering from a debilitating recession. “We actually talked about it,” she replied. “We loved the story for a lot of reasons, and there were several to choose from, but one was that it had a great story arc and it’s a very popular character with girls. We filmed this a year ago, but the country was already heading this way, and this was a story about the Great Depression and families and helping each other out, so we thought it would resonate well.”

“We were shooting in Canada at the time because the dollar was so strong,” Goldsmith said about the relevance to our country’s current situation. “It was on the periphery of my mind, but I think it was also a great story to dramatize. You’ve got boarders. You’ve got fun adults that you can put in there. You’ve got a mystery. You’ve got a little boy who’s a co-star and you’ve got a 16-year-old boy. We wanted to expand it because we believe that all these American Girl stories are for families. Yes, they’re aimed at girls but I think boys love them, too. I know they do. I’ve watched boys watch Samantha and Felicity. The challenge is getting boys into ‘American Girl.'”

“I think this phenomenon has ended up generating a great film that is really important for kids,” said veteran character actor Stanley Tucci, who plays a magician that moves in with Kit’s family. “I don’t think of it as a girls’ movie, and I thought originally thought only girls were going to be into this, but you see the picture and it’s a kids’ movie but it’s also a family movie. I don’t see it as one gender or another will like the movie more than the other.”

“It’s really about families pulling together and the thing I think is the most cool is that even if you don’t have a lot, you can still share what you do have. I think that’s what I learned from this movie,” Breslin agreed.

“I think we do live in a culture that’s very much about, ‘You are what you own’,” Rozema concluded. “This film is maybe a tiny little anecdote to that. Look, if you lose it all, please don’t feel shame in that, because your identity cannot be based on your gadgets and labels. Please know that there is a little bit more to the human spirit.”

Currently playing at exclusive engagements in New York, L.A., Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl expands nationwide on Wednesday, July 2.