Johanna Spyri’s beloved children’s novel Heidi (1881) was first brought to film in 1937 with Shirley Temple in the starring role. It was a sweet film that, I think, perfectly captured the heart of the novel even though it wasn’t true to the original story. This still remains the most popular American production of Heidi. There has been over 18 different film and television adaptions since, including a popular 1968 TV movie starring Maximilian Schell.
Heidi is about a little girl who comes to live in a secluded mountain chalet with her stern grandfather. One day, her aunt Dete takes her – against her will – to live in Frankfurt as a hired companion to a wealthy girl named Clara, who is regarded as an invalid. Even though Heidi is homesick, her simple kindness and positive outlook help to heal Clara. Eventually, she is taken back to her grandfather who then realizes how much he loves Heidi and how much he missed her.
In Europe, it was not until 1952 that Heidi was made into a movie and this version is still considered by many fans to be the most accurate adaptation of Spyri’s novel. The film stars Elsbeth Sigmund in the title role and features a slew of popular European actors in supporting roles. The film was dubbed in both English (in 1954) and French (with Francoise Dorleac speaking as Heidi).
Heidi is an adorable little girl but – since I’m partial to the Hollywood version – she seems to lack Shirley Temple’s charm. Elsbeth Sigmund’s Heidi neither possesses the influential nature to change Clara’s outlook nor to soften both her aunt and governess Rottenmeier’s attitudes.
The rest of the cast is wonderful. Heinrich Gretler, a marvelous actor, plays Heidi’s grandfather; Isa Günther (Das Doppelte Lottchen) is Clara; Willy Birgel plays Clara’s father, and Elsie Attenhofer is Dete. Theo Lingen, a very popular German actor and comedian of films of the 1940s-1960s, is great as Sebastian, Herr Sesemann’s butler, and proves to be a fast friend to Heidi.
Heidi was so popular throughout Europe that Heidi und Peter, the sequel, was released just three years later. This film features the ending from the original novel with Clara coming to visit Heidi and her grandfather in the mountains and learning to walk.
In 1965, Heidi was also remade in color scene-for-scene in an Austrian production with Eva Maria Singhammer in the title role. Gustav Knuth played Heidi’s Großvater and Rudolf Prack had a brief part as the priest. Like the 1952 version, this film featured beautiful music but it, too, lacked the heart needed to make the story come alive. So it looks like, in spite of all the film versions of Heidi that exist, the ideal one has yet to be made.
Constance Metzinger runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”