A Shirley Temple Retrospective, Part 2
|May 7, 2014||Posted by Jess under Movies, Musicals|
Captain January (1936): SPAO,1 found as a baby by a kindly lighthouse keeper named Captain January. They’re very happy together, but when a mean new truant officer comes to town, she threatens to take Shirley away from her foster father. There’s also a low-key romance between a goofy young sailor and the pretty teacher, rich distant relatives, a bratty rival kid, and a lot of hijinks with Captain January and his best frenemy, a fellow older captain who I’m pretty sure is actually his secret boyfriend. WHAT. IT’S RIGHT THERE.
Shirley is so cute in this one it hurts. She’s helped by the costumes – a succession of little sailor suits, stripey tops and sailor pants, cute cocked hats – but it’s most just her charm and talent bubbling over. I don’t really have much to say about this one besides AHHH SO CUTE, so here, watch her duet with Buddy Ebsen on “At the Codfish Ball.”
Just Around the Corner (1938): Shirley is not an orphan in this one! She’s the daughter of an architect, who is forced to move from the penthouse of his posh NYC apartment building to the electrician’s quarters when he loses all his money. A rich family replaces him and Shirley, including a miserly grandfather, the dad’s love interest, and a foppish little boy Shirley’s age. Shirley uses a combination of guile and comical misunderstandings to convince her new friend’s grandfather to give her dad the big break he needs to get back on top.
The music in this one is forgettable, even the Shirley/Bill Robinson duets, and she’s really too old to be pulling off all the childlike misunderstandings the plot relies on, but one thing I love about this movie is how flat-out manipulative Shirley is. I don’t care for a blandly sweet Shirley (and she usually isn’t one); give me a smart Shirley who uses her charm to twist adults (and boys her age) around her little finger. She shouldn’t be a motivationless manic pixie dream girl swept along by the plot; she’s a clever little mover and shaker with a clear goal that she’s set out to accomplish, and woe betide the sourpuss who stands in her way. SHIRLEY. <3 Susannah of the Mounties (1939): SPAO, thanks to an Indian attack on her family’s wagon train in 1880s Canada. She’s taken in by Mountie Randolph Scott, but tensions are running high between the white settlers and the Blackfoot tribe, and when some “bad Indians” clash with a particularly arrogant white man, Shirley must save Scott from being burned at the stake.
…So, here’s the thing about Shirley Temple movies: sometimes they’re really, really racist. We’ll see this when we get into her little antebellum duology, but despite featuring Bill Robinson (who Shirley genuinely adored), overall her filmography trades in the worst, most patronizing and dehumanizing stereotypes the 1930s had to offer. (And even Robinson had to do a fair amount of shucking and jiving.) So it is with Susannah of the Mounties, which features brownface,2 plenty of casual slurs, Hollywood “Indian” talk (“Paleface speak with forked tongue!”), lots of screaming and chanting and made-up rituals, lots of “oh, those savages are so misogynistic and we’re so very enlightened” nonsense…and of course feisty little Shirley, whose family was killed by First Nations men for absolutely no reason and who defiantly tells the Blackfoot chief that the white men have done nothing to him. Um, except all the genocide, right? It’s just appalling, and since Shirley is way too old to be this naive and cutesy (she was 11), hunky Randolph Scott looks terrible with a mustache, and it’s not even a musical, there’s nothing whatsoever to distract you from the racism. Just, ugh.3
Baby Take a Bow (1934): Shirley does not play an orphan in this one – not even close! She has two whole parents, the very much in love Eddie (James Dunn) and Kay (Claire Trevor). Eddie’s an ex-con – we’re never told what his original crime was, but it seems to be relatively minor – but he’s been on the straight and narrow since before Shirley was born. When he refuses to help a fellow ex-con fence stolen pearls, the crook plants them on six-year-old Shirley, leading to all sorts of shenanigans until the good guys are cleared and the bad guys apprehended.
The interesting thing about this one is that, save for one reasonably cute duet between Dunn and Shirley, it’s not really A Shirley Temple Movie. It’s basically a…light crime caper, I guess? It’s certainly not a musical, she’s not an orphan, and no one is trying to take her away from a kindly guardian. She’s crucial to the plot, but it doesn’t revolve around her being captivating and talented and optimistic. Honestly, the role could’ve been played by any child actor – except that she’s in the absolute prime of her cuteness here, partially because she’s so young that she’s still fairly unpolished. Even if other little kids could’ve easily giggled and played Hide and Seek and screamed “Help! Daddy!” during the exciting climax, could anyone have been as darling? (And despite her limited role, she was still first billed.) Anyway, even though it’s neither a musical nor a Shirley Temple Movie, and even though some of the comedy bits go on a little too long, I found it overall very charming, and the Dunn/Trevor/Shirley family to be completely adorable. A+, would watch again.
Bright Eyes (1934): SPAO, sort of – her father is dead and her mother works as a maid for the rich family. Meanwhile, she’s very close with her aviator godfather (James Dunn, back again). When her mother dies, Dunn finds himself in a custody battle with the rich family Shirley’s mother worked for, the patriarch of which has taken a shine to Shirley.
So Bright Eyes is kind of a Big Shirley Temple Deal: it was the first film designed around Shirley, and the first in which her name appeared above the title. 1934 was a banner year for Shirley in general, starting with her breakthrough role in her first feature film, Stand Up and Cheer!, and setting the pattern of forcing the poor kid through four movies a year. (Can you imagine giving a star today that kind of workload?) Bright Eyes codified Shirley’s on-screen persona: an immensely captivating and lovable orphan, sweet and kindhearted but appealingly tomboyish, with particular skill at melting the hearts of grumpy old men. She also sang “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in it, which of course became her signature song. There’s even another, monstrously bratty little girl thrown in there (Jane Withers, a child star in her own right) to contrast with Shirley’s perfection. The gears of the Shirley Temple star-making engine churn super visibly in this one.
And, you know, you can see why it caught on. Shirley is profoundly, impossibly cute in this, especially in her little flight cap and aviator’s jacket, and though there are some bizarre elements to the “On the Good Ship Lollipop” number (mainly all the pilots repeatedly bopping her in the face with oversized prop candy, presumably on the assumption that a child with powdered sugar on her nose is anything more than mildly amusing), her talent is evident. Again, that’s not “talent” in the sense of “vocal virtuosity,” since Shirley’s merely a passable singer, but in timing and phrasing and knowing the best way to put a song across – and when it comes to musicals, I’d rather watch a passable singer who’s also a consummate performer than someone with a beautiful voice and no stage presence. Shirley is so immensely adorable and precocious that her pure vocals are the last thing you think of. Dunn is lovable as well, his romance with his love interest is understated but touching, and Withers is delightfully horrendous. Though Shirley’s mother’s death halfway through is jarring and there’s a perilous airplane flight through a storm at the eleventh hour that has nothing to do with anything, the plot mostly hangs together coherently enough. It’s easy to see why Fox went on to replicate this formula about a dozen more times.
- Shirley Plays an Orphan, abbreviated because it’s true of almost all of her films. ↩
- There were Blackfoot actors in the movie, but only as extras. ↩
- Apparently Shirley – who was usually forbidden from hanging out with her fellow child actors – genuinely befriended the actor who played Little Chief, Martin Goodrider, who was also Blackfoot, and was made an honorary member of the Blackfoot tribe. Shirley herself seems to have been as not-racist as possible for a white girl stuck in a very racist society. Still, it doesn’t excuse the film even a little. ↩