Cinevent 2016, Part 4

Day 3

Another regular — and eagerly anticipated — feature of Cinevent is the Saturday morning cartoon program, compiled and curated by animation maven Stewart McKissick. This year the bill included a specimen from each of the major cartoon studios of the 1930s through ’50s — Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, Fleischer, UPA, etc. The clear highlight of the morning was MGM’s Magical Maestro (1952) by the great Tex Avery, in which a spurned vaudeville magician wreaks vengeance by disrupting an operatic recital by “the Great Poochini” (as the poster shows, the cartoon is populated by dogs). It’s a wild and zany ride that anticipates (may even have inspired) Chuck Jones’s Duck Amuck over at Warners the following year, and it’s better seen than described.

Fortunately, that can be arranged. Click here to see the cartoon complete from beginning to end — including a few fleeting (and fairly harmless) seconds of non-p.c. ethnic humor. It’s only six-and-a-half minutes, and worth the side trip. I’ll wait till you get back. (NOTE: The cartoon is on a Romanian-language Web site and is preceded by a commercial for one product or another. Look for a white “X” in the top right corner of the frame or the word “Inchide” [“skip”] in the bottom right; click on either of those and it’ll go directly to the cartoon.)

The cartoon program was followed by Houdini (1953), a purported biopic starring a youthful Tony Curtis and then-wife Janet Leigh as the legendary escapologist and his wife Bess. A big hit in 1953, the picture was a mainstay of Saturday afternoon kiddie matinees when I was going to them — I remember seeing it three or four times — and I’ve always had a soft spot for it. There was, of course, a magician and escape artist (born Erik Weisz) who billed himself as Harry Houdini, and his wife Wilhelmina Beatrice was known as Bess; aside from that, the movie is arrant fiction from first frame to last — but it’s as entertaining as it is made-up. Seeing it in Columbus this year — especially right after a whole slew of cartoons — made me feel seven years old again.

The afternoon was devoted to two silent programs: Douglas Fairbanks in His Picture in the Papers (1916), followed by a selection of rarely seen comedy shorts, also from 1916, consisting of The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, starring Doug Fairbanks again as a detective named (get this) Coke Ennyday (a spoof on the name of Craig Kennedy, a character created by Arthur B. Reeve in 1910 and popular in magazine fiction until Reeve’s death in 1936); An Angelic Attitude, directed by and starring Tom Mix, already seven years into his movie career and poised on the brink of superstardom; and A Scoundrel’s Toll, a Mack Sennett short starring Raymond Griffith. (Griffith would be a mid-level comedy star throughout the 1920s, but his badly damaged vocal cords would relegate him to behind-the-camera work writing and producing, and quite successfully, once talkies came in.)
x-defaultThis was followed by Tim McCoy in Law Beyond the Range (1935), an unpretentious and quite entertaining B western from Columbia. Tim McCoy was one of those interesting characters who sort of backed into movies because making movies was fun and he himself was fairly comfortable in front of  camera. Born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1891, he became fascinated with the Wild West as a student in college; he dropped out and resettled in Wyoming, where he became a ranch hand and expert horseman. After serving in World War I (he rose to the rank of colonel and later, in his movie career, was sometimes billed as Col. Tim McCoy), he was appointed adjutant general of the Wyoming National Guard. In that capacity he worked diplomatically and well with Wyoming’s native Arapaho and Shoshone tribes, and in 1922, when Paramount came to Wyoming to film their epic The Covered Wagon, McCoy served as liaison between the company and several hundred Indian extras. That gave him the bug. He resigned his commission and cried “Westward ho!” once again, settling in Hollywood, where he worked steadily through the 1940s, then tapered off into retirement, making his last appearance in Requiem for a Gunfighter in 1965.
In Law Beyond the Range McCoy played a Texas Ranger who leaves the force to take over an old friend and mentor’s crusading newspaper in a neighboring town. Arriving in town shortly after his editor friend’s death, he carries on the paper’s crusade against the crime boss who is running the town (Guy Usher). In the end he brings down the bad guy, but not because the pen is mightier than the sword; in fact it takes a blazing shootout that fills the local saloon with a dense cloud of gunsmoke, a rip-roaring climax that Col. Tim’s 1935 fans had no doubt been waiting for all along. At the final fadeout he has not only cleaned up the town but cleared an old friend (Robert Allen) of a bogus murder charge and won the heart of the late editor’s daughter (Billie Seward).
California-Straight-Ahead-WAfter dinner came of two of the highlights of the whole weekend — both, as it happened, from Universal. First was California Straight Ahead (1937). I here reproduce the title card from the movie’s credits, rather than a poster or lobby card, to make a point: It’s 1937, two years before Stagecoach, and John Wayne is billed above the title. And not in a B western from Monogram or Republic, but in one of six pictures he made at Universal (none of them westerns) before returning to the saddle at Republic. It’s still a B picture, of course; it would take John Ford to promote the Duke out of B’s once and for all. But California Straight Ahead has a better-than-B professional gloss to it; with Universal’s backlot and production infrastructure a few dollars could go a lot farther than they could on some location ranch up in the San Fernando Valley.
Wayne plays a partner in a struggling Chicago trucking firm, trying to make a go of his little two-truck operation against sometimes unscrupulous opposition from other truckers and railroads (he faces some unsporting competition for the affections of the fetching Louise Latimer too). The story climaxes in a cross-country race between Wayne’s convoy of big-rigs and an express train, both seeking to deliver a shipment of airplane parts to the Port of Los Angeles to be loaded on a ship and dispatched across the Pacific before a general strike closes the port. With a smart script by W. Scott Darling and lickety-split direction by Arthur Lubin, the picture makes for an enjoyable 67 minutes.


In his introduction to the screening, Wayne biographer Scott Eyman told us that Wayne regarded his six-picture foray at Universal as a mistake; it had failed to take him out of the “juvenile ghetto” of Saturday afternoon B westerns, and when it was over he found himself back at Square One in Republic horse operas — without his former momentum and unsure when, or if ever, he could work his way out of them. (He couldn’t know, of course, that his big break was just around the corner.) I quote Scott at length on California Straight Ahead and the Duke’s five other Universal B’s: “This is a good movie; they are all good, solid movies. They’re better, frankly, I think, than the Republic westerns he’d been making, because the technicians are a little bit better, the scripts are a little bit better, and the production schedules a little bit longer, and you can get more of where he’s not just riding and roping and slugging people. He actually gets a chance to do a little acting in these movies. And as you’ll see, he’s getting better and better. By 1937, and finishing up this series of pictures, he’s ready. He’s ready for John Ford, he’s ready for the Big Time.”

Crazy-House-poster01WAnd then came the deluge, again courtesy of Universal Pictures. The title of this onslaught was Crazy House, and the leading inmates of the loony bin were two slap-happy vaudevillians named Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. How do you describe these two to someone who’s never seen them? In my last post I called them the Monty Python of the 1940s, but the truth is, Olsen and Johnson made Monty Python look like a Sunday afternoon game of whist between Oscar Wilde and James MacNeill Whistler.
John Sigvard “Ole” Olsen and Harold Ogden “Chic” Johnson first teamed up in 1914 as members of a more or less straight musical vaudeville quartet. Their personalities and wacky senses of humor clicked, and they eventually morphed into a madcap improvisational comedy act, with neither of them playing the customary straight man. Eventually they wound up on radio in “The Padded Cell of the Air”, a segment of NBC’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, hosted by crooner Rudy Vallee. The rather stodgy Vallee evidently left Olsen and Johnson pretty much to their own devices, and the team’s wild act was free-wheeling and utterly unpredictable. They reached their apotheosis in 1938 with the Broadway musical comedy revue Hellzapoppin, whose title remains a byword for insanely corny, anything-for-a-laugh comedy. It was a show where nobody ever knew what was going to happen next. And I don’t mean just the audience — I mean the stagehands, the orchestra and the other performers. Hellzapoppin ran for over three years — 1,404 performances, and it was never the same experience twice.
In 1941 Universal induced Olsen and Johnson to put the show on film (as Hellzapoppin’, adding the apostrophe). It might have seemed like a fool’s errand, and Universal hedged their bets by forcing the insertion of a conventional romantic subplot, but the movie clicked. It was screened at last year’s Cinevent and stole the whole weekend, as hilarious as ever.
And so it was this year with Crazy House, Olsen and Johnson’s follow-up movie two years later. It begins with Olsen and Johnson staging their own triumphant return parade down Hollywood Boulevard, with the cry preceding them: “Olsen and Johnson are coming!”, while everyone from studio bigwigs to hairdressers and carpenters flies into a panic. (On one soundstage Basil Rathbone tells Nigel Bruce of the dire devastation in store for them all when the two comics arrive. “How do you know all that?” Bruce asks. “I’m Sherlock Holmes,” snaps Rathbone. “I know everything.”) The boys show up to find the Universal lot deserted and barricaded against them. Unfazed, they resolve to produce their next movie themselves.
Let’s leave it at that, shall we? Crazy House goes on in that vein for a lightning 80 minutes, throwing jokes so fast you miss every third one because you’re still laughing at the first two. Olsen and Johnson’s governing principle was that a joke not good enough to use once might be bad enough to use five times, and it still works; O&J’s influence can be seen not only in Monty Python but elsewhere, including Laugh-In in the 1960s and Jim Henson’s original Muppet Show 20 years after that.
After the boisterous delirium of Crazy House anything would have been an anticlimax, so 1927’s silent The Fighting Eagle started off at a disadvantage. Still, it was an engaging, slightly tongue-in-cheek swashbuckler with Rod La Rocque (such a perfectly Hollywood name, and yet it was his own) swaggering grandly as a braggart popinjay French soldier engaging in swordplay, intrigue and romance (with countess Phyllis Haver, the movies’ original Roxie Hart in Chicago) in the days of the Emperor Napoleon.
And finally, another midnight snack: The Monkey’s Paw, a low-budget 1948 British thriller with a good but uniformly unfamiliar cast, adapted from the classic short story by W.W. Jacobs. If you haven’t read the story, you should; give yourself a sleepless night or two. It concerns the eponymous, mummified simian extremity, a talisman with the power to grant three wishes. But this monkey’s paw is no rabbit’s foot; it’s the ultimate illustration of be-careful-what-you-wish-for: In a touch not in the original story but added for the movie, one woman wishes to be free of her boring, alcoholic husband; her freedom is granted to her when he shoots her dead.
Jacobs’s story is a vivid one, but short, and the
script by Barbara Toy and director Norman
Lee fills it out without diluting its sinister
spirit — as that flashback scene with the bored
wife makes clear. And so it was, at 2:00 that
Sunday morning, after the monkey’s paw had
wrought its dark magic on the hapless
Trelawne family (played by Milton Rosmer,
Megs Jenkins and Eric Micklewood), that
those hardy night owls among us were
finally trundled off to our rooms, our lights,
and the comforting drone of an all-night
To be concluded…

Cinevent 2016, Part 3

Day 2 (cont.)

ChaseWA regular feature at every Cinevent is a program of Charley Chase shorts. If you don’t recognize the name, it’s worth the effort to familiarize yourself. Unlike some other greats of silent comedy (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy), Chase never graduated from shorts to features (though he turned in a delightful supporting performance in Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert in 1933). Still, his output was prodigious; Cinevent could present a program of five of his shorts (assuming they all survived, which unfortunately they don’t) and go 50 years without repeating one. Cinevent regulars and others familiar with him may skip the next two paragraphs.

Charles Joseph Parrott was born in Baltimore in 1893. He began performing in vaudeville as a teenager and started in movies at 19. After stints with Al Christie and Mack Sennett, he joined Hal Roach as a director in 1920 and by 1922 rose to be general manager of the studio. It was Parrott who brought Oliver Hardy to the Hal Roach “Lot of Fun”; he also recruited Robert McGowan to oversee Roach’s Our Gang comedies, which McGowan did for 14 years.
But Parrott found admin work unrewarding, and by 1924 he returned to performing. Rechristened Charley Chase (a wordplay on the title of a popular World War I-era song, “Chase Me Charlie”), he developed his own comic persona as a lanky, dapper, bedeviled everyman, and was a mainstay of Hal Roach shorts for over ten years, silent and sound, though always a third banana behind Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy. When Roach cut him loose in 1935 (the reasons are a little vague; Roach may simply have been retrenching), he wound up at Columbia starring in his own series of shorts and directing others for the Three Stooges (including one of their best, Violent is the Word for Curly). By this time health problems, exacerbated by alcoholism, were dogging him, and when his beloved younger brother James (who had his own substance-abuse problems) died in 1939, Charley’s drinking soared out of control until a heart attack killed him in June 1940 at age 46.
PantsWThat’s the quick-and-dirty version of Chase’s career, and some day I may post on him in more detail. For now, suffice it to say that Cinevent is doing its share to keep Chase’s name alive (as Richard Roberts aptly put it, he’s not so much neglected as taken for granted) with these regular annual tributes. This year the Cinevent audience got a real scoop: in addition to the shorts Powder and Smoke, Stolen Goods, Too Many Mammas (all 1924), and Looking for Sally (’25), the Chase program included The Way of All Pants (27), complete for the first time in a couple of generations. A truncated version of Pants has survived in the Robert Youngson compilation The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy (’67), but the complete two-reeler was long believed lost. A British release print was recently discovered, with some damage due to age and decomposition; it was digitally restored, then transferred back to 16mm film for screening in Columbus. The whole thing was touch-and-go right down to the wire: the print wasn’t completed until just a few weeks beforehand; it wasn’t even mentioned in the program book because they weren’t sure it would be ready in time to be “re-premiered” at Cinevent.
Anyhow, The Way of All Pants (U.K. title The Way of All Dress, since “pants” was considered vulgar in Britain at the time) was an ingenious delight, ringing endless changes on men (beginning with Charley) losing their trousers at a high-tone dinner party. A canine performer identified as Buddy the Dog all but stole the show. (NOTE: Lacking program notes, I’ve had to rely on my memory. Richard M. Roberts, if you’re reading this and I’ve got any details amiss, feel free to set me straight.)
The evening highlight of Day 2 was Slightly Scarlet, a 1956 Technicolor film noir (if that’s not a contradition in terms) about two sisters, one nice (Rhonda Fleming) and one naughty (Arlene Dahl), with John Payne as the political muscle man to a corrupt city boss (Ted de Corsia) serving as the rope in a tug-of-war of female sibling rivalry. It was based on a novel by James M. Cain (better known for Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice) entitled Love’s Lovely Counterfeit; if nothing else, the movie at least improved on Cain’s title. Directed by the venerable Allan Dwan, it was a suitably fast-paced melodrama of sex and politics set amid the now-retro decor of 1950s moderne-ity, and it demonstrated conclusively that whatever you might think, Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl are not, in fact, the same person (both ladies, God bless ’em, are still with us at this writing, 92 and 90 respectively; continued long life to them both). Cinevent’s print had deliciously lurid Technicolor but was presented in the standard 4:3 aspect ratio and not screened in “Superscope”. Whatever that is.
After that, another silent, White Tiger (1923), with Wallace Beery as a jewel thief who teams up with two confederates, Priscilla Dean (top-billed) and Raymond Griffith — concealing from them both the fact that not only are they brother and sister separated in infancy, but Beery himself betrayed their father and brought about his death. It was directed and co-written by Tod (London After Midnight) Browning, who could always be counted on to come up with a real whopper.
Day 2 closed out with a midnight snack: An episode of the short-lived (1961-62) TV series Bus Stop, which was unrelated to the William Inge play or the Marilyn Monroe movie, but essentially a dramatic anthology series with a few continuing characters playing peripheral roles in each episode. This one was “I Kiss Your Shadow”, from a story by Robert (Psycho, “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”) Bloch, about a man (George Grizzard) haunted — in every sense — by the death of his neurotic, possessive wife (Joanne Linville) in a car crash. It was (spoiler alert!) a creepy, atmospheric variation on Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, just the thing to send you back to your hotel room to sleep with the lights on and the flat-screen TV blaring all the rest of the night.
Next up: Day 3, Saturday, featuring a supremely anarchic turn by Olsen and Johnson, the two-man Monty Python of the 1940s, and an exhilarating horseless turn by the pre-Stagecoach John Wayne…

To be continued…


Cinevent 2016 (Continued)

Day 2

The second day of Cinevent began with a departure from custom and a real curiosity: Die Reise nach Tilsit (The Trip to Tilsit), a 1939 German film. That’s the departure; Cinevent has heretofore screened almost exclusively (if not entirely so) English-language movies. The curiosity is that The Trip to Tilsit is based on the same Hermann Sudermann story that inspired F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927): a cheating husband plots to murder his wife and make it look like an accident, but changes his mind when the couple visit the big city and rekindle their love for each other. The compare-and-contrast lends The Trip to Tilsit a fascination it doesn’t have all by itself; it’s well-crafted and well-acted, especially by Kristina Soderbaum (wife of director Veit Harlan) as the wronged wife. But Sunrise is one of the supremely transcendent visual poems of movie history, a movie that, once seen, is never forgotten; The Trip to Tilsit, well-made as it is, is just a mundane Teutonic soap opera. Historian and Cinevent regular Richard M. Roberts dismissed it as “the Nazi Sunrise“, and that just about nails it. (Director Harlan was an ardent Nazi who joined the party in 1933 and prospered during the ’30s turning out propaganda for Josef Goebbels, culminating in the viciously anti-Semitic Jew Suss in 1940.)

One more point of interest about The Trip to Tilsit. Playing the philandering husband (and also good) was a Dutch actor named Hein van der Niet, billed as Frits von Dongen. Unlike his director, van der Niet fled the Nazis at the outbreak of World War II and wound up in Hollywood working as a freelance actor under the name Philip Dorn. He was Hal Wallis’s first choice to play Victor Laszlo in Casablanca — personally, I say it’s a pity he didn’t — but he had already signed for Random Harvest at MGM and the scheduling wouldn’t work. No telling how Dorn’s career might have gone if he had done Casablanca instead of Paul Henreid, but as it was he still managed to rack up a pretty good career — Ziegfeld Girl, Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, Calling Dr. Gillespie, Passage to Marseilles and The Fighting Kentuckian, among others (he was especially fine as Irene Dunne’s husband in I Remember Mama) — before ill-health forced his retirement in 1955. He died in Los Angeles 20 years later, age 73.

 Every-Night-at-eightAfter “the Nazi Sunrise” it was back to Hollywood and the English language for Every Night at Eight (1935), a well-above-average musical from Paramount. George Raft and Alice Faye (on loan from 20th Century Fox) were top-billed, but the prime role went to radio singer Frances Langford, in her feature debut. Alice and Frances played two of three pals (the third was Patsy Kelly) seeking and finding radio stardom with bandleader Raft. Raoul Walsh, better known for movies like High Sierra, They Died With Their Boots On and White Heat, directed at a lively pace, and there was a bunch of first-rate songs, two of which are still with us: “I Feel a Song Comin’ On” and “I’m in the Mood for Love”.

This-Day-and-Age…And then came Cecil B. DeMille’s This Day and Age (1933). Talk about a curiosity! Richard Cromwell plays the leader of a group of high school students who get appointed to ceremonial positions in city government — judge, chief of police, district attorney, etc. — as a way to give them an on-the-job view of how the grownups run things. When a friend of theirs is murdered by a local gangster (Charles Bickford) who gets off scot-free thanks to an oily high-priced attorney, the kids take over the government for real, kidnapping the gangster and torturing a confession out of him (“We haven’t got time for rules of evidence!”), after which the adults see the error of their ways. The trauma of the Great Depression spawned more than one movie like this — check out a little oddity called Gabriel Over the White House (’33) sometime — movies where audiences could vent their frustrtion with “the System” by vicariously experiencing things they’d never get away with (or seriously contemplate) in real life.
I’m going to cut this post short in the interest of getting it up. But stay tuned; we’re not even halfway through the weekend, and there’s more where this came from.

To be continued…


A-a-a-and We’re Back…!

It’s been way too long — over a year-and-a-half — since I posted anything new here at Cinedrome. I want to apologize for that. I won’t overstate the concerns and conditions that led me to suspend blogging. Nor will I exaggerate the number of posts I began and never got around to finishing. But there have been some of both.

Be that as it may, I’ve had my necessary vacation and I feel rested, refreshed, and ready to soldier on. So with that, I file the following report on the 48th Annual Cinevent Classic Film Convention in Columbus, Ohio.

This was Cinevent’s second year in its new home, Columbus’s Renaissance Downtown Hotel. The convention’s previous, longtime venue, which had changed hands and names several times over the decades, closed suddenly — and permanently — in February 2015, only three months before that year’s Cinevent. Which, with an undertaking of this scale, qualifies as “at the last minute”. The Cinevent Committee had to scramble madly to find another venue, and by the grace of a merciful Providence the Renaissance was available. Better yet, the new place proved to be a step above the old one. Did I say a step? Actually, the new place is about three flights above the old one: superior accommodations, a better screening room with more comfortable chairs, a bigger dealers’ room, everything centrally located on one floor — and the hotel itself centrally located in a much better neighborhood, one block from the Ohio State House, with plenty of good restaurants nearby.

The Renaissance is now, as I said, Cinevent’s new home — but it wasn’t available for Memorial Day Weekend this year, so the get-together was delayed a week to June 2 – 5. Next year (the contract has already been signed) they’ll be going back to Memorial Day.

Cinevent 2016, Day 1

The first day featured a screening of King Vidor’s classic slice of life The Crowd (1928), one of the greatest pictures of the silent era — and probably one of the top 40 or 50 of all time. The Crowd is readily available on video and pops up regularly on Turner Classic Movies. Much harder to find — incredibly rare, as a matter of fact — was a program of all-but-lost comedy shorts from Fox Film Corp. For me, the highlights of the first day were Melody Cruise, a 1933 comedy starring Charlie Ruggles and Phil Harris (in his movie debut, 30-plus years before voicing Baloo the Bear in Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book); and The House of Rothschild (1934), from Darryl F. Zanuck’s fledgling 20th Century Pictures.

And by an astonishing coincidence, those happen to be the two pictures at this year’s Cinevent for which I supplied the program notes. And here they are:


Melody Cruise (1933)  With a title like Melody Cruise and a leading man like Phil Harris, you can be forgiven if you expect this picture to be one uninterrupted songfest. Well, it’s not exactly, so you’ll be wise to dial those expectations back a bit so you can join in the fun. It’s not really a musical — a “comedy with songs” would be a better term. But director Mark Sandrich — who was finally, after six years directing shorts for various studios, beginning to graduate once and for all to features — assembles the picture with an intuitive sense of musical rhythm that would come to full bloom in his partnership with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Melody Cruise concerns a trip by sea from New York through the Panama Canal to Los Angeles undertaken by two men, both well-to-do and each with an eye for the ladies: Pete Wells (Charlie Ruggles), a married man best described as a “male flirt”; and Alan Chandler (Phil Harris), a confirmed bachelor who loves to romance the fair sex but is (in the words of one of the movie’s semi-songs) “not the marrying kind.” In order to avoid any possibility of being waylaid into matrimony, Alan dispatches a letter to Pete’s wife in California “to be opened only in the event of my marriage” and detailing all of Pete’s marital indiscretions while husband and wife were on separate coasts; this, Alan figures, will give Pete a vested interest in scotching any shipboard romances that his bachelor pal may fall into.

Ah, but the best-laid plans…No sooner does the ship leave the pier than Alan meets winsome Laurie Marlowe (Helen Mack), and this bachelor suddenly finds himself feeling much less confirmed. Throw in an old flame of Alan’s who is also aboard (Greta Nissen), and a couple of randy party girls from Pete’s bon voyage celebration who linger in his stateroom after the vessel sails (June Brewster, Shirley Chambers), and the ingredients of an old-fashioned farce of misunderstandings and mistaken identity are in place, and the voyage promises to be a busy one for all concered.

The plot of this RKO pre-Code may be tissue-thin, but the execution gives it a gloss of frivolous fun. We can detect the influence of the previous year’s Love Me Tonight (from over at Paramount) right off the bat, as passengers in a shipping office negotiate for their respective cruises in a sort of recitative of rhyming dialogue, while the underlying music suggests a melody for their words that would become a song if anyone wanted to sing (the songs are credited to Val Burton and Will Jason). It happens again later as the ship sets sail, with the activities of the crew carefully choreographed to Max Steiner’s music, and later still as the ladies aboard (look sharp and you’ll catch a glimpse of 16-year-old Betty Grable) gossip about Alan Chandler in “He’s Not the Marrying Kind”. And in the picture’s one full-fledged song, sung by Phil Harris to Helen Mack as their ship waits its turn at the moonlit Panama Canal, both the title (“Isn’t It a Night for Love?”) and the staging are redolent of “Isn’t It Romantic?” from Love Me Tonight.

Making his screen debut here (if you don’t count an uncredited background bit as a nightclub drummer in 1929’s Why Be Good? with Colleen Moore), Phil Harris is younger, sleeker and smoother than the big loveable galoot we all remember from Jack Benny’s radio program and movies like The Wild Blue Yonder (1948) and The High and the Mighty (1954). Later on in 1933, he and director Sandrich would collaborate on the short So This Is Harris!, which would go on to win an Oscar for best comedy short subject.

Melody Cruise got an indulgent recpetion from the critics. Variety’s “Rush” found it “just a well-rehearsed trifle, padded out unmercifully with incidentals, atmosphere and other embroideries”, but allowed that “photography and technical production are better than first class, becoming notable for excellence at many points” — an apparent nod to the many whimsical screen-wipes Sandrich and conematographer Bert Glennon use to transition from scene ot scene. Likewise Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times, who called it “an adroit mixture of nonsense and music which makes for an excellent Summer show…It is, however, not the singing or the clowning that makes this a smart piece of work, but the imaginative direction of Mark Sandrich, who is alert in seizing any opportunity for cinematic stunts. From the viewpoint of direction this production is quite an achievement, for there are moments when it has a foreign aspect and there is some extraordinarily clever photography.”

House of Rothschild LC02cThe House of Rothschild (1934)  At the beginning of 1933, Darryl F. Zanuck was head of production at Warner Bros., the man behind The Jazz Singer, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, 42nd Street, and other seminal pictures of Warners’ pre-Code era. On April 15, Zanuck abruptly resigned. As might be expected — especially with Warner Bros. — it was due to a dispute over money.  For once, though, it wasn’t Zanuck’s money that was being disputed. Zanuck had reluctantly agreed to be the bearer of the bad news when the brothers imposed temporary studio-wide pay cuts in the wake of FDR’s bank holiday in March ’33. When studio chief Jack Warner decided to extend the cuts beyond the agreed-upon end date, Zanuck felt that he (Warner) had broken his (Zanuck’s) word to the employees. Harsh words flew, and Zanuck took a walk.
Zanuck wasn’t idle long. Three days later he consulted Joseph Schenck, president of United Artists, for advice on some job offers he was considering. Schenck made an offer of his own: the two of them should go into business together. Schenck secured a loan from his brother Nicholas, president of Loew’s Inc., and 20th Century Pictures was born — with Schenck as president, William Goetz (son-in-law of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who also put up some money) as vice president, and Zanuck as production chief.
The new concern hit the ground running. One of Zanuck’s first moves was to sign contracts with stars George Arliss and Loretta Young, whose contracts with Warner Bros. had just recently expired. That must have been a source of grim satisfaction to Zanuck.
It certainly rankled Harry Warner, who filed a protest with Will Hays of the MPPDA complaining that the creation of 20th Century was a deliberate, unethical slap in the face to Warner Bros, financed by loans from MGM’s Nick Schenck and L.B. Mayer and poaching Warners’ empoyees — particularly Arliss and Young. Joe Schenck got wind of Harry’s letter and filed his own rebuttal: neither Arliss nor Young, he wrote, had signed with 20th Century until after their Warners contracts expired. As for where Schenck got his financing, “it is absolutely none of [Harry Warner’s] business.”
Arliss and Young’s first project for 20th Century was The House of Rothschild. Arliss played the dual role of Mayer Rothschild, patriarch of the clan in 1780, and 32 years later, Mayer’s eldest son Nathan, who with his four brothers secured the family’s fabulous wealth by backing the right side in the Napoleonic Wars. Loretta played Nathan’s daughter Julie, who visits consternation on her devoutly Jewish father by falling in love with a Gentile officer in the Duke of Wellington’s army, a young captain played by Robert Young (no relation, of course).
George Arliss was, like his contemporary Marie Dressler, one of the most unusual movie stars of the 1920s and ’30s — neither handsome nor young, but charming and witty, with a twinkling eye that nicely complemented and softened his typically English stiff upper lip. Born Augustus George Andrews in 1868, Arliss cut his teeth as an actor on British provincial stages in the days of Henry Irving and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. He made the transition from stage to screen with remarkable ease, and, thanks to his orotund elocutions, he moved just as easily from silents to talkies when sound came in. His signature stage role was as Queen Victoria’s favorite prime minister in Disraeli, which he filmed twice, as a silent in 1921 and a talkie eight years later (winning an Oscar the second time). Historical figures were a bit of a speciality — Disraeli and Alexander Hamilton before Nathan Rothschild, the Duke of Wellington and Cardinal Richelieu afterward — but, with appropriate changes in costume and hair style, they all semed to look and sound pretty much like George Arliss. That was good enough for audiences in the 1930s, and time hasn’t dimmed the old boy’s charm; it’s good enough for us today.
The House of Rothschild was directed by Alfred Werker, a reliable studio workhorse whose work was generally unobjectionable if undistinguished. According to the IMDb, some scenes were directed by the uncredited (and similarly reliable) Sidney Lanfield, though without combing the studio’s archives there’s no way of knowing which. Oddly enough — or perhaps it’s not so odd at that — both men would have their finest hours in 1939 directing Basil Rathbone’s first two outings as Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles (Lanfield) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Werker). The screen also credits, as “Associate Director”, Maude T. Howell, a member in good standing of Arliss’s informal support group on both stage and screen.
Written by Nunnally Johnson from a play by George Hembert Westley (real name George Hippisley, a humor writer and editor for the Boston Evening Transcript), House of Rothschild has the distinction of being one of the first movies (probably in fact the very first) to deal with the subject of anti-Semitism — this, mind you, just as the Nazis were coming to power in Germany. Nathan and his brothers deal with Jew-haters again and again, epitomized by Boris Karloff as the reptilian Count Ledrantz of Prussia and personified by the rioting mobs Ledrantz sets on the Jews in their ghettos all across Europe — until Napoleon’s escape from Elba puts Nathan once more in the financial driver’s seat. The picture was a powerful argument for tolerance in 1934, and it looks even more powerful today in light of what we now know was to come.
The House of Rothschild was a major hit and a succes d’estime for 20th Century, Oscar-nominated for best picture (it lost to It Happened One Night). Reviewers hailed it as one of the best pictures of George Arliss’s career, maybe even the very best — a judgment that holds up today. Variety’s “Land” called it “one of those occasional 100% smashes which Hollywood achieves.” In the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall enthused, “Mr. Arliss outshines any performance he has contributed to the screen, not excepting his expert and highly revealing interpretation of Disraeli.” In The New Yorker, even the perennially sniffy John Mosher concceded, “Mr. Arliss at last condescends to appear in a film of some maturity of purpose. His ‘House of Rothschild’ compares with his ‘Disraeli’ in quality as well as in the basic theme.” However, Mosher couldn’t forbear sniffing that the final scene was “soaked in abominable Technicolor for some mysterious reason.” The print we’re screening includes that scene in true IB Tech, so the Cinevent audience can judge for themselves the justice of Mr. Mosher’s complaint.
The first night was rounded out by Tomorrow at Ten, a British picture from 1962. Robert Shaw — already a veteran of British TV (The Buccaneers) and on the cusp of stardom that would come his way with From Russia With Love (’64) and A Man for All Seasons (’66) — plays Marlowe, a cold-eyed criminal who kidnaps a wealthy man’s little boy and stashes him in an isolated, anonymous rented house with a little “golliwog” doll to keep him company. Then he brazenly walks into the boy’s home and demands 50,000 pounds sterling and free passage to Brazil. Only then will he phone the father and reveal the boy’s location.
Inevitably, the police are called in, but Marlowe is unruffled. His trump card: that golliwog doll is a time bomb, and it’s set to go off the next morning at ten a.m. How all this plays out, especially after Marlowe dies without disclosing the boy’s whereabouts, makes for a nifty little thriller, a rare (for Americans) look at a British B-picture. (This one, unlike most British Bs, got a stateside release in 1965, after Shaw had made a name for himself with U.S. audiences in From Russia With Love, playing a role very similar to Marlowe.) It was a good way to close out the first day of Cinevent.
And the weekend was only beginning.

A Weekend With David O. Selznick


Over the weekend of Sept. 27 – 28, I had an opportunity to revisit two of my favorite David O. Selznick pictures. On Sunday the 28th it was the Turner Classic Movies two-day-only theatrical reissue of Gone With the Wind. I’m sure many of my Cinedrome readers (among others) availed themselves of that one — at least, if the size of the audience I saw it with is any indication.

On Saturday the 27th, however, the reunion was more private: a family-and-friends home screening of 1938’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I’ll be spending most of this post talking about that one, because…well, of all the terms you might use to describe Gone With the Wind, “neglected classic” is certainly not one of them.

Some years ago, my friend John McElwee over at Greenbriar Picture Shows posted on Tom Sawyer here and here. “Does anyone else share my longstanding affection for this show?” John asked rhetorically. In the comments I replied, “Good heavens, doesn’t everyone share it?”

Well, apparently not; in David O. Selznick’s Hollywood Ron Haver dismissed it as “basically old fashioned and slightly dull”, and it has little of the latter-day respect accorded other Selznick pictures such as Nothing Sacred or the original A Star Is Born. Still, John and I aren’t entirely alone; Leonard Maltin gives Tom Sawyer three-and-a-half stars, and I have anecdotal evidence aplenty of the picture’s enduring ability to please any crowd.

In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that Selznick’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is just about the best movie ever made from any story by Mark Twain. (For the record, I’d give a close-second place to Warner Bros.’ 1937 The Prince and the Pauper, and an equally close third to 1960’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Eddie Hodges and Archie Moore.) 

But back to Tom Sawyer. Selznick originally hoped to shoot the picture in Technicolor, but there were no Tech cameras available. So instead, he began shooting in March 1937 in black and white, with H.C. Potter directing. Shooting proceeded in fits and starts until July, when Technicolor cameras unexpectedly became free; Selznick closed down production, had the location sets all repainted, replaced some cast members (Beulah Bondi was out as Aunt Polly, May Robson in), and brought Norman Taurog in to direct (Potter having walked off, exasperated with Selznick’s incessant kibitzing). The final negative cost, John McElwee tells us, was $1.2 million — some sources say as high as $1.5 million, but I trust John on things like this. Anyhow, whatever the cost, it was astronomical for the time, especially for a picture with no battle scenes, no production numbers, and no scenes using more than maybe 50 or 60 extras. (As a very broad rule of thumb, multiply any figures from this era by about 100 to get an idea of the cost in today’s dollars.) The bottom line: despite some glowing reviews and high hopes, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer broke nowhere near even, losing some $302,000 — probably more than the picture would have cost if it had been produced anywhere but at Selznick International.

The picture got a handful of reissues over the years, both before and after Selznick sold it off (along with the rest of his library) during his cash-strapped 1940s — the poster above is from one of those reissues — and that’s how I first saw it in 1958; my father, with fond memories of having seen it back in ’38, took the whole family to see it at the Vogue Theatre in Pittsburg, Calif. My brother was only four years old at the time, and I still remember his reaction: He sat down with a bag of M&Ms from the snack bar, took one out ready to pop it in his mouth, looked up at the screen, and was instantly hooked. As the movie ended and the lights came up, he was sitting there with that first M&M still between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand (and no, it hadn’t melted).

Today that four-year-old has 13 grandchildren of his own, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain’s original book) has been working its way through the family. My brother read it, and my sister-in-law, and their daughter has been reading it to her three kids. This prompted a groundswell of requests for a family screening of my 16mm print, which I last screened some six or eight years ago, before many of the kids were born. So I scheduled the screening for September 27, and got out my print to see what sort of shape it was in.

And here I have to discuss the color in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Selznick’s movie) — in general, and in my print in particular.

Selznick was an early proponent of Technicolor — any other producer in the world would have made Nothing Sacred, The Garden of Allah or A Star Is Born in black and white, and even his closest associates thought Technicolor for Gone With the Wind was a needless extravagance. But Selznick was convinced that Technicolor would increase the reissue value of his pictures. He was absolutely right, of course — but what he failed to anticipate was that he wouldn’t be the one reissuing them. When he sold his library off in the 1940s — he even let MGM buy his interest in Gone With the Wind (which is why Metro ever after presented GWTW as if they had produced it) — the rights didn’t always go to people willing to spring for striking new Technicolor prints. Nothing Sacred and A Star Is Born were issued in the ’40s in prints by the inferior Cinecolor process, with “In Technicolor” on the title frame either blacked out or overprinted with “In Color”.
I don’t know what was used for the 1958 reissue where I first saw Tom; the color looked okay to me at the time, but I was only a kid; what did I know? In any event, it would appear that no IB Technicolor 16mm prints of the picture were ever struck — anyhow, I’ve never seen or heard of one. My uncle used to have an Eastman print with decent color that turned and faded over time — but not before he had the chance to screen it for a couple of generations of his and my aunt’s elementary school students. (He even wrote to David O. Selznick once, letting him know how the picture continued to entertain children, and received a reply only a few months before Selznick’s death in 1965: “Dear Mr. Lane, Thank you for your letter…I was naturally very pleased.”)

The second (and, so far, last) time I saw The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a theater was at the Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif. in the late 1980s. Now the Stanford is operated by the Stanford Theatre Foundation, which is headed by David W. Packard (son of the founder of Hewlett-Packard) and has contributed millions in cash and resources to the cause of film preservation. Consequently, the Stanford is on excellent terms with film archives all over the country. Any time a picture plays the Stanford, you can rest assured that you’ll be seeing the very best available print.

So it didn’t bode well that the print I saw that night in 1989 was a slightly red-shifted Eastman print. Oh dear, I thought. Could it be that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was one of those pictures that hasn’t survived in Technicolor at all? (No, as it turned out. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

My own 16mm print, when I acquired it about ten years ago, was yet another Eastman print, and the color was distinctly faded. Also, over the years and reissues the running time had been whittled down from 93 to 77 minutes; my print ran 79. When I scheduled the family screening for last month, I hadn’t looked at it in years, so I cranked up the projector to see what condition it was in. Bad news — the color was pretty much shot, and in some scenes even the image was going fast. This print would do, but only in a terrible pinch — so I decided to shop around and see what else I could find.

To make a long story short — if it’s not already too late for that — I found two DVDs. One was a Region 2 British DVD, the other a transfer from South Korea (that one defaulted to Korean subtitles, but through the miracle of DVD I could turn those off). Why this quintessentially American story is available on DVD in Great Britain and South Korea, of all places, but not in the United States is one of those vagaries of video that defy explanation, but there it is. (In any case, it’s a powerful argument for owning a region-free player.)

Either one of these DVDs was a huge improvement over my 16mm
print, but the difference between the discs themselves was like night and day.  The South Korean disc, in fact, might almost have been made from the print I saw in Palo Alto: it had the same red-shifted, high contrast image. The British DVD, on the other hand, must surely have been transferred from the restoration Disney made when they gained control of the picture in the early 1990s (see Part 2 of John McElwee’s post for details of that restoration). So to answer the question I asked myself that night in Palo Alto: No, the Technicolor Tom Sawyer is not lost; it still exists — if only on DVD. Here are some frame-caps comparing the two transfers, South Korea on the left and UK on the right:

beckttomleftW   tombeckyrightW

First, here’s Tom (Tommy Kelly) and Becky Thatcher’s (Ann Gillis) first after-school “date”. Notice the increased detail and texture, especially in the hill behind them and the creek under their feet, and the purer fleshtones. Notice, too, in all these frames that the Korean disc crops the image along all four edges.

Below, Tom and Joe Harper (Mickey Rentschler, left) play pirate on their island in the Mississippi, unaware that the folks back home believe they’ve been drowned. As in that frame above with Tom and Becky, the grass is a whole lot greener (and the sky less purple) in true Technicolor.

tomnJimleftW tomhuckrightW

Below, Becky and Tom on the way to the school outing where they’ll become lost in the cave (superbly designed by William Cameron Menzies and built on a soundstage at the Selznick studios). This shot is a particularly dramatic illustration of the difference between the two discs, both in the quality of the color and the size of the image, as is…

tomnbeckyleftW   tomnbeckyrightW
…this one of the crowd at the party celebrating Tom and Becky’s rescue.
SawyercrowdleftW   SawyercrowdrightW
Both discs, I believe, are complete — at least, they’re more complete than my 16mm print. But neither of them has the original 93-minute running time. Not only that, but while they appear to be identical, the South Korean disc runs 90 min. 46 sec., the British disc 86 min. 45 sec.


As you can no doubt gather from those frame comparisons, the British DVD was the way to go, so I put the 16mm projector back in the closet and got out my Epson Powerlite 6100. That old 16mm print of mine I junked; it had long outlived its usefulness. The night of the 27th my family and friends were treated to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer looking better than it has in years; for myself, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it looking as good as it does on that Region 2 DVD from the United Kingdom. If you’re in the market, accept no substitutes. There are a number of Hollywood classics that are available only in Region 2 DVDs, but for my money, this disc alone justifies the expense of buying a region-free player. (Alternatively, Region 2 DVDs will play on most computers.)

Tom Sawyer, like most of Selznick’s literary adaptations from Little Women to Gone With the Wind, is a perfect illustration of his dictum that it’s less important to film an entire novel than to give the impression that you’ve done so. Mark Twain’s book is loosely constructed and episodic, almost a collection of short stories rather than a unified novel. John V.A. Weaver’s script picks and chooses episodes both for how well they express the spirit of Twain and how they form a solid dramatic arc, building to Tom’s climactic showdown in the cave with Injun Joe (Victor Jory) and his struggle up the rocks to the light and safety (two moments that aren’t in Twain’s book, but which fit neatly into the movie).

The casting and performances are spot-on right down the line. Beulah Bondi was closer to the physical description of Aunt Polly in Twain, but it’s hard to imagine her improving on what May Robson does with the role. Robson perfectly captures the stern-yet-tender heart of Aunt Polly, a remarkable tightrope-walk for an actress to pull off. (By the way, here’s a Fun Fact: Do you know what distinction May Robson, who was nominated for best actress for 1933’s Lady for a Day, has among Academy Award nominees? She’s the only one who was born before the American Civil War, on April 19, 1858. Obviously, that record will stand forever.)

Right smack in the middle of all these perfectly cast veterans — Walter Brennan, Victor Jory, Donald Meek, Olin Howland, Victor Kilian, Frank McGlynn Sr. — there’s one of those little miracles that come along once in a great while: 12-year-old Tommy Kelly as Tom. The son of an unemployed Bronx firefighter, he had never acted before — and truth to tell, in time his acting skills would prove to be extremely limited. But that hardly matters here; he simply is Tom Sawyer — it’s as simple as that. Despite his inexperience, he is center-screen in almost every scene and carries the picture with natural ease. It’s one of those incredibly rare moments when exactly the right person for a role came along, seemingly out of nowhere, at exactly the right time in his life to play it. I’m pleased to report that at this writing, Tommy Kelly is still with us at 89, as are Ann Gillis (Becky Thatcher, now 87) and Cora Sue Collins (Amy Lawrence, also 87).

So how did my screening go over? Like gangbusters, as I knew it would because it always has. None of the kids had ever seen it, and it was a revelation to all of them. I know that in years to come they’ll cherish the movie as a fond childhood memory — as their grandfather and I do, and as our father did before us, and all those grade-schoolers in my uncle and aunt’s classrooms over the years. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that never seems to age, thanks to Technicolor (now brilliantly restored) and a quaint, old-fashioned style that meshes perfectly with the 19th century nostalgia that infused Mark Twain’s book in the first place.

*                    *                    *



Then on the next day, Sunday the 28th, it was Gone With the Wind, which I hadn’t seen in a theater since its 50th anniversary reissue in 1989.

The day may come when I have something to say about Gone With the Wind that hasn’t already been said far better by somebody else. But this is not that day. Instead, I’ll just take this opportunity to mention a new book on the subject, and here it is: The Making of Gone With the Wind by Steve Wilson.

Now I will confess that when I heard of this book, the first thing I thought was, “Oh great, just what we need, another book about the making of Gone With the Wind!” And I wasn’t particularly impressed with the book’s cover, with its monochrome image washed in thin blue and green of Vivien Leigh peeking out through the “O” in “GONE” while she grabs a quick cigarette between takes on the set — I mean, was there ever a book cover that conveyed less of a sense of the movie it’s supposed to be about?

So much for gripes and quibbles. I was wrong. No matter how many books on Gone With the Wind you’ve read or thumbed through, this one eclipses them all. It’s actually the companion volume to an exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center, an archive, library and museum complex on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. The exhibition is running now through January 4, 2015, and it draws from the Center’s massive David O. Selznick archive consisting of 5,000 boxes of documents and photographs and millions of feet of film. Steve Wilson, the book’s author, is curator of the Center’s film collection, and the book takes us step by step through the three-and-a-half years from the day Selznick bought the rights to Margaret Mitchell’s novel to the night the picture swept the 1939 Academy Awards. We see everything from the nationwide talent-search-cum-publicity-tour through shooting (presented chronologically as it was shot), editing, previews, everything. And all of it is illustrated with newspaper clippings, letters, telexes, telegrams, memos, call sheets, concept paintings, makeup and costume tests, notes, set photos, matte paintings, sheet music, maps — you name it, all of them reproduced in their original colors (or lack of them) on high-quality glossy paper.

I thought of scanning a sampling of some of the illustrations and posting them here, but that way lies madness — once I started I’d never be able to stop. Instead, just check out the link to the Harry Ransom Center above, or this link to the Center’s Web exhibit on the movie. That’ll show you more than I could ever post here. After that, just see if this isn’t a book you have to have. At the very least, it’s easier and less expensive than trying to squeeze in a trip to Austin between now and January 4.


A Mystery Photo

I’m preparing a post now on my recent David O. Selznick weekend, but before I get to that, an intriguing mystery has come up.

Here is a photograph I picked up two days ago in an antique shop in Ashland, Oregon. The proprietor of the shop wasn’t able to tell me any more about it than I was able to deduce from looking at it — in fact, much of what he told me was at a variance from what I did deduce.

In the bottom left corner of the photo is a handwritten inscription:

To my dear friend
Sadie Thompson
John Barrymore
On the back the photo is stamped, in letters ranging from one-quarter inch to one inch high:
11 WEST 42nd ST.
Above the stamp is handwritten in pencil: “Larchmont Yacht Club 1930”. Next to the date, also in pencil but sideways, is the number “13” in a circle.
The shop owner asserted that the signature reads “John Berryman”, but it clearly says “John Barrymore”. I got the distinct impression that the name John Barrymore meant absolutely nothing to him. 
I was able to find online several examples of John Barrymore’s autograph, and it must be admitted that most of them bear only a slight resemblance to the signature on the photo. However, most of them appear to have been scrawled in haste, no doubt as Barrymore was accosted on the street or in a restaurant and asked to sign someone’s autograph book; the photo, on the other hand, appears to have been inscribed at leisure and with some care. Personally, I’m satisfied that this is an authentic John Barrymore autograph — because I’m satisfied that the man in the photo is John Barrymore himself. Grotesquely made up, granted, but still easily recognizable.
The shop owner had the photo labeled “Vaudeville Photo 1920’s” and said it was of two vaudevillians in their stage costumes. I disagree. To me, there can be no doubt that the photo was taken at a costume party at the famous Larchmont Yacht Club in Westchester County, NY sometime during 1930 — Halloween, perhaps.
As for the inscription to “my dear friend Sadie Thompson” — well, that can only refer to the central character in Rain, the play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph based on W. Somerset Maugham’s story “Miss Thompson”; the idea that Barrymore, or anybody else for that matter, actually knew somebody by that name is patently far-fetched. It’s far more likely that this is a playful inscription to an actress who had played Sadie Thompson. By 1930 there were only two such actresses. The first was Jeanne Eagels, who created the role on Broadway in 1922, toured with the show for two years, then returned with it to Broadway for another run of a year and a half. But Jeanne Eagels died in October 1929; obviously the photo was not inscribed to her. That leaves Gloria Swanson, who starred in the 1928 silent picture Sadie Thompson. Was this photo a gift from Barrymore to his “dear friend” Gloria? Or did he have some other “dear friend” whom he identified with Maugham’s notorious good-time gal as a private joke?
And the final mystery: Who is the woman in the picture? It’s not Dolores Costello, to whom Barrymore was married in 1930. Nor is it Gloria Swanson, America’s only living Sadie Thompson.
Does anybody have any ideas? Comments and speculations are welcome.

 Update 10/11/14, 11:05 pm:

Today I received this picture from historian Richard M. Roberts, who states conclusively — and I’m convinced — that my picture isn’t John Barrymore after all. Richard’s message: 

Hello Jim,

I saw your Cinedrome blog today about your alleged
Barrymore pic and I am really going to hate to be the bearer of bad news here,
but it is not a picture of John Barrymore, nor of his autograph.

Attached is a copy of a carefully inscribed and
autographed picture of John Barrymore, a good sample of the actor’s actual
signature, and you will see that the signature and handwriting on your picture
is nothing like it. Barrymore’s script was much more flamboyant, he was both an
actor and an artist (as in sketching) don’t forget. The fellow in your picture
also has a much longer and slimmer neck than Barrymore, nor are the eyes and
eyebrows right.

The inscription is obviously meant to be ironic and
sarcastic in a friendly way, meant to imply that the woman is being saucier
than she actually is, and that the man is a more important actor than he is,
but neither name is meant to be the actual names of the people involved. They
most likely are two vaudevillians, probably husband and wife, but I have no
idea who they actually are.

Hope you are well, I always enjoy your blog and look
forward to seeing you at Cinevent next year.



Many thanks for getting in touch, Richard; I had a hunch — no, I knew — you’d be able to shed light on the subject. Now that I compare the pictures directly, I can see that the ears are wrong too.

The picture remains a mystery, of course: Who are these people, and what — if anything — did they have to do with the Larchmont Yacht Club? Maybe New York socialites slumming as showbiz types for a party at the club?

Speculations remain welcome…

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 14


And so we come to the endgame of the Shirley Temple Phenomenon. It’s the summer of 1939; Shirley is 11 years old — though she and the rest of the world still think she’s only ten — and she’s bumping up against a principle that won’t even be articulated until 1997: what critic Louis Menand called “The Iron Law of Stardom”. In a New Yorker article by that title published in March ’97, Menand posited his “Iron Law” as one of the immutable laws of the universe, like gravity or the speed of light. Put simply, the Iron Law is this: stardom never lasts more than three years. Menand was careful, however, to distinguish between “stardom” and “being a star”. Once a star, always a star, he said, but actual stardom is something else — “the period of inevitability, the time when everything works in a way that makes you think it will work that way forever…the intersection of personality with history, a perfect congruence of the way the world happens to be and the way the star is.” Thus, Menand explained, Elizabeth Taylor remained a star all her life by virtue of being the person who was Elizabeth Taylor from 1963 (Cleopatra) to 1966 (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and Al Pacino remains a star as the person who was Al Pacino from 1972 (The Godfather) to 1975 (Dog Day Afternoon).

By this reasoning, and with hindsight, we can see that Shirley in 1939 fits the pattern. She remains a star, but it’s by virtue of being the person who was Shirley Temple from 1934 (Little Miss Marker and Bright Eyes) to 1937 (Wee Willie Winkie and Heidi). Nineteen-forty will round out not only the decade, but her reign atop the box office and her career at 20th Century Fox as well.


The Blue Bird

(released January 19, 1940)

BB-mag ad01aAThe Blue Bird was Shirley’s second brush with a Nobel Prize winner, after Rudyard Kipling and Wee Willie Winkie. Belgian poet, essayist and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (1862 – 1949) was a leading proponent of the Symbolist movement in European art and literature of the late 19th century. His most influential and commercially successful play was probably Pelleas and Melisande (1893), a doomed-lovers tragedy that inspired numerous operas, all of which are performed these days far more often than the original play.

A close second to that, however, would have to be The Blue Bird, which was an immediate hit when it premiered at Konstantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre in 1908. When Maeterlinck won the Nobel Prize in 1911 “in appreciation of his many-sided literary activities, and especially of his dramatic works,” the citation explicitly mentioned “a poetic fancy, which reveals, sometimes in the guise of a fairy tale, a deep inspiration”. This could only have been a reference to The Blue Bird, which was then sweeping the world and would have been prominent in the minds of the Swedish Academy (in those days, commercial success was not considered a disadvantage when Nobel Prize time rolled around).

The Blue Bird recounts the many adventures of the boy Tyltyl (“til-til”) and his little sister Mytyl (“mee-til”), the children of a poor woodcutter somewhere in Central Europe. One night the children are roused from sleep by a bent and withered old woman who, changing shape, is revealed as a beautiful fairy named Berylune. The fairy dispatches the two on a quest to find the Blue Bird of Happiness, in which they are to be accompanied by their dog and cat, both of whom are magically given human shape for the occasion. Also accompanying them, and also in human form, are the spirits of Bread, Water, Milk, Fire and Light. The children’s search takes them to many fanciful places — the palace of Berylune, which once belonged to the infamous Bluebeard; the Palace of Night, deep underground; the Graveyard of the Happy Dead, where they are briefly reunited with their late grandparents and seven brothers and sisters who all died in childhood; the Palace of Happiness, where luxuries and joys abound; and the Kingdom of the Future, where they meet children waiting to be born, all of whom have a knowledge of their destiny that they will lose once they begin their earthly lives (Tyltyl and Mytyl even meet their own future little brother, who already knows that he too will die in infancy). In the final scene Tyltyl and Mytyl awaken back in their own beds; their parents think they have only slept through the night, but the children know better — how could both have had the same dream? Whether dream or magic, their quest has failed, they never did find the elusive bird they sought. Then, to their surprise, they see that the Blue Bird is right there in their own house, and was there all along. At the very end the bird flies away, and Tyltyl turns to the audience and says, “If any of you  should find him, would you be so very kind as to give him back to us?…We need him for our happiness, later on….”

My memory of Maeterlinck’s play is unfortunately sketchy; it’s been more than 40 years since I read it, and I wouldn’t read it again if you held a gun to my brother’s head. I found it to be long, turgid and utterly pointless, and it calls for spectacular effects that might have been wonderful to look at but make awfully dry reading (given the state of stagecraft in 1908, Stanislavski’s set designers, carpenters and stage managers must have been tearing their hair as opening night drew near). The play was a great success in the first and second decades of the last century, no doubt because the fantastic effects it calls for made for quite a wondrous spectacle to behold. But after that first flush of success and the afterglow of the Nobel Prize, its charm quickly evaporated.

The reason isn’t hard to figure out. Despite its elaborate settings and special effects, and characters symbolic of everything under the sun, The Blue Bird simply has no story. Why do Tyltyl and Mytyl undertake this convoluted journey? Why don’t they just tell the old hag to get lost, then roll over and go back to sleep? The kids have nothing at stake in this quest; they’re just gallivanting around in Maeterlinck’s head. In The Wizard of Oz — to cite an example that will come up more than once in the course of this post — what Dorothy and her companions are after is crystal-clear, and there’s never any doubt what’s at stake. That’s why The Blue Bird hasn’t been staged in 90 years, and is never even read except under duress by hapless students in university drama classes — while L. Frank Baum’s tale still sells thousands of copies every year.

With all that said, 20th Century Fox’s 1940 version of The Blue Bird has been given a bum rap over the years. The main thrust of the rap is that The Blue Bird was Fox’s attempt to duplicate the success of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (this has also fed the myth that Shirley “lost” the role of Dorothy). It would be closer to the truth to say that both pictures were attempts to duplicate the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (In which, by the way, both failed. The Blue Bird, in Time Magazine’s inevitable snark line, “laid an egg”, but Oz didn’t do much better, either with the critics or at the box office; it was voted “Most Colossal Flop” of 1939 by the Harvard Lampoon, and it took 16 years and two reissues for the picture to turn a profit.)

Now let’s stipulate right up front that The Blue Bird is nowhere near the same league as The Wizard of Oz — but what movie is? Of all the many differences between them, the most basic one, and the one that most redounds to the advantage of The Wizard of Oz, is that MGM was adapting L. Frank Baum while 20th Century Fox was adapting Maurice Maeterlinck.

Or trying to. The Blue Bird‘s greatest faults are inherent in Maeterlinck’s play; this was one case where Fox might have been justified in jettisoning everything but the title. Instead, Ernest Pascal’s script made an honest effort (with moderate success) to streamline, simplify and motivate the wild excesses of Maeterlinck’s fantasy. First, merely as a practical matter, the birth order of the lead siblings was reversed, making Mytyl (Shirley) the older and Tyltyl (Johnny Russell) the younger. The size of their expedition was streamlined, with their only companions being the cat Tylette (Gale Sondergaard, right) and dog Tylo (Eddie Collins, next to her). Of Maeterlinck’s five spirits, only Light remained (played by Helen Ericson), and she served, logically enough, as the children’s guide on their quest. (The group is shown here as they set out, with Jessie Ralph as Berylune on the left.)
Pascal also attempted to motivate the quest by making Mytyl something of a brat, selfish, petulant and malcontented. She whines in an early scene about how unhappy she is — so it makes some sense for her to strike out, dragging her kid brother behind, looking for that Blue Bird. It also adds meaning to her return home — when, as the saying goes, she truly knows the place for the first time, and finds that the Blue Bird of Happiness has been there waiting for her all along, if only she would see it. This change (and it’s amazing, when you think about it, that Stanislavski didn’t suggest it to Maeterlinck in the first place) means that Mytyl and Tyltyl have been on a real journey from one psychological place to another, and not just running around all night getting into trouble.
Finally, Pascal simplified the children’s travels considerably. First they visit their late grandparents (Cecilia Loftus and Al Shean), who are awakened from their eternal slumber now that the children are thinking of them (all those dead brothers and sisters are mercifully dispensed with). This visit, bittersweet as it is, teaches Mytyl and Tyltyl that Happiness is not to be found in the Past, and they must regretfully move on, leaving Granny and Grandpa to resume their dreamless sleep.
Next, in a scene with no counterpart in Maetterlinck’s play, the children visit the home of Mr. and Mrs. Luxury (Nigel Bruce and Laura Hope Crews), two aging twits with far more money than brains, who unhesitatingly indulge their every shallow whim. At first the children are seduced by all the fancy clothes and fun to be had, but they come to realize that Happiness is not found in Things, and they escape (this despite the treachery of Tylette, who for feline reasons of her own tries to thwart them at every turn).
There follows another departure from Maeterlinck. After they escape from The Luxurys, the children must pass through a great forest. Tylette, hoping to rid herself of the children and thus gain her freedom, runs ahead of them and incites the trees (represented by Edwin Maxwell, Sterling Holloway and others) to avenge themselves on the children of the woodcutter who is always chopping them down. The trees take the bait, even calling on their old enemies lightning and fire — so eager are they to destroy the children that they willingly immolate themselves in a great forest fire. Tylette, however, has outsmarted herself; trying to lure the children to their doom, she is herself burned to death, and only the courageous efforts of the loyal Tylo enables the children to escape to safety. 
The fire is a highlight of The Blue Bird; even in this age of computer graphics when anything is possible and nothing is surprising, it is full of astonishing moments. This scene (the work, once again, of the great Fred Sersen) accounted for one of The Blue Bird‘s two Oscar nominations, for special effects. (The other was for Arthur Miller and Ray Rennahan’s Technicolor cinematography. In both categories The Blue Bird lost, and justifiably, to The Thief of Bagdad.) This forest fire would be the best scene in The Blue Bird if it weren’t for…
BB-Frame03aA-Kingdom of Future…the Kingdom of the Future, where (returning to Maeterlinck’s text) Mytyl and Tyltyl find countless children are waiting to be born. In this remarkable scene, which looks like something designed by Maxfield Parrish, Mytyl and Tyltyl wander among the eager throng, so amazed at what they see that they completely forget to look for the Blue Bird. They meet a little girl who joyfully greets them by name (Ann Todd, not to be confused with the British actress of the same name), telling them that she will be their little sister, “in a year perhaps.” Then she adds sadly, “I’ll only be with you a little while.” Mytyl and Tyltyl wander among children who are preparing for what will be their calling in life. One boy proudly displays the anesthetic he will discover; another tinkers with an electric light. Still another, solitary and melancholy, tells them his destiny is to fight against slavery, injustice and inequality — but people “won’t listen…they’ll destroy me.”
Then into the hall strides Father Time (Thurston Hall), coming to call those whose time it is to be born — including that melancholy fighter against injustice. (If this boy is who we think he is, it tells us that Mytyl and Tyltyl are visiting the Kingdom of the Future on February 11, 1809. A clincher, for those who notice such things, is composer Alfred Newman quoting a couple of bars from his score for John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln the year before.)
Father Time has to speak sharply to these young people (Dorothy Joyce and Tommy Baker). They knew this day would come, but they couldn’t help themselves — they’ve fallen in love. She begs to go with him (“Please, we love each other, and I shall be born too late.”) while he pleads to stay behind (“I will be gone before she comes down.”)
Time is implacable, and both lovers know they cannot choose. At last the boy tears himself away and the girl falls sobbing. Soulmates, they know they will never meet on earth, but will live their lives out in a cold, lonely world without ever understanding why.


The children whose time has come
board a graceful alabaster ship with
silver sails and the figurehead of a
swan. As the boat pulls away from
the quay into a golden sea and sky,
the children left behind, still awaiting
their turn, bid their friends a joyous
bon voyage. The departing passengers
fix their eyes on the far horizon, and
they sing:

To the world so far away
Sail we now at break of day.
Mothers waiting there below.
Do they hear us? Do they know?

From the unseen distance another song
can be heard — the song of the mothers
coming out to meet them.


BB-lovers collage01aA 
The last we see of the children — those on the ship
as well as those left behind — is a glimpse of each
of the two young lovers. First the boy — miserable,
downcast, the only one not singing…
…then the girl, the only one not waving a cheering farewell.
She lies awash in her own tears, knowing in her broken heart
that her life is over without ever having had a chance to begin.
As the ship sails into the golden mists, it is a journey begun
in lovers’ parting — lovers who are fated to be born, live, and
die, never to meet again this side of Heaven.
Before we move on, I want to pause to acknowledge this little girl. Her name is Caryll Ann Ekelund, and in The Blue Bird she plays a child who tries to sneak aboard the boat transporting children to be born. Father Time catches her — this is the third time she’s tried to be born before her time — and he scolds her gently before sending her back to wait her turn. Caryll Ann was four years old in the summer of 1939 when she played this wordless cameo — and sadly, she did not live to see herself on the big screen. At a Halloween party later that year, a jack-o-lantern candle ignited her costume and she died three days later of her burns. She was buried in the pink tunic she wears here.


This lovely and poignant scene in the Kingdom of the Future — straight out of Maetterlinck, but massaged by Ernest Pascal to make it less cumbersome and archly precious than it reads in the original play — is the last stop on Mytyl and Tyltyl’s journey; having visited the Future, and still not finding the Blue Bird, there’s nothing left for them but to return home.

The next morning, Mytyl amazes her parents with her cheerful attitude (“Oh Mummy! Everything is so wonderful, isn’t it?”), so different from her petulant whining of the night before. And along with this newfound happiness in hearth and home, the children, to their surprise, even find the Blue Bird they have been searching for — but then, just as suddenly, they lose it again as the heedless bird flies away. Nevertheless, the new, improved Mytyl is undismayed. “Don’t worry,” she says, “we’ll find it again…I know we can, because now we know where to look for it.” Then, like the Tyltyl of the play, she addresses her last words directly to the audience: “Don’t we?”

The Blue Bird was the most expensive of all Shirley’s pictures — $1.5 million, she tells us — and it took a terrible bath at the box office, both in its original road-show engagements in New York, Detroit and San Francisco, and after going into general release at Easter. This was not, as legend would have it, because it suffered by comparison with The Wizard of Oz, but simply because The Blue Bird‘s time had long since passed. Even the 1918 silent version, lavishly produced within a decade of the play’s premiere, was a flop. (The curse repeated itself yet again in 1976, when a U.S./Soviet co-production directed by George Cukor sank like a rock. Some people never learn.)

The idea that The Blue Bird suffered by comparison with The Wizard of Oz in 1940 basically springs from the fact that it suffers by that same comparison today. Almost everyone who sees The Blue Bird nowadays can’t help seeing similarities to Oz, and of course Blue Bird can only be found wanting. There is, for starters, the black-and-white prologue, with the switch to Technicolor when the real adventure begins (although The Blue Bird never returns to black-and-white; in keeping with Mytyl’s improved outlook, the Technicolor stays to the end). Also, there’s the premise of the fantasy/dream and the look-for-happiness-in-your-own-back-yard moral. Which is ironic, considering that those elements are not found in L. Frank Baum but were swiped by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf from Maeterlinck’s play and grafted onto their script for Oz (where they did not belong). In a real sense, MGM’s Wizard of Oz was an imitation of The Blue Bird, and not the other way around.

If viewers today were as familiar with Maeterlinck’s dreadful play as they are with Oz, The Blue Bird‘s virtues would stand out more clearly. Ernest Pascal greatly improved on the original, tightening and focusing the diffuse and rambling story, and adding two elements lacking in the play: a villain (Tylette the cat) to scheme against the children, and a champion (Tylo the dog) to come to their aid in times of danger. For all his improvements, however, Pascal never solved the dramatic problem at the heart of this fatally flawed play: there is simply no reason for Mytyl and Tyltyl to undertake this dangerous quest, and no clear reward at journey’s end to justify it. It was a shaggy-dog fairy tale when Maeterlinck wrote it, and a shaggy-dog fairy tale it remained.

The play’s reputation had lost its luster by the time Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox undertook to film it, and the movie’s reviews reflected the fact. In the Times, Frank S. Nugent confessed to having “long considered ‘The Blue Bird’ complete twaddle”, an opinion which the movie did nothing to dispel: “it has about the gayety [sic] and sparkle of the first half of ‘A Christmas Carol'”. Variety’s “Flin” wrote: “Whatever freshness and imaginative charm the Maurice Maeterlinck poem play possessed a generation ago seem to have tarnished through the years…Not even Shirley Temple, in a gallery of sparkling technicolor [sic] settings, and aided by all the wizardry of the finest technical workmanship, can make it seem new.” (To be fair, Shirley didn’t have much chance. Her performance is strong, but dominated by the story rather than dominating it; as written by both Maeterlinck and Pascal, Mytyl is as much a spectator to The Blue Bird‘s goings-on as we are.) Flin correctly cited the scene in the Kingdom of the Future as “the best and perhaps complete justification for the production…However trite some other passages of ‘The Blue Bird’ seem to be, this episode is touching and fine eerie storytelling.” And in The New Yorker, John Mosher said, “All in all, I should rank ‘The Blue Bird,’ with its pretty moments and its lapses, too, somewhere halfway between the Disneys and ‘The Wizard of Oz.'” (Notice that Oz, which an earlier New Yorker review had called “a stinkeroo”, is at the bottom of Mosher’s scale.)

The opinion of The Blue Bird that would be most interesting to hear, alas, I have been unable to find: that of Maurice Maeterlinck himself. Maeterlinck landed in the U.S. later in 1940, a refugee from the Nazis storming across France and his native Belgium, and he remained here until 1947, when he returned to his home in Nice (he died at 86 in 1949). He may well have seen The Blue Bird somewhere along the line, but what he thought remains unknown. In Child Star Shirley quotes Darryl Zanuck as saying only that the playwright was consulted on the script, and that he objected to the cutting of so many of his characters, but more than that I cannot say.

Whatever Maeterlinck might have thought, The Blue Bird was a sincere effort, exerted with all the resources at 20th Century Fox’s command, and it holds up today on the strength of its production values — and, it must be said, despite the deadly weaknesses of the source material. It holds up, that is, if — and it’s a big “if” — one can watch it without making invidious comparisons with The Wizard of Oz.

But whatever I or anyone else may think today, in 1940 The Blue Bird utterly failed to find its audience — as the silent version had done in 1918, and as another version would do 36 years later. Its failure was probably Maeterlinck’s fault more than Shirley’s, but hers was the more familiar name, and the stain of the flop stuck to her. The next time out, things would not get better.


Young People

(released August 23, 1940) 


As Fox had followed the lavish The Little Princess by placing Shirley in a B western, so they followed the even more lavish The Blue Bird with an even-more-B musical. But more significantly, perhaps, by the time Young People opened in New York in August — in fact, even before Variety reviewed it in July — the picture was already a lame-duck movie. Fox chairman Joseph Schenck had announced on May 12, 1940 that the studio was “releasing” (i.e., “firing”) Shirley from the remaining 13 months of her seven-year contract. The effort of crafting vehicles for a growing child star — and of dealing with Gertrude and George Temple’s increasing objections to the unvarying parade of orphan and waif roles — had become more trouble than the diminishing box-office returns were worth. So Young People would be Shirley’s swan song at 20th Century Fox. The Blue Bird might at least have ended her career with a bang; Young People was a whimper.

Shirley’s co-stars were Jack Oakie and Charlotte Greenwood as Joe and Kit Ballantine, a husband-and-wife vaudeville team who informally adopt the infant daughter of their best friends, the O’Haras, when both parents succumb to untimely deaths.

The infant grows into Wendy (Shirley) and is incorporated into the act, now called The Three Ballantines. As Wendy approaches adolescence, Joe and Kit decide to retire from show business to a little farm they’ve bought in Connecticut, where Wendy can enjoy a “normal” life. But their brash showbiz manners scandalize the staid provincial citizens of their new home and the Ballantines become outcasts and objects of local ridicule, to the point where they are driven out of town in frustrated disgrace.

In the end, a fortuitous hurricane makes landfall near the town, Joe becomes a hero by rescuing a group of children caught out in the storm, and a tearful scolding by Wendy of the town’s leading citizens and the Ballantines’ chief tormentors (Kathleen Howard and Minor Watson) brings these bigoted small-town snobs to their senses, and the Ballantines are belatedly welcomed by their new neighbors with open arms.

In Child Star Shirley says Edwin Blum and Don Ettlinger’s script for Young People “made cheerless reading”, and it makes even more cheerless viewing. The new songs by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon (still three years from their Oscars for “You’ll Never Know” in Hello, Frisco, Hello) are lackluster, and the movie has a half-hearted romantic subplot for Arleen Whelan and George Montgomery that makes one long for the scintillating screen chemistry of June Lang and Michael Whalen in Wee Willie Winkie.

In early scenes, Young People illustrates Wendy’s start in Joe and Kit’s act by tipping in, clumsily, footage from Shirley’s “old” movies. First Jack Oakie and Charlotte Greenwood sing a chorus of Henry Kailikai’s “On the Beach at Waikiki”, followed by an extended shot of Shirley’s hula dance from Curly Top. Then, most egregiously, Oakie and Greenwood perpetrate a crass and stupid trashing of Brown and Gorney’s “Baby, Take a Bow” before the movie cuts to Shirley’s solo of the song from Stand Up and Cheer! “The film’s value,” Shirley accurately writes, “amounted to less than the sum of its parts.” Shirley deserved better, and so did Jack Oakie and Charlotte Greenwood. Hell, George Montgomery deserved better. Ironically, Young People was directed at his usual headlong pace by Allan Dwan, who years later would assert that Shirley was “over” before he undertook to direct her in Heidi. Shirley was by no means “over” in 1937, but by 1940 (and her third picture for Dwan), she certainly was.

Reviews were surprisingly indulgent — perhaps betraying a certain degree of relief that there would be no more Shirley Temple pictures for the foreseeable future. “Walt” in Variety wrote: “‘Young People’ establishes the definite spot for continuance of Shirley Temple in pictures through her adolescent and formative years. Not as a star, burdened with carrying a picture on her own, but in the groove of a featured player sharing billing and material with other top-notch artists…an above average programmer…” The Times’s Bosley Crowther added, “If this is really the end, it is not a bad exit at all for little Shirley, the superannuated sunbeam.” Even The New Yorker’s John Mosher, who rightly pegged Susannah of the Mounties as “very minor Temple”, said, “Miss Temple has obviously retired in the full tide of her powers…she shows no weariness, no slacking up, no arthritic pangs.”

If these valedictory tributes were intended even subliminally to soften the blow and let Shirley go out a winner, it didn’t work. Young People, even with its shoestrings-and-stock-footage budget, was a flop. Shirley was no longer tops at the box office — she had dropped to fifth in 1939, and by 1940 was out of the top ten — and Frank Nugent finally got the wish he expressed in his review of Wee Willie Winkie: Shirley would be a has-been at 15.

*                    *                    * 

Shirley’s divorce from 20th Century Fox had been neither amicable nor particularly acrimonious. As late as April 1940 Darryl Zanuck had even resurrected the idea of starring her in Lady Jane, but she had outgrown the part by then — in Young People she was already developing hips and breasts (in Child Star Shirley recalls getting her first period at her “tenth” birthday party in 1939). Both Zanuck and the Temples were ready for a split, and on April 10 Gertrude Temple retained agent Frank Orsatti to negotiate Shirley’s release. Later that year, Orsatti landed Shirley a two-picture contract with MGM, but it would prove to be an uncomfortable fit. Metro turned out to be unhappy with Shirley’s hair, her face, her figure, her singing and her dancing, while neither Shirley nor her mother were happy with the studio’s makeover attempts. Mrs. Temple nixed the idea of Shirley co-starring with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway, fearing (probably correctly) that in their company her daughter would get short shrift.

On top of that, Shirley’s first meeting with producer Arthur Freed had not gone well. Shirley says (and frankly, I believe her) that Freed said, “I have something made just for you. You’ll be my new star!”, then stepped out from behind his desk and exposed himself to her. Shirley reacted like the 12-year-old she was, bursting into a nervous laugh that didn’t sit well with the notorious casting-couch jockey, and he angrily ordered her out of his office. At almost the same moment (again, I believe Shirley), L.B. Mayer was in his office coming on to an affronted Mother Gertrude — stopping short of exhibitionism but making his intentions plain. Perhaps coincidentally, Shirley’s contract was quickly redrafted: only one picture, with no approval or creative input from Shirley or her mother.

The sole result of Shirley’s sojourn at MGM was Kathleen (’41), a “tedious, thinly plotted fable” (Variety) where, according to the Times’s Theodore Strauss, “In those wistful, winsome close-ups Miss Temple seemed to be trying to say just one thing: ‘Get me out of here!'” In any event, that’s exactly what happened.

Next, Shirley went under contract to David O. Selznick, which worked out better for her, although her days of stardom were behind her. Throughout the 1940s she would give some effective performances — Since You Went Away (’44), Kiss and Tell (’45), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (’47) — but Shirley was slow to learn that what had made her “sparkle” as a five-and-six-year-old could look infantile and affected in a young woman of 18 or 19. An ill-starred marriage at 17 to Army Air Corps Sgt. John Agar (who parlayed the connection into a long but inconsequential career in B movies) ended in 1950 — outlasting Shirley’s movie career by one year (her last picture was A Kiss for Corliss in 1949).

Shirley did, in time, get the hang of grown-up acting, as the host and occasional star of Shirley Temple’s Storybook and Shirley Temple Theatre (NBC, 1958-60), giving intelligent and measured performances in “The House of the Seven Gables”, “The Land of Oz”, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and other episodes. (I remember as a child being unable to connect this adult Shirley to the curly-haired little girl in those old movies that were turning up on TV about the same time.) But by then acting was more a hobby than a calling, and when the show ran its course in two season she left it as she had left Hollywood in 1949, with never a backward glance. Ahead lay a third career — or fourth, if you count wife to Charles Black and mother to their two children, plus a daughter by John Agar — in politics and international diplomacy. And let us not forget her courageous battle with breast cancer in the 1970s, becoming one of the first celebrities to go public with her experience in that brush with death. All in all, the second half of the 20th century took her far from the tot who stood security for her movie-father’s bet on a fixed horse race and flew off on the wings of the Good Ship Lollipop. She had the grace and poise to take her long life as it came, and to make the most of it.

It’s been a while since I posted a YouTube clip of Shirley. I think it’s fitting to conclude with this one of her last public appearance on January 29, 2006, accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild. She is three months away from her 78th birthday (having long since learned her true age):


This was the woman who left us on February 10 of this year; long live her memory. She changed forever what it means to be a child star — mainly because, as critic Mark Steyn aptly put it, she wasn’t a “child star” at all. She was a star who just happened to be a child.


So there you have it, Shirley Temple’s entire career as a rising star and reigning princess during Hollywood’s Golden Age. As I said at the very beginning, while I had nothing but fond memories of Shirley, I had not seen any of these 24 pictures since I was about the age Shirley was when she made them. Several of them I had never seen at all. Seeing them — again or for the first time — was like a trip in a time machine with two stops: one at Shirley’s childhood, and another at my own.

Standouts? Well, the first one that comes to mind is…

Wee Willie Winkie  This may be the best picture — as a picture — of them all, and John Ford made the difference. It was, in effect, a sort of children’s introduction to the Cavalry Trilogy — for that matter, almost a trainer-wheel introduction for Ford himself, a dry run for the later, full flowering of his art, after his experience in the Navy during World War II had deepened and enriched his understanding of military camaraderie. The fact that 19-year-old Shirley would be on hand for the first chapter of the trilogy, 1948’s Fort Apache, only strengthens the connection. There is nothing in Shirley’s career quite so moving as Pvt. Winkie singing “Auld Lang Syne” at Sgt. MacDuff’s bedside, followed by her affectionate gaze at the friend who she doesn’t realize — or cannot admit — has just died.
Little Miss Marker  There’s a reason this picture made her a bona fide star; it has what just may be her most fully realized and least self-conscious performance. If Sgt. MacDuff’s deathbed in Wee Willie Winkie is Shirley’s best single scene, a close second is the first exchange of dialogue and eye-contact between Shirley’s Marky and Adolphe Menjou’s Sorrowful Jones.
Curly Top  I think Leslie Halliwell got this one right; Shirley’s full range of talents — acting, singing and dancing — are showcased here at their very peak, topped off by the almost startling tour de force of “When I Grow Up”.
Stowaway  This one stays in the mind — mine, at least — for the deep bench of Shirley’s supporting cast, and for her sly comic rapport with Robert Young. 
The Little Princess  Another strong supporting cast, beautiful Technicolor, Shirley’s acting chops at their most assured, and the most lavish production Shirley ever had to carry — which she did, easily.
Poor Little Rich Girl  A whimsically charming score and fine chemistry with Jack Haley and Alice Faye help this one triumph over the bizarre elements of the script. Plus another tour de force in that tap routine to “Military Man”.
Also, in varous bits and pieces, anything — acting or dancing — with Bill Robinson (honorable mention: Buddy Ebsen). 
And finally, a special nod to The Blue Bird, just because it’s an honest and unstinting effort that has been so cruelly and unjustly maligned for nearly 75 years, forced to undergo a comparison that no movie ever made could possibly withstand.
So long, Shirley, and thanks for the memories — these and so many more.

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 13

In Child Star Shirley says that after the release of Little Miss Broadway Darryl Zanuck announced that her next picture would be an adaptation of Lady Jane by Mrs. Cecilia Viets Jamison. Published around the turn of the 20th century (1903, as near as I can tell), the novel told the Dickensian tale of an orphan girl in New Orleans of the 1890s. Little Jane and her gravely ill mother, having fallen on hard times, are taken in by a Mme. Jozain, who, seeing the fine clothes in their luggage, calculates that she’ll be well compensated for nursing the mother back to health. But the mother dies, leaving the girl in Mme. Jozain’s hands to be exploited and abused, her only friend a blue heron.

All ends happily, of course, but we needn’t go into it any deeper than that. In trolling around the Internet looking for information on the book — it’s apparently out of print, but used copies are widely available — I found this. It’s a 1935 edition published by Grosset & Dunlap, a firm that often published movie novelizations and “motion picture editions” of classic books. As you can see, the dust jacket says, “This is the beautiful story from which the 20th Century Fox picture was made”. However, Grosset & Dunlap seem to have jumped the gun; Lady Jane was never filmed, with Shirley or anybody else. Could it be that Fox purchased the book as early as 1935, anticipating making a movie, even though Shirley doesn’t mention it coming up until three years later?

In any case, nothing ever came of Lady Jane. Other titles were tossed in the hopper, including one suggested casually by U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau over lunch with Shirley and her mother: The Little Diplomat. On Zanuck’s orders, The Little Diplomat got as far as a treatment by studio writer Charles Beldon and a first draft by Eddie Moran, then withered on the vine. Another proposal, the 1936 children’s novel Susannah of the Mounties by Canadian Muriel Denison, went the distance, as we’ll see later. But for now, in the fall of 1938, Fox yet again turned to an old Mary Pickford vehicle. This time more than just the title would be used, and curiously enough, the story had some elements in common with Lady Jane. The result would be the glittering apotheosis of Shirley’s career at 20th Century Fox.

The Little Princess

(released March 10, 1939)

LP-poster03WUnlike Lady Jane, A Little Princess has never been out of print since it was first published in 1905. It was the work of Frances Hodgson Burnett, who was born in England in 1849 but lived much of her adult life in the U.S., where she became a citizen in 1905, and where she died and was buried in 1924. She began writing short fiction for magazines while still in her teens, later progressing to romantic novels for adults and sentimental books for children. Her books sold well all her life, enabling her to support a transatlantic lifestyle with homes at various times in America, in England and on the Continent. Her adult novels were all popular in their day, but it’s for her children’s books that she remains best remembered, specifically Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885), The Secret Garden (1911) and A Little Princess.
A Little Princess first appeared in 1888 as a serial in St. Nicholas Magazine under the title Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s Boarding School. In 1902, Mrs. Burnett turned the story into a play, A Little Un-fairy Princess, the title later shortened to A Little Princess; in January 1903 the play opened in New York (with “The” replacing “A” in the title). About the same time, Mrs. Burnett set to expanding the original story into a complete novel, and the book (full title: A Little Princess; being the whole story of Sara Crewe now told for the first time) was published in 1905.
In the novel, Sara Crewe is the seven-year-old daughter of a well-to-do British Army captain serving in India. Pampered without being spoiled, Sara is brought by her father to be educated in England, away from the unhealthful Indian climate. He enrolls her in Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies, where the proprietress, Miss Maria Minchin, continues the practice of pampering Sara, albeit more for love of her father’s money than from any affection for Sara herself. In fact, Miss Minchin dislikes and resents Sara for her native intelligence, her scholastic aptitude, and her self-possession, which Miss Minchin regards as impertinence.
Sara spends four years at the school, fawned over (insincerely) as Miss Minchin’s star pupil. Then, just as Sara turns 11, her father suddenly dies, his health and spirit shattered by a series of financial reverses that have left him, and now his orphaned daughter, penniless with no friend or family to turn to. Miss Minchin’s resentment boils over at the thought of the luxuries she has lavished on Sara, expecting to be reimbursed by her father. She confiscates Sara’s fine clothes and evicts her from her well-appointed room. Henceforth, Sara will be expected to continue her studies while earning her keep as a scullery maid and all-around drudge, doing chores and running errands at all hours and in all weathers, wearing threadbare, ill-fitting clothes, sleeping in the attic with the rats and the discarded furniture, and taking what nourishment she can from the scraps of food thrown to her — that is, when her “meals” are not withheld for some imagined infraction or other.
Sara endures two years of this shabby abuse with stoic dignity, years in which both she and Miss Minchin show their true colors. In the end, Sara’s virtue is rewarded. While her father has indeed been lost, it turns out that her fortune has only been mislaid, and is now returned to her a hundredfold. She sweeps out of Miss Minchin’s clutches richer and more a “little princess” than she ever was, while Miss Minchin is left to gnash her teeth and contemplate what will become of her if word of how Sara was treated ever gets around.
A Little Princess was first filmed in 1917 with Mary Pickford as Sara. That version was reasonably faithful to the book — at least, as faithful as it could be in 62 minutes, especially when 16 of those minutes digressed into a long telling of “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves”, which Sara recounts to her schoolmates. (This scene was supposedly included to dramatize Sara’s fertile imagination, but it chiefly served to relieve Pickford for a while from having to look and act like a ten-year-old.) 
For Shirley’s version — like the 1903 New York stage production, it was The Little Princess, not A Little Princess — 20th Century Fox mounted a lavish production. The budget, Shirley says, was $1.3 million, “six times the cost of my first film”. For this scene alone, a quick shot of Londoners cheering their soldiers off to war, the extras probably outnumbered the entire casts of Shirley’s last three pictures combined. (Shirley and Ian Hunter as Capt. Crewe can just barely be glimpsed in a hansom cab in the top right background.)
Ethel Hill and Walter Ferris’s script took major liberties with Mrs. Burnett’s story while retaining its basic structure. To spare Shirley having to age from seven to 13, they confined the action to a single year, 1899 to 1900. Capt. Crewe has been ordered from India to Africa to fight in the Boer War, and is reported killed at the siege of Mafeking. However, we soon learn that he was not killed but is only missing in action, and is being cared for in a hospital right there in London, a semi-comatose amnesiac whose identity is a mystery to those who are tending to him. Whether Capt. Crewe is dead or missing, the effect on Sara and on Miss Minchin (Mary Nash, still in villainess mode from Heidi) is the same. The difference is that Sara refuses to believe the reports, and she haunts the very same hospital whenever she can steal away from the school, always searching for her father but never finding him, asking after him but never asking anyone who knows about that mysterious unknown patient. In the end, with a gentle assist from Queen Victoria (Beryl Mercer, serving much as Frank McGlynn’s Abe Lincoln did in The Littlest Rebel), Sara is finally reunited with her father. The change is crucial: for this Sara Crewe, the happy ending is not regaining her fortune, but regaining her father.

Hill and Ferris also added a romantic subplot involving Rose (Anita Louise), a teacher at Miss Minchin’s, and Geoffrey Hamilton (Richard Greene), the school’s riding master (seen here with Sara before the downturn in her fortunes). Geoffrey is the semi-estranged grandson of Lord Wickham (Miles Mander), who lives next door to the school, attended by his Indian servant Ram Dass (Cesar Romero). Miss Minchin takes cruel delight in breaking up Rose and Geoffrey’s romance and discharging Rose, thinking it will curry favor with Lord Wickham. 
Meanwhile, Ram Dass, crossing the roofs from his attic room to Sara’s, has seen the wretched conditions under which she’s forced to live. Sara tells him of all the comforts she pretends her cold, dusty garret has. Later, with the approval and connivance of Lord Wickham, Ram Dass sneaks into the room while Sara sleeps and installs all the comforts she has only imagined — down quilts, soft cushions, cases of lovely books, food on the table and a warm fire in the grate. In this way the movie includes one of the charming touches in the book, changing the source of the mysterious largesse by establishing Lord Wickham as the curmudgeon with a heart of gold that has by now become a standard element of Shirley’s pictures.
The movie also provides Miss Minchin with a brother Bertie (Arthur Treacher) — “our professor of elocution and dramatics. “Bertie is also a former music hall entertainer, although Miss Minchin is too much of a snob to allow him to admit to it when Sara’s father remembers having seen him perform. And this is all the excuse the movie needs to put Sara and Bertie through a couple of quick song-and-dance choruses of the 1882 Albert Chevalier chestnut “The Old Kent Road” — first here in Miss Minchin’s parlor (when she’s not around, of course), then later at the hospital to entertain the convalescent soldiers.
In this way and others, The Little Princess tailors Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original story to Shirley’s strengths. “Studio moguls,” Shirley sighs in Child Star, “had given up the prospect of making me fit the story and had returned to making the story fit me.”
 Indeed they had, but more happily than in Heidi. The Little Princess demonstrates the difference between working to Shirley’s strengths and depending on her tricks — never more so than in this sequence, which comes at the picture’s two-thirds point. Sara is asleep in her garret; while she sleeps, Ram Dass steals in through the attic window and bedecks her room with comforts and finery — but we won’t know that until later because we are in Sara’s dream. She dreams she’s a princess holding court, with (like all dreams) people from her life taking their roles. Bertie is her court jester, Ram Dass her lord chamberlain (perhaps Sara, even asleep, is half-aware of his presence?), and Miss Minchin is there filing charges against Geoffrey for stealing a kiss from Rose. The scene is spoken in rhymed verse written by Walter Bullock, set to music by Samuel Pokrass (“There, you see, he broke the law! / What I say I saw, I saw!”). Geoffrey is acquitted because the kiss wasn’t stolen, it was given freely by Rose (“There, you see! I had a feeling / This was not a case of stealing.”), and the accuser is banished from Princess Sara’s realm.
 There follows a round of entertainment from the court dancers (to a genteel arrangement of “The Old Kent Road”), in which a new prima ballerina (who looks very much like Princess Sara herself) wins the approval of the court.
As the dance ends, Sara awakens to find her room transformed — so completely transformed that at first she thinks she must be still asleep and dreaming.

The dream fantasy is a pure Hollywood touch, but it works for the picture rather than crippling it, as “In Our Little Wooden Shoes” had done to Heidi. In Heidi, there was no way we could believe that this little Swiss urchin would fantasize herself as a Dutch girl clomping around by the Zuider Zee in her wooden shoes, much less promenading through a stately minuet at the Palace of Versailles. But the fantasy here is entirely in keeping with the Sara Crewe we’ve come to know; for that matter, it’s consistent with the novel’s original Sara Crewe as well. Before Sara’s fall from grace, everyone at the school calls her a “little princess” (some, the mean and spiteful ones, sarcastically); after her fall, it becomes even more important to Sara to be “a princess inside” and take whatever mistreatment Miss Minchin can fling at her with the grace and dignity that implies. So in her dream we see Sara as she sees herself, dispensing justice to the good and wicked alike. The scene also illustrates Sara’s greatest asset in adversity: her vivid imagination. (The “Ali Baba” sequence in the Mary Pickford version tried to do the same, but it went on more than twice as long — in a movie that was half an hour shorter — and bore no connection to Sara’s waking life.)

The Little Princess, despite the liberties it takes with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, is one of Shirley’s strongest pictures — classic Hollywood star-vehicle moviemaking at its best. In it, for perhaps the first time — or maybe the second, after Wee Willie Winkie — 20th Century Fox gave the movie a production worthy of the studio’s biggest star, rather than expecting her to carry the show more (Dimples) or less (Stowaway) on her own. Reviews were indulgent. Variety’s anonymous reviewer wrote, “Shirley Temple appears in Technicolor for the first time but, more important, it’s her best picture in a long while.” At the Times, B.R. Crisler said, with tongue slightly in cheek: “With any other child star on Earth, it is amazing to reflect, ‘The Little Princess’ would stand out as one of the most glaring examples of pure hokum in screen history; with Mistress Temple, it may very well be, as Mr [Z]anuck unflinchingly proclaims, the greatest picture with which Mr. Zanuck has ever been associated. And that would be greatness indeed.” Even John Mosher at The New Yorker allowed, “This careful and even handsome screen version of the story Mother used to love when she was a girl is rich with all the sugar and all the poison of the past.”

For Shirley’s next outing, it was back to black-and-white, and a follow-through on one of the projects that had been back-burnered in favor of The Little Princess.

Susannah of the Mounties

(released June 23, 1939)

We needn’t spend much time on Susannah of the Mounties. Muriel Denison’s novel, published in 1936, was the first of four she would eventually turn out; the sequels were Susannah of the Yukon, Susannah at Boarding School and Susannah Rides Again. This first book told of a nine-year-old Canadian girl in 1896 sent to live with her uncle when her parents are assigned to a remote corner of the British Empire. The uncle, an officer at a Royal Canadian Mounted Police outpost in the wilds of Saskatchewan, is at first surprised and unwelcoming, but Susannah soon wins his heart, along with those of everyone else on the post. My own copy of the book is still on order; when I’ve had a chance to look it over, if there’s anything more to be said about it, I’ll post an update here.

But I suspect there won’t be, because once again 20th Century Fox jettisoned everything except the title. The script was credited to Robert Ellis and Helen Logan (story by Fidel La Barba and Walter Ferris), but several other writers put their oars in without credit — never a good sign. Yet again, Shirley played an orphan: Susannah Sheldon, sole survivor of a wagon train massacred by renegade Blackfeet Indians in the 1880s. She is found by Mountie Randolph Scott out on patrol, and more or less adopted by him. From her place on the post she becomes embroiled in tensions between the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the Blackfeet tribe, especially after she befriends the son of a Blackfeet chief sent to the post as a hostage against good behavior. Together Susannah and Little Chief (played by a 13-year-old Blackfeet youth named Martin Good Rider) intervene with his father Big Eagle (Maurice Moscovich) to thwart the warmongering of the villainous Wolf Pelt (Victor Jory) and “show White Man and Indian how to live as brothers.” Peace pipe smoked, fade out.

That’s about it. There’s a perfunctory romance between Susannah’s guardian Inspector Angus “Monty” Montague (Scott) and his commanding officer’s daughter (Margaret Lockwood) that falls somewhere between the similar subplot of Wee Willie Winkie and the one of The Little Princess; otherwise Susannah of the Mounties has the mediocre look and feel of a B-western (albeit spiced up with stock footage from earlier, more expensive Fox westerns). There’s also an attitude toward Canada’s native tribes that’s almost as uncomfortable today as the treatment of African Americans in The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel. “Ugh!” is a common line of dialogue given to Blackfeet characters; other lines include “Little Chief not sleep White Man house,” and, so help me, “Devil child have forked tongue!”

Reviews were dismissive, with an air of disappointment, as if the reviewers’ hopes had been raised by The Little Princess, only to be dashed. Variety called Susannah “weakest in the Temple series for some time”, adding, ominously: “Youngster is growing up fast, and is losing some of that sparkle displayed as a tot which carried her so far as a b.o. bet.” B.R. Crisler in the Times, noting the movie’s Mounties in their pillbox hats instead of the familiar peaked campaign hats, cracked: “The early Canadian Northwest Mounted Police certainly wore tricky uniforms, though. Except for the fact that they are on the screen, people at the Roxy might almost mistake them for ushers.” The New Yorker’s John Mosher put it succinctly, and correctly: “The whole offering must be considered as very minor Temple.”

Susannah of the Mounties was directed by Wiliam A. Seiter, one of Shirley’s favorites, who had already directed her in Stowaway and Dimples. Some scenes were directed without credit by Walter Lang (Seiter had performed the same fill-in duty on The Little Princess when director Lang left on “medical furlough”). Shirley’s next picture would reunite her with Lang. Once again, Shirley and Lang would be working in Technicolor, and the production would be, if anything, even more lavish than The Little Princess. Results, however, would differ sharply. For the first time, a Shirley Temple picture would lose money.

To be concluded


Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 12

Despite the success of Wee Willie Winkie and Heidi, 20th Century Fox decided to table, for the time being at least, any literary pretensions in Shirley’s pictures. In Child Star Shirley says otherwise: “Ahead would be Fanchon the Cricket followed by Pollyanna…” — but nothing ever came of those, and she never mentions either title again, not even to explain why they didn’t happen. Both, not coincidentally, had been Mary Pickford vehicles in 1915 and 1920, respectively.

Fanchon, despite what Shirley says, was almost certainly never on the agenda. The 1849 George Sand novel on which it was based (La Petite Fadette) had no particular following in the U.S., and Pickford’s picture of it was long forgotten — presumed lost, in fact (a partial print didn’t surface until 1999). Besides, the character of a semi-feral peasant girl who wins the love of a respectable village boy in rural France was hardly a good fit for Shirley. Perhaps Mother Gertrude mentioned the title for (or to) Shirley, but Darryl Zanuck surely didn’t.

Pollyanna is another case entirely; why that one never happened is a mystery. The idea was a natural, more natural in fact than Heidi. For that matter, Eleanor H. Porter’s 1913 novel was virtually an American carbon copy of Heidi — without goats and mountains, with an aunt instead of a grandfather, and with Heidi and Klara, the crippled friend who learns to walk again, combined into the one character of Pollyanna Whittier. The story could easily have accommodated as many songs for Shirley as Zanuck and his minions cared to throw at it, and could even have been updated to the 1930s without doing serious damage to the original. Fox’s failure to follow this lead has to count as a major missed opportunity, maybe even (depending on the results, of course) a crime against posterity. Could the problem have been that the Porter novel was still under copyright? I suppose we’ll never know.

Shirley wrote about Zanuck “grappling with that chronic demon” of “selecting my next screenplay.” The grappling produced results — Shirley made three pictures in 1938 — but the results were, alas, generally undistinguished. Shirley described one of those pictures as “unfailingly bland”, but she could have been talking about any of the three, and we can deal with each of them in a very few paragraphs.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

(released March 25, 1938)

RSF-Poster01aRebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was another of Shirley’s “no trace” pictures, like Poor Little Rich Girl and (allegedly) The Littlest Rebel. What there was no trace of this time was the 1903 novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin. The story had been filmed faithfully in 1917 with Mary Pickford and again in 1932 with Marian Nixon (produced by Fox Film Corp., so the post-merger studio still had the property lying around). For this incarnation, the studio adopted the same curious practice they had used with Poor Little Rich Girl: take a title widely identified with Mary Pickford, then make a picture with absolutely no connection to what Pickford and Co. did with it.

As if to ensure that Rebecca would be as familiar as possible, Zanuck and associate producer Raymond Griffith packed the supporting cast with returnees from Shirley’s earlier pictures: Gloria Stuart and Jack Haley from Poor Little Rich Girl; Helen Westley from Dimples, Stowaway and Heidi; Slim Summerville from Captain January; Bill Robinson from The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel; J. Edward Bromberg, the deus ex machina judge from Stowaway, serving the same function as a doctor this time; even Alan Dinehart, the sleazeball detective from way back in Baby Take a Bow, was brought back. Of the names on this poster, only Randolph Scott and Phyllis Brooks were new, and both would work with Shirley again before the year was out. The director, once again, was Heidi‘s reliably unimaginative Allan Dwan.

Even the story was a bit of a recycle; as in Poor Little Rich Girl, Shirley becomes a radio star unbeknownst to her ostensible guardian (duties divided this time between her grumpy aunt Helen Westley and shifty stepfather William Demarest) when, while living with her aunt on the farm of the title, she sneaks out for a remote broadcast from the farmhouse of her neighbor, radio producer Randolph Scott.

During that broadcast, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm drops all pretense to being anything more than Shirley Temple In Concert. The program’s emcee (Jack Haley) invites Shirley/Rebecca to “sing the songs that made a lot of people happy.” So she sings:

My dear radio audience, 
Now I shall do
Some of the songs I’ve had the pleasure of introducing to you…
This, mind you, on what is supposedly her very first broadcast. What follows is a medley of “On the Good Ship Lollipop” from Bright Eyes, “Animal Crackers in My Soup” from Curly Top, “When I’m With You” and “Oh, My Goodness” from Poor Little Rich Girl and “Good Night, My Love” (the lyric changed to “Good Night, My Friends”) from Stowaway. “Ah, but it’s great to reminisce,” Shirley/Rebecca sighs.

Like Captain January, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was one of Shirley’s first pictures to hit TV in the 1950s, so it has a special place in the childhood memories of many Baby Boomers. And giving credit where it’s due, Rebecca is a pleasant enough vehicle for Shirley. But it plows familiar ground while the original furrows are still fairly fresh. Those Baby Boomers (including myself) first saw Rebecca on its own, without the feeling of deja vu that comes from knowing about all the other movies it ransacks for actors, songs and plot elements. 

“Flin” in Variety wasn’t fooled. He gave Shirley full credit as “a great little artist”, but added:

The rest is synthetic and disappointing. Why they named it “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” is one of those mysteries. The only resemblance is a load of hay, a litter of pigs and Bill Robinson’s straw hat.

But Rebecca‘s familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. The picture ends, and I’ll end my comments on it, with Shirley singing “The Toy Trumpet” by Sidney Mitchell and Lew Pollack, then dancing the song with Bill Robinson. Granted, it’s really just a less-bravura retread of “Military Man” from Poor Little Rich Girl, but hey, it’s still Shirley and Bojangles (yet again, colorized):


Little Miss Broadway

(released July 22, 1938)

LMB-Poster02bLittle Miss Broadway was the one Shirley called “unfailingly bland”, and that about sums it up. Shirley is once again an orphan, this time moving from her orphanage to live with a friend of her late parents (Edward Ellis) who runs a hotel for entertainers. The curmudgeon this time is the rich old landlady next door (Edna May Oliver, her middle name misspelled as “Mae”), who not only plots to get rid of those unsavory show people by selling their hotel out from under them, but (channeling Sara Haden’s truant officer from Captain January) moves to have Shirley returned to her orphanage. Meanwhile, her playboy nephew (George Murphy) is charmed by Shirley and smitten with Ellis’s daughter (Phyllis Brooks of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) and tries to thwart the old girl. It all ends in the courtroom of judge Claude Gillingwater, with Shirley and her troupers proving that they’ve got a moneymaking show on their hands and can afford to keep the hotel open.
Little Miss Broadway was the first of two straight pictures Shirley made with associate producer David Hempstead. The other pictures Hempstead would make at Fox before decamping to RKO in 1940 were Happy Landing, Hold That Co-ed, Straight Place and Show and It Could Happen to You — not B pictures exactly, but definitely A-minus, and the same must be said for both of Shirley’s pictures for him. Even Mother Gertrude had noticed, with some alarm, the budget cutbacks in Shirley’s pictures, and there’s a chintzy, slapdash quality to Little Miss Broadway. It shows in odd ways, too — for example, the fact that Edna May Oliver, at the time one of the best-known and most popular character actresses in movies, couldn’t even get her name spelled correctly in the credits. (Also, the fact that as curmudgeon du jour, she doesn’t actually get won over by Shirley; like grumpy aunt Helen Westley in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, she just stops being a curmudgeon and turns nice when the Harry Tugend-Jack Yellen screenplay decides it’s time.) And by the way, the thought of Shirley and Jimmy Durante in a movie together may sound promising, but it’s just a tease; he spends more time flirting with soubrette Patricia Wilder at the hotel’s switchboard than he does on screen with Shirley.
In Child Star Shirley spends less time talking about the picture itself than about First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to the set during production. ‘Nuff said. 
But at least Shirley had a couple of nice dance turns with George Murphy. One was the climactic title number (by Walter Bullock and Harold Spina), in which George and Shirley’s song-and-dance magically turns Judge Gillingwater’s courtroom into a glittering Busby Berkeley-style replica of Times Square. But I’m posting here their earlier number, “We Should Be Together” (also by Bullock and Spina); the colorized YouTube clip is better quality, and besides, the number itself is more fun:

In the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent was rather sympathetic: “The devastating Mistress Temple is slightly less devastating than usual in ‘Little Miss Broadway,’…Although she performs with her customary gayety [sic] and dimpled charm, there is no mistaking the effort every dimple cost her.” Variety’s “Flin” added: “Shirley is better than her new vehicle, which in turn is better than her last one, ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.'” Whether Little Miss Broadway was really better than Shirley’s last vehicle is open to debate. But it was certainly better than her next one.

Just Around the Corner

(released December 2, 1938)


JATC-Poster01WIf Little Miss Broadway was an A-minus picture, Just Around the Corner was no more than a B-plus. If that. Shirley plays Penny Hale, who is taken out of private school when her widowed architect father (Charles Farrell) loses his job, and consequently the penthouse he and Penny have been living in, as well as the money to pay for her school. He’s now forced to work as the electrician in the apartment building where they formerly occupied the penthouse, and he and Penny must now make do with a tiny apartment in the basement.

The penthouse now belongs to tycoon Samuel G. Henshaw (Claude Gillingwater again), the uncle of Penny’s new playmate Milton (Bennie Bartlett) and her father’s sweetheart Lola (Amanda Duff). This coincidence leads Penny to confuse the real man with the symbolic “Uncle Sam” — after all, he has the same white goatee — and to set about pulling him, her father and the country out of the economic doldrums by staging a benefit show at five cents admission.

Just Around the Corner, like Little Miss Broadway before it, was directed by Irving Cummings — the same man who had warned Mother Gertrude during Poor Little Rich Girl two years earlier that it was time for the studio to find better stories for Shirley, now that she had lost “that baby quality”. I doubt if this is what he had in mind. Shirley is ten now — or nine, depending on which version of her birth certificate people believed. In any case, she’s too old to be mistaking the “I Want You!” Uncle Sam for somebody’s real uncle who happens to go by that name. Conversely, she’s still too young to be spouting the lick-the-Depression pep talks that Warner Baxter once declaimed in Stand Up and Cheer!

Shirley remembered that her mother became alarmed at the trend of her recent pictures, not only the decreasing budgets, but the sameness of Shirley’s roles. As Shirley remembered it, her mother met with Zanuck and “expressed the opinion that recent scripts were forcing me into rigid, stereotyped roles inappropriate to my growth.” Zanuck countered that the public didn’t want their stars to change. “Now she’s lovable…The less she changes, the longer she lasts.”

Just Around the Corner wasn’t a dead loss. It’s worth seeing for, if nothing else, Shirley’s final teaming with Bill Robinson. Their last number together, “I Love to Walk in the Rain” (by Walter Bullock and Harold Spina), was a bit anticlimactic; more their style was an earlier number, “This Is a Happy Little Ditty”, in which they’re joined by Joan Davis and Bert Lahr. Their dance here looks more like Bojangles’s work and less like that of credited dance directors Nick Castle and Geneva Sawyer. Note especially Bojangles’s truckin’-on-down entrance into the number — that man could dance down a staircase like nobody’s business! (Note also, earlier in the number, when Shirley and Joan Davis get out of step with each other. Now there’s a typical B-movie touch for you: either nobody noticed, or they didn’t bother to retake it so Joan and Shirley could get it right.)

The unsigned review in Variety was surprisingly positive (“topflight for general all-around entertainment”), but conceded, “Youngster is unquestionably getting more mature, and in growing older, Shirley seems to be under stress of acting rather than being natural.” At the Times, Frank Nugent was biting:

Fee-fi-fo-fum, and a couple of ho-hums. Shirley Temple is at the Roxy in “Just Around the Corner” and that’s where we’re lurking with a cleaver in one hand and a lollypop [sic] in the other…Shirley is not responsible, of course. No child could conceive so diabolic a form of torture. There must be an adult mind in back of it all — way, way in back of it all.

And we’ll leave the picture with those two swings of the critical pendulum.

Next time out, Shirley would be restored to the undeniable ranks of Fox’s A-pictures. No expense would be spared — including, for the first time since the final seconds of The Little Colonel, the use of Technicolor.

To be continued


Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 11


Portrait-cWSo far we’ve taken Shirley up to the middle of 1937. She’s been Hollywood’s top box-office star for two years, and she’ll go on to be for two years more. This is probably a good time to deal with one of Hollywood’s most persistent and tantalizing legends: Is it true that Shirley Temple was originally set to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz? The short answer is: No, but there may be a complicated grain of truth to the legend. In fact, given Shirley’s stature in the industry during the mid-to-late 1930s, it’s unlikely that there wouldn’t be something to it.

First of all, before we go any further, dismiss from your mind any images of Shirley chirping her way through “Over the Rainbow” or pumping her fists and pouting that she wants to go home. Frankly, I suspect those are scare-images conjured up by Judy Garland’s more jealous fans, in that unique way they have of seeking to tear down anyone they see as a threat (Deanna Durbin, for example) — as if Judy needs that kind of help. If Shirley had made The Wizard of Oz, there would certainly have been no “Over the Rainbow”, and possibly no songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg at all. The Wizard of Oz starring Shirley Temple would have been utterly and absolutely different — far more different, for example, than Gone With the Wind would have been if Paulette Goddard had played Scarlett rather than Vivien Leigh. Granted, it’s hard to imagine The Wizard of Oz being any better (though it’s not impossible: I do wish Buddy Ebsen had been able to stay on as the Tin Man). But that doesn’t mean it would have been any worse. Just different. In that alternate universe where Shirley played Dorothy, W.C. Fields played the Wizard, Buddy Ebsen played the Scarecrow and Edna May Oliver was the Wicked Witch of the West, it’s entirely possible that people there cherish their Wizard of Oz just as much as we do ours.

The most common form of the legend goes like this: In 1937, 20th Century Fox and MGM worked out a tentative star-swap. Fox would get the services of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow to star in a picture called Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow about the Chicago Fire of 1871; in return, MGM would get Shirley to play Dorothy in Oz and to co-star in another picture with Gable. But when Harlow died suddenly in June 1937 the whole deal was off; Fox made their picture, now called In Old Chicago, with Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, and MGM didn’t get Shirley.

The story is interesting, with an appealing for-the-want-of-a-nail quality to it. Henry King, the man who eventually directed In Old Chicago, told it once in print (I recall reading it, but have been unable to remember or track down where), and Shirley repeats it in Child Star. But the story doesn’t really fit the facts. At the time of Harlow’s death, the screen rights to The Wizard of Oz belonged not to MGM but to Samuel Goldwyn, who had purchased them in 1933 for $40,000.

Shirley gets another point wrong in Child Star when she talks about who might play “the role of fourteen-year-old Dorothy”; she actually more than doubles Dorothy’s probable age. In L. Frank Baum’s first Oz book Dorothy’s age isn’t mentioned, but W.W. Denslow’s illustrations show a girl of six or seven, and internal evidence in later Oz books suggests that that’s about right. In other words, Dorothy in The [original] Wizard of Oz is almost exactly the age of Shirley Temple at the height of her career at Fox. It may well be that around that time Darryl Zanuck tried to obtain the rights as a vehicle for his biggest star (wouldn’t you?), but aside from him there wouldn’t have been a lot of interest in the book. In any case the point was moot; Goldwyn wasn’t selling (what he though he was going to do with the property is anybody’s guess).

Then things changed on December 21, 1937 when Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. It was an immediate smash hit — and suddenly there was a renewed interest in making movies out of fairy tales. In The Making of The Wizard of Oz Aljean Harmetz quotes a New York Times story of February 19, 1938 telling how Goldwyn was suddenly besieged with offers to take Oz off his hands: “Twentieth Century-Fox [sic] is reported anxious to purchase the book for Shirley Temple, but all offers have been rejected.”

Then MGM made Goldwyn an offer he couldn’t refuse, and the deal was finalized on June 3, 1938: MGM bought the rights to The Wizard of Oz from Goldwyn for $75,000. Louis B. Mayer, Ms. Harmetz says, tried to borrow Shirley from Zanuck, but to no avail. (Shirley claims Zanuck made a counter-offer to buy the rights from Mayer, but I question her reliability on that point; she may have been reporting second- or third-hand studio gossip or wishful thinking. It seems to me that if Zanuck couldn’t offer Goldwyn enough to get the rights from him, he wasn’t likely to offer enough to MGM when the price was $35,000 higher.)

In later years Arthur Freed, who always inflated his role in producing The Wizard of Oz, insisted he intended all along for Judy Garland to play Dorothy — even saying he would have refused to make it with anybody else. We can dismiss that. Freed was only a songwriter in 1938 with no track record as a producer (and he got no screen credit on Oz). If Louis B. Mayer could bring Gene Kelly into his office in 1951 and tell him to make Singin’ in the Rain with Debbie Reynolds (a nobody), he’d have had no problem ordering Freed to make The Wizard of Oz with Shirley Temple whether he liked it or not. And Freed would have done as he was told; he got where he was by sucking up to L.B. (to be fair, he stayed where he was by producing one great and profitable musical after another for nearly 20 years).

So…sorting all this out, it strikes me that the bottom line is this: In the mid-1930s, if anybody ever gave a serious thought to remaking The Wizard of Oz (there had been two silent versions), the obvious and only possible choice to play Dorothy would have been Shirley Temple, and that very idea came up more than once. But for whatever reason, 20th Century Fox never got control of the property. Samuel Goldwyn, who owned it, seems never to have seriously considered filming it. Then in 1938, when MGM pried the rights loose from Goldwyn, they tried to borrow Shirley but couldn’t. As Aljean Harmetz correctly points out, if it had ever come to a serious showdown between Shirley and Judy Garland for the role, Judy would certainly have lost. Ergo, in this universe at least, it was never going to happen, Hollywood gossip and later tales notwithstanding. “Sometimes,” as Shirley said, “the gods know best.”

For the picture Shirley actually did make next, the question of rights was never an issue — the story had recently drifted into the public domain.


(released November 5, 1937)

H-poster02WAccording to Variety, Heidi was chosen for Shirley by public demand, as expressed in her fan mail — although the showbiz bible may simply have been parroting a studio press release. Either way, the role was a natural for Shirley. The source was a novel by Johanna Spyri (1827-1901), first published in the author’s native Switzerland in 1880. The book was instantly popular, and promptly translated from its original German into virtually every written language on Earth. The book was — and remains — so popular, in fact, that it’s surprising to realize that Shirley’s picture in 1937 was the first attempt to make a movie out of it (there have been over a dozen since).

To direct Heidi, Darryl Zanuck first approached Henry King, and he was an excellent choice. King’s directing career began in 1915 (and would stretch on to 1962), and he was one of that select group of directors who mastered moviemaking in the silent era, then adapted easily to the changing times when sound came in. By 1937, at Fox, he had already directed, among others, the first State Fair (’33) with Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor; Ramona (’36), Fox’s first Technicolor picture, from the Helen Hunt Jackson novel of old California; and Lloyds of London (also ’36), which made a star of Tyrone Power (who would work with King ten more times). Still to come were some of 20th Century Fox’s most important and successful pictures: Alexander’s Ragtime Band (’38), Jesse James (’39), The Song of Bernadette (’43), Wilson (’44), Twelve O’Clock High (’49), The Gunfighter (’50). King was the only director under contract to Fox who even approached the stature of John Ford (though King was a rather distant second at that), and if he had worked with Shirley it might have carried her farther along that fork in the road her career had taken with Wee Willie Winkie.

Alas, it was not to be. As King remembered it some 40 years later, he was on a busman’s holiday in Honolulu, doing prep work with the script for In Old Chicago, when he became stranded there by a steamship strike. Zanuck cabled him that In Old Chicago was being postponed and that he (Zanuck) wanted King to consider directing Heidi. “I immediately went to a bookstore in Honolulu, read it and didn’t think there was much of a movie in it. I don’t believe in fairies to begin with.”

It’s hard to imagine what King meant by that last sentence; Heidi is no fairy tale. Otherwise, his point is well taken — at first glance there isn’t much of a movie in Heidi. The story is unevenly weighted; most of the plot is stuffed into the first 240 pages (my edition runs to 404), followed by 140 pages of anticlimax before the story kicks in again for the last 20. For all that, however, the book paints a vivid picture of now-bygone country life in the Swiss Alps, and the characters have considerable charm, Heidi herself supremely so. It ought to have been right up King’s alley, but he didn’t see it that way; he was far more excited about In Old Chicago and wanted to concentrate on that. The prospect of working with Shirley was no inducement, he recalled telling Zanuck: “‘I’ve had my time directing children. I don’t want to start all over again.’ I had done Little Mary Sunshine and all those Baby Marie pictures way back, and that was all behind me.” (“Baby” Marie Osborne was a long-forgotten child star of the 1910s with whom King had made several pictures.)
With King taking a pass, the job of directing Heidi fell to Allan Dwan, whose movie career went back even further than King’s. Dwan began directing even before the advent of feature films, when directors on location wore six-shooters on their hips to protect against both the rattlesnakes in the Los Angeles hills and raiding thugs from Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company. By the time he retired in the late 1950s, Dwan would rack up a mind-boggling 403 credits (he claimed as many as a thousand more, but couldn’t be sure). Dwan is also the source of one of my favorite stories of those early wild-and-woolly days of moviemaking on the fly. He was with one such company on location in the wilds of Southern California, serving as a sort of paleo-location manager, when the director disappeared on a drunk. When several days passed without the man returning, Dwan cabled the higher-ups back in Chicago suggesting that the cast and crew be recalled; they wired back, “You direct.” Dwan called the gang together and put it to them: “Either I’m a director or you’re all out of a job.” Without exception they all said, “You’re the best damn director we ever saw.” 
As that anecdote suggests, Dwan throughout his prolific career was more stage manager than creative artist, and that was the attitude he brought to Heidi. In Child Star Shirley quotes him in a later interview as saying, “I liked to avoid children, especially those that were ‘over.’ She had hit her peak and was sliding fast when I started working with her.” Shirley doesn’t say when or to whom Dwan said this, but he was clearly speaking from hindsight; in 1937 few people thought Shirley Temple was “over”. Now, we can see that Shirley’s career at Fox had indeed peaked — probably with Captain January, Poor Little Rich Girl, Stowaway and Wee Willie Winkie — but she had been number one at the box office in 1935 and 1936, and would continue to be in 1937 and 1938. Dwan overcame his hesitation at working with Shirley (she won him over, of course; she won everybody over — except perhaps Alice Faye), and he and Shirley went on to make two more pictures together. Shirley was by no means “sliding fast” when she made Heidi — but her slide started soon thereafter, and the pictures she made with Dwan were a part of it. Small wonder that years later he preferred to believe that she was already fading before he came along.

The story of Heidi hardly needs synopsizing; nearly everybody knows it — or thinks they do. A sweet little orphan girl is dumped by an unfeeling aunt with her grandfather, a bitter, reclusive hermit and a stranger to her. Then, just as Heidi is beginning to thaw the heart of the old man, the aunt returns and kidnaps Heidi away to be sold to a wealthy Frankfurt family as a companion for the crippled daughter of the house.
Screenwriters Walter Ferris and Julien Josephson grappled with the narrative fermata that sets in on page 240 of Johanna Spyri’s book, choosing to solve the problem in a way that was utilitarian but not really felicitous. In the book Heidi makes friends with the crippled Klara — in fact, with everyone in the household except Fraulein Rottenmaier, the starchy, humorless old maid housekeeper. But Heidi becomes so homesick that Klara’s doctor insists she be sent home to her grandfather. Then come those 140 pages of Heidi romping through the Alps with her friend Peter, the goatherd, and mending the hard feelings between her grandfather and the villagers below. All this time Heidi keeps in touch with Klara, who finally comes to visit when the doctor agrees her frail health is strong enough. In the clean Alpine air, and with the encouragement of Heidi and her grandfather, Klara’s health is restored and she’s able to leave her wheelchair and walk again.

Ferris and Josephson replaced all this pastoral cavorting with melodrama. Heidi doesn’t go home to her grandfather until the very end; before that the old man (Jean Hersholt) walks the 100 miles to Frankfurt in search of her, then stalks the city streets calling her name, sometimes missing her my mere seconds. Meanwhile, Fraulein Rottenmaier (Mary Nash) is upgraded (or downgraded) from a mere narrow-minded, stiff-necked stick-in-the-mud to a full-fledged villainess; she plots to keep Klara (Marcia Mae Jones) crippled and dependent in the hope that the girl’s father Herr Sesemann (Sidney Blackmer) will be moved to marry his “indispensable” housekeeper. When Heidi unwittingly thwarts Fraulein R. by teaching Klara to walk, the fraulein retaliates by — I am not making this up — trying to sell Heidi to a band of gypsies. Only the intervention of a cool-headed police captain clears the way for a happy ending back on Heidi’s mountain.

Heidi gets off to a promising start. The picture’s Lake Arrowhead
locations, combined with good special effects (probably the work
of Fred Sersen, Fox’s effects wizard) make a credible substitute for
Switzerland, and the early scenes of Heidi’s unquenchable good
cheer slowly charming her gruff, taciturn old grandfather — Shirley
once again winning over a crusty curmudgeon — are well-played
by Shirley and a nearly silent Hersholt. One particularly charming
touch is a lilting little melody that Heidi hums to herself as she
goes about her chores — and which the grandfather eventually
finds himself humming without even realizing it. So far the
movie has been absolutely faithful to the spirit — and
reasonably faithful to the letter — of Johanna Spyri’s

This lasts precisely 19 minutes and 37 seconds.

H-Wooden-Shoes-collage02WThen disaster strikes — incredibly enough, in the form of exactly the sort of thing Darryl Zanuck said he didn’t want in Wee Willie Winkie. As Heidi and her grandfather sit at their cabin table, he ostensibly begins reading her a story about “The Magic Wooden Shoes”. The camera moves in on a woodcut in the book, and the picture dissolves to a quaint little Dutch scene by a storybook Zuider Zee, and there’s Shirley — or is it Heidi? — in blonde braids and bangs and a starched cap, singing about her shoes: 
Have you seen my new shoes?
They are made out of wood.
Such nice little shoes.
Don’t you think they look good?
(The song is “In Our Little Wooden Shoes” by Lew Pollack and Sidney D. Mitchell, uncredited.) Then Shirley leads her companions, all of them dressed in adorable Hans Brinker costumes (the boys look like they all stepped off a can of house paint), in an energetic clog dance (staged by Sammy Lee, also uncredited), with Shirley soaring over their heads to land in a treetop, then turning to sail back to earth — or rather, to the stage floor — again.
Then, apropos of absolutely nothing whatsoever, the scene dissolves to an elegant marbled hall, with Shirley dolled up like a miniature Marie Antoinette, leading (presumably) the same troupe of children, now dressed like lords and ladies of the French court, in a genteel minuet to the same tune. Then the number segues back to that stagebound Holland and its two-dimensional windmills, and finally back again to Switzerland as the grandfather tucks the sleeping Heidi into her little bed.

There’s nothing really “wrong”, exactly, with all this, except for one thing: It doesn’t belong here. It has nothing to do with the life of a little girl in provincial Switzerland in 1880, but it has plenty to do with being Shirley Temple in 1937. This silly little number, coming when it does, wrecks Heidi beyond fixing. After this, we no longer believe we’re in Switzerland or, later, Frankfurt; we can’t possibly be anywhere but Hollywood. (The melodramatic blandishments of the script — selling Heidi to gypsies?? — and Dwan’s directing every scene at a headlong, breakneck pace, as if he has to be somewhere across town 15 minutes after calling cut, certainly don’t help.)

Shirley tells us that the number was inserted in the picture halfway through shooting. Whose bright idea was it? I blame Darryl Zanuck; nothing happened at his studio or went into his pictures that he didn’t know about and approve. What ever happened to “We don’t want to depend on any of her tricks” or “She should not be doing things because she is Shirley Temple, but because the situations — sound and believable — call for them“? I can only think — and this is pure speculation on my part — that Zanuck’s edicts in that story conference on Wee Willie Winkie were said simply to placate John Ford, as if Ford had said, “All right, Darryl, I’ll direct your Shirley Temple picture, but don’t try to saddle me with any of those cute little song-and-dance scenes; I won’t have it.” Maybe if Henry King had agreed to direct Heidi, those edicts would have stood. King might well have insisted, but not a director like Dwan. 

At the time, Shirley enjoyed the number, enjoyed wearing those Dutch braids and bangs, enjoyed being flown on that invisible wire. In retrospect, writing in Child Star, she saw it as the turning point in her career. She called the “Wooden Shoes” number “a traditional Temple musical filler”, adding that “it marked the collapse of any studio resolve to build on the purely dramatic momentum first evident in Wee Willie Winkie.” With the same hindsight we can see that Shirley was right.

That’s in hindsight, however; no such thing was apparent at the time. In 1937, the picture was a major hit. Along with Wee Willie Winkie, Shirley’s only other picture that year, it kept her the number-one box office star, and Heidi became one of Shirley’s signature roles. Maybe even the signature role; to this day, it’s often the first picture mentioned when Shirley’s name comes up. Reviews were positive — better, in fact, than for Wee Willie Winkie. Variety’s “Char” called it “good for average Temple draw or better” (which it was), and said it “follows the original [novel] rather faithfully” (which it didn’t). In the Times, Frank S. Nugent was, for him, almost rhapsodic: “All of it has been framed handsomely in the snows of a Hollywood Switzerland, with a soft sepia (and blue) tinting to accentuate its dreamworld quality” (unlike Wee Willie Winkie, Heidi has not survived in that form). Nugent closed by admitting, “Shirley has scored another ‘coo.'”

H-Frame08a-Temple-1But looking back, we can see the handwriting on the wall. For me, seeing Heidi again for the first time in nearly 60 years was an eye-opening shock. I had remembered it as one of Shirley’s best-loved pictures. In fact, it always perplexed me that the 1952 Swiss version, which I saw about the same time, stayed fresher in my memory over the decades. Seeing Shirley’s again, I’m no longer perplexed. Heidi is no doubt one of her best-loved pictures, but it’s not one of her best. Despite those very good early scenes, and some later ones like the scene where the grandfather accompanies Heidi to the church that he hasn’t visited in years (straight out of Frau Spyri’s novel), the picture never recovers from the miscalculation of “In Our Little Wooden Shoes”; it’s one of the head-scratching what-on-Earth-were-they-thinking moments of 1930s Hollywood. What they were thinking, I suspect — or more to the point, what Darryl Zanuck was thinking — was that his dictum about writing the story as if it were a Little Women or David Copperfield, about writing for Shirley as an actress and not depending on any of her tricks, was no longer operative. Henceforth, as far as 20th Century Fox was concerned, Shirley’s tricks would be her stock in trade. The studio was no longer interested in Shirley becoming an actress; instead, they would keep her a baby taking a bow for as long as they could get away with it. 

To be continued