Bright Eyes, 1928-2014

It’s been over three weeks now since the news came that Shirley Temple Black had left us. I’ve spent the time perusing her 1988 autobiography Child Star — refreshingly frank and thorough, if a bit starchy and formal. I’ve also been reacquainting myself with her movies, which was more than a little overdue; I haven’t seen most of her pictures since I was about the age she was when she made them. Some I’ve never seen at all.
I’ll be posting on a few of those movies, because I think her career is worth reviewing in detail. But while I’m working up to that, I don’t want to let her passing go without some comment in the meantime. Shirley Temple was one of a kind.

It may sound strange, but the comparison that sprang to my mind when I heard she was gone was with the Beatles, and not just because she appears in the crowd on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

 

Both were unprecedented showbiz phenomena that broke the mold. There were child stars before Shirley Temple (Jackie Coogan, Baby Peggy, Jackie Cooper), just as there were pop music sensations before the Beatles (Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley). But these two — that one and those four — reached a level of popularity that dwarfed anything that had come before. There was simply nothing to compare them to.

And they went beyond merely breaking the mold. They reset it — in their own image. Pop idols from ABBA and the Bay City Rollers to One Direction and Justin Bieber would all be called the biggest thing since the Beatles, but there never was a “next” Beatles. It’s been 80 years since Shirley Temple’s bit part in Stand Up and Cheer! made America sit up and take notice, and from Jane Withers through Freddie Bartholomew, Roddy McDowall, Margaret O’Brien, Bobby Driscoll, Patty McCormack, Hayley Mills, Tatum O’Neal, Drew Barrymore, Abigail Breslin — plus countless sitcom kiddies sprouting up along the way — there’s never been a “next” Shirley Temple either.

 
My father once told me, “There were two bright spots in the Great Depression. One was Will Rogers, and the other was Shirley Temple.” In Child Star Shirley tells us that Rogers said they were set to make a picture together “when I come back from Alaska”, but of course he never did. After August 1935 Shirley would have to brighten the Depression all by herself. And that’s just what she did, in picture after picture, beginning with her bit in Stand Up and Cheer!, singing and dancing “Baby, Take a Bow” with James Dunn. It may be hard at this remove — for some, impossible — to grasp how this little girl charmed and cheered America just when the country seemed to be falling apart. But she did, and for three years she was the top star in the nation, if not in the world.

Later, when — as it inevitably must — her box-office power began to wane, her personal popularity never did. Neither did the level-headed cheer that made up her on-and-off-screen personae. There was no descent into bitterness, drugs or alcohol, no pathetic scramble to cling to lost youth, no humiliating splash in the tabloids. A happy second marriage to well-to-do Charles Black helped, but even that might not have happened without the solid, no-nonsense upbringing she got from her mother.

Gertrude Temple was the kind of woman who could have given stage mothers a good name — if there hadn’t been so few like her. She saw to it that little Shirley had a firm sense of self independent of her phenomenal popularity — and in time, independent of her mother. That’s why, when her movie career ended in 1950, Shirley was able to move on without a backward glance. The grace, confidence and poise instilled by Mother Gertrude served her daughter well through those early dizzy years and, more important, long after. They took her smoothly through, first, a second career in early television; then, surprisingly, a third career in politics and international diplomacy, as U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia and White House chief of protocol; and finally, a long bask in the setting sun as a Dowager Queen of the Golden Age of Hollywood. 

I’ll have more to say about those first heady years in posts to come. For now: So long, Shirley, and thanks for the memories. We shall not look upon your like again.
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Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 1

 
 

 

Shirley Temple got her feet wet in the movie business — and came to the attention of Fox Film Corp. — in Jack Hays’s “Baby Burlesks”. These were a bizarre series of shorts that pretty much have to be seen to be disbelieved. The basic idea was to show toddlers in diapers either spoofing famous movies or engaging in various grown-up activities: war, politics, making movies (although the series called into question exactly how grown-up that particular activity was).  The first of these shorts — though the “Baby Burlesks” name hadn’t been adopted yet — was Runt Page, a send-up of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page. And this shot right here was America’s first look at three-year-old Shirley Jane Temple. She sits in her high chair listening as her screen parents and another couple chat about having seen The Front Page; then she flops over in sleep and dreams a ten-minute version of the story featuring her and her tiny playmates.

In her dream, Shirley is the fiancee of reporter Bilgy Yohnson, played by Georgie Smith, her “first leading man”; they are shown here with little Eugene Butler, who played Bilgy’s editor Walter Scalds (“Bilgy Yohnson” and  “Walter Scalds” for The Front Page‘s Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns, get it? That’s about the level of producer Jack Hays’s writing). America may have seen her in Runt Page, but nobody heard her voice, or the voices of any of the other kids; they were all dubbed by adults. For that matter, it’s an open question exactly how many people even saw her; in Child Star she writes that the one-reel short was a “dismal failure in the marketplace [and] its sale was abandoned”. Besides, as this frame suggests, Shirley still had a few things to learn — for instance, not to look at the camera.
 
But she proved to be a quick study, especially at home with Mother Gertrude, who coached her in how to “sparkle” for the camera. “When she said ‘sparkle’,” Shirley wrote, “it meant energy, an intellectual intensity which would naturally translate itself into vivid and convincing gesture and expression.” (By the way, let me insert here that there can be no doubt that Shirley herself wrote Child Star; she writes like a diplomat. But not like a diplomat talking to her foreign counterparts — no, like a diplomat reporting to her colleagues back at the State Department.)

Runt Page was produced and distributed by Universal; evidently Shirley’s memory of it as a “dismal failure” was correct, because the studio bailed on making any other shorts with the “Baby Stars”. Jack Hays and his troupe of toddlers wound up at Educational Pictures, a Poverty Row establishment that trawled around the fringes of Hollywood snagging talent either on their way up (Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Edward Everett Horton worked there early in their careers) or on their way down (Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton and Roscoe Arbuckle all fell to earth there when their own stars went into eclipse).

Like the other kids in the Baby Burlesks, Shirley was under exclusive contract to producer Jack Hays. To finance his share of the shorts (Educational supplied 75 percent of the funding, Hays 25 percent), Hays farmed the kids out for modeling gigs, promotional gimmicks, bit parts or walk-ons, anything that required a child, pocketing most of the money and passing a pittance along to the parents (in Shirley’s case the few dollars supplemented her father George’s income as a branch manager for California Bank). All that shuttling around L.A. on Hays’s loan-outs, on top of her lessons at Mrs. Meglin’s Dance Studio, gave Shirley a tidy fund of experience for one so young.

After Runt Page the dubbing by adult voices was abandoned, and for the rest of the Baby Burlesks’ brief run the kids would all perform, for better or worse, with their own voices. In Shirley’s case it was for the better, as it turned out she could sing and dance. Here, in her seventh Baby Burlesk, Glad Rags to Riches, she sings for the first time on screen, playing Nell (aka night club chanteuse La Belle Diaperene). The song is “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage”; Shirley is four years and nine months old.

In September 1933 Jack Hays declared personal bankruptcy, and George Temple used his banking contacts to negotiate with Hays’s court-appointed trustee to buy back Shirley’s contract for $25. (Hays, one of Hollywood’s true bottom-feeders, said nothing at the time. But later, after Shirley had hit it big, he tried suing for half a million dollars, claiming the sale had been illegal. His nuisance suit dragged on for years before he finally settled for $3,500.)

After two-and-a-half years, in which she made 15 shorts and appeared in five features, Shirley was unemployed. Then, as the saying goes, fate intervened. At the end of November 1933, at a sneak preview for What’s to Do?, one of the Educational shorts Shirley had made on loan from Hays, she and her mother met songwriter Jay Gorney, recently hired by Fox Film Corp. This landed her an audition with Gorney and his partner Lew Brown, who was also serving as associate producer under Fox production chief Winfield Sheehan. Brown and Gorney cast her in a small part in a picture that was already well into production. For all intents and purposes, whatever her previous experience, Shirley Temple’s screen career — and certainly the Shirley Temple Phenomenon — began with…

 
Stand Up and Cheer!

(released April 19, 1934)

Stand Up and Cheer! was an “all-star” revue masquerading as a standard book musical (the original working title was Fox Follies). The premise of Ralph Spence’s script, based on a “story idea suggested by” Will Rogers and Philip Klein, was that the U.S. President, in order to help people forget their troubles during the Depression, creates a new cabinet post, Secretary of Amusement, and appoints Broadway producer Lawrence Cromwell (Warner Baxter, essentially xeroxing his Julian Marsh from 42nd Street the year before) to oversee federally-funded public entertainment.

This provided the framework for a series of songs and specialty numbers by guest artists. Most of them were second- and third-string stars even at the time — vaudevillian Sylvia Froos, dreamboat tenor John Boles, blackface red-hot-mama entertainer Tess “Aunt Jemima” Gardella, hillbilly singer “Skins” Miller, knockabout comics Mitchell & Durant — and they’re all now generally (even utterly) forgotten. In fact, the one who’s best-remembered today is the one who wasn’t a star at all — yet: Shirley herself. In this poster she receives seventh billing, but on screen she’s billed third, right after romantic ingenue Madge Evans. Clearly, Fox had some inkling of what they had on their hands.

 

In Child Star Shirley remembers her mother taking her on December 7, 1933 to audition for Jay Gorney and Lew Brown. She sang “Lazybones” sitting on Brown’s piano, then slid down and stood by while the two songwriters discussed her as if she weren’t there (none of them suspecting, no doubt, that she’d be writing about it half a century hence). Brown was dubious; Winfield Sheehan, he said, was “high on the other kid.” Gorney demurred: “Unnatural, precocious. A revolting little monster.” Brown agreed, and they offered Shirley the part. After all, they wrote the songs for Stand Up and Cheer!, plus Brown was the picture’s associate producer. Shirley never knew how they brought Sheehan around, but Abel Green, in reviewing the picture for Variety, mentions approvingly that Brown had “held out…for that cute Shirley Temple.”

Shirley’s share of Stand Up and Cheer! consisted of two brief scenes, a curtain-call appearance in the movie’s finale, and a song-and-dance duet with James Dunn to “Baby, Take a Bow”. It may have helped them both that “Baby, Take a Bow” was the best song in the score. Or was it that it just seemed like the best because Dunn and Shirley performed it? That’s a chicken-or-the-egg question, but the bottom line was beyond debate: “Baby, Take a Bow” was the highlight of the weird, unruly hodgepodge that was Stand Up and Cheer!

The picture was deep into shooting when Shirley was cast, and the cash-strapped studio couldn’t afford to dawdle, so she had some serious catching up to do. To save rehearsal time, dance director Sammy Lee jettisoned the tap routine he’d taught to Dunn and had the actor learn the steps Shirley already knew from Mrs. Meglin’s. Then, late on her first morning, it was off to the sound studio to pre-record the song. Dunn flubbed several takes, then finally got it right. When her turn came, Shirley stood on a stool (her mother had taught her the words to the song just minutes before) and sang — then was mortified when, on the very last note, her voice slipped into an unintended falsetto (“Dad-dee, take a bow-oo!”). She thought she’d ruined the take and was terrified she’d be fired, but she needn’t have worried; that little half-yodel at the tail end of her vocal provided the perfect “button” to the song and firmly cemented her Cute Quotient.

My apologies to any black-and-white purists in the house, but the best clip of “Baby, Take a Bow” available on YouTube really is this colorized version, so try to make allowances (anyhow, the colorizing is better than usual, without those spray-on-tan orange skin tones). It’s worth posting here because it really is one of movie history’s genuine A Star Is Born Moments. Besides, it’s a fun number, well-stage by Lee in Busby-Berkeley-on-a-shoestring style. First comes Dunn singing the song to Patricia Lee, she silently beaming and sashaying in Toby Wing fashion. Then the customary parade of chorines, with Dunn endearingly hopping hither and yon to avoid stepping on their long trains. Shirley enters at about the two-thirds point — first she poses, then she sings, then she dances, each stage of the number presented as if to say, “But wait, there’s more!” As Shirley dances, swinging her arms in joyous abandon, it’s easy to imagine that she knows this is the chance of a lifetime, and is carpe-ing this diem for all it’s worth. That may be reading too much, though; after all, she’s only five. It may simply be that she’s having fun!
 

 

Stand Up and Cheer! ran 80 minutes, and Shirley was on screen for a mere 5 minutes, 5 seconds. (The picture survives only in a 69 min. version reissued after Fox had merged with Darryl Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures — but considering that by that time Shirley was the main selling point, it’s a cinch they didn’t cut a frame of hers.) Fleeting as they were, those five minutes were all she needed, and there was no doubt who stopped the show. Variety’s Green got right to the point. In his very first sentence, he wrote: “If nothing else, ‘Stand Up and Cheer’ should be very worthwhile for Fox because of that sure-fire, potential kidlet star in four-year-old Shirley Temple.” (Shirley was five — in fact, she turned six the day before Green’s review appeared — but never mind; Fox publicity had already shaved a year off her age.)

Meanwhile, over on the other coast, the New York Times’s Mordaunt Hall was borderline obtuse. He absurdly compared Stand Up and Cheer! to Gilbert and Sullivan and spent long inches recounting the picture’s plot — not its most prominent virtue — and praising an excruciating scene between Stepin Fetchit (so popular in the ’30s, so cringe-making today) and a penguin in a coat and hat claiming to be Jimmy Durante (the voice impersonated by Lew Brown). But even Hall paused to mention “a delightful child named Shirley Temple.”

Even before the public verdict was in, Winfield Sheehan knew what he had, and he wasted no time locking Shirley down. Two weeks after Shirley’s audition for Brown and Gorney, he tore up the old one-picture, two-week contract and offered a new one for a year, with an option to renew for seven. The money was a lot better, but Shirley and her parents were still dealing in a buyer’s market, and Fox got a sweet deal.

That was the easy part. Now the question was: How could Fox — bleeding cash, defaulting on loans and teetering on bankruptcy — exploit their most promising new star when she was only five — oops! make that [wink] four — years old? While they mulled that over, Fox decided to make a little mad money by loaning her out. And so it was that Shirley Temple’s first above-the-title credit, and the role that confirmed her as a bona fide star, came to her from another studio.  

 To be continued
 

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 2

“Anyone four years old,” Shirley Temple Black wrote, “absorbs experience like a blotter.” Anyhow, she certainly did, and her experience with the Baby Burlesks gave her plenty to soak up. She learned that making movies was business, and wasting time was wasting money — and if you wasted too much of either, you wouldn’t get any more of it. Se learned about hitting chalk marks on the floor to be properly lit. Even better than that, she found that her face was particularly sensitive to the warmth from the overhead lighting instruments, which made her good at what actors call “finding your light”; she could feel the difference between the light hitting her forehead, her cheek or her chin.

 

Something else that she found she could do didn’t surface until she made Stand Up and Cheer!: filming to playback. On the Baby Burlesks there hadn’t been time or money for fripperies like pre-recording; when Shirley sang “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” in Glad Rags to Riches or “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye” in Kid in Hollywood, she performed live on the set to a simple piano, with other instruments to be dubbed in later (even that was an extravagance for penny-pinching Educational). This idea of recording the song first, then mouthing the words later for the camera was entirely new to her. As even the most experienced actors have learned to their dismay, it’s not simply a matter of synchronizing lip movements; your posture, your breathing, the angle of your head, even your facial expressions can all influence the sound your voice makes when you’re singing. If you don’t replicate them precisely, audiences tend to notice the difference, even if they can’t quite put their finger on what’s wrong. Getting it right called for the application of another actorly phrase, “sense memory”. Shirley found that it came easily to her. “Mimicry is not an unusual talent in a child,” she wrote, “and I had no appreciation for what a nasty problem such synchronization presents for many actors.”
 
There were many such lessons that went into The Education of Shirley Temple. Henry Hathaway told a story of directing her in To the Last Man, a 1933 western from a Zane Grey novel about an age-old blood feud between two Kentucky clans that continues as both families relocate to the Nevada frontier. Shirley played an uncredited bit (one of her loan-outs from Jack Hays) as a third-generation child of one of the families. (She’s shown here with Muriel Kirkland, left, as her aunt and Gail Patrick as her mother.)
 
The script called for her to be conducting a play tea party in the yard outside her family’s ranch house when a member of the enemy clan shoots the head off her doll, hoping to prod her father, uncles and grandfather into a showdown.
 
As the camera rolled, she was to offer a cup of tea to a small pony standing by her table. But the pony became inordinately interested in the sugar bowl on the table and stuck his snout into it. Ad libbing with the moment, Shirley snapped “Get away! Get away!” and slapped the pony’s nose. The scene escalated into a shoving match, with Shirley pushing at the pony and kicking at his fetlocks. As Hathaway looked on in horror (“Oh Jeez, I was scared to death.”), the pony turned his back and kicked viciously at the girl with his hind legs, missing her head by inches. She stood her ground and glared at him: “You ever do that to me again, I’ll kick you!”
 
Hathaway had seen enough — too much, really. “Cut!” He went up to Shirley. “Didn’t that scare you?”
 
“Yes,” she said. 
 
“Well, you didn’t stop.” 
 
“Oh, I wouldn’t dare stop.” 
 

Even at the age of five, Shirley already knew two things: (1) animals can’t be counted on to follow the script, and you have to be ready to deal with what they actually do; and (2) no matter what happens, only the director gets to call “Cut!” (By the way, the pony’s kick did not remain in the picture; it would have detracted too much from the “murder” of the doll, the dramatic point of the scene.)

Shirley’s new contract with Fox was exclusive, but in the immediate aftermath of shooting “Baby, Take a Bow” for Stand Up and Cheer! all the studio found for her to do was a less-than-worthless bit in a Janet Gaynor/Charles Farrell romance called Change of Heart. Eight seconds on screen — with her back to the camera, yet! — and not a syllable of dialogue; it was worse than the bits Jack Hays used to send her on. Mother Gertrude set out to drum up some work — if some other studio wanted her daughter, surely a loan could be worked out — and she had just the picture in mind, over at Paramount. It was one for which Shirley had already auditioned and been dismissed out of hand. (“They took one look, watched me dance, and rejected me without a smile.”)


Little Miss Marker

(released June 1, 1934)

Little-Miss-Marker-LC01aWSomehow, this time Gertrude was able to wangle an interview with the movie’s director, Alexander Hall. In Child Star Shirley doesn’t know how Mother did it; I wouldn’t be surprised if word of  Shirley’s song-and-dance with James Dunn was already circulating on the Hollywood grapevine. In any event, Shirley auditioned for Hall personally.
 
The director showed Shirley to a chair and sat facing her. “Say, ‘Aw, nuts.'”
 
“Aw, nuts!”
 
“Scram!”
 
“Scram!”
 
Hall stood up. “Okay.”
 
“Okay!”
 

“No, kid! Stop! We’re finished.” It was as simple as that; Shirley had the part. Paramount offered Fox $1,000 a week for Shirley’s services (a huge profit over the $175 in her Fox contract), and on March 1, 1934 Shirley reported for her first costume fittings for Little Miss Marker.

William R. Lipman, Sam Hellman and Gladys Lehman’s script was adapted from a story by Damon Runyon about a sourpuss bookie named Sorrowful who grudgingly accepts a bettor’s small daughter as a sort of “hostage” for a two-dollar bet on a horse race. The father promises to get the money and be right back, but he never comes back. Sorrowful finds himself saddled with the little girl, whose sunny sweetness gradually thaws his heart, brightens his outlook and loosens his airtight purse strings. Everyone notices the change the tot makes in Sorrowful, and they warm to little “Marky” themselves.

Damon Runyon died in 1946, but his name has stayed current in American culture thanks to the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls (its title taken from one of his story anthologies, its plot from two of his tales). But Guys and Dolls has also skewed the popular image of his stories and what it means to be “Runyonesque”. The musical is set in a rollicking fantasy land of cute underworld denizens — grifters, mugs, oafs and dames, colorful and essentially harmless. In Runyon’s stories there is humor, to be sure, but it’s not rollicking; it’s more often sardonic, even mordant, and the atmosphere of the stories, despite the picturesque speech, is hardly fantasy. The world of Runyon’s nameless narrator is gritty and down to earth, lit by bare bulbs in cheap hotel rooms and the gaudy glare of street neon; we can almost smell the cheap cigars and stale perfume. Things may work out — for the time being — for the characters, but it’s usually thanks to ironic accidents, not a benign universe. There’s often an undercurrent of menace beneath the whimsy, and bad things do happen.

And so it is in “Little Miss Marker”. One snowy night Marky wakes to find her nursemaid asleep and Sorrowful gone. Running outside barefoot in her nightgown, she tracks him to the Hot Box nightclub and runs into his arms just as a killer named Milk Ear Willie is about to settle an old grudge by plugging Sorrowful. Willie changes his mind, so Marky has saved Sorrowful’s life — but at the cost of her own. She contracts pneumonia and dies in hospital, despite the efforts of Sorrowful and his associates (even Milk Ear Willie chips in, kidnapping a famous child specialist to attend Marky’s bedside). Minutes after Marky’s death her father turns up, having suffered from amnesia since the day he left his little girl with the bookmaker. He has read about Marky in the newspapers and has finally come to take her home. “I suppose I owe you something?” he asks Sorrowful. Yes, says the bookie, you owe me two bucks. “I will trouble you to send it to me at once, so I can wipe you off my books.” He is once again the old Sorrowful, with the same “sad, mean-looking kisser” he had before — “and furthermore,” says the narrator, “it is never again anything else.”

The movie keeps Runyon’s hospital climax — Marky is there with life-threatening injuries from falling from a horse, not pneumonia — but softens the ending: Marky lives, and Sorrowful’s reformation is allowed to stick. (The writers also gave Sorrowful a surname, Jones, which is not in the story but has stayed with him through two remakes.) Otherwise, it’s faithful to the spirit of Runyon’s story — basically a drama with small comic flourishes — with a suitable mix of seediness and vulgar glamour. Surely, Runyon was pleased.

Little Miss Marker contains one of the  most unusual movie pairings of the 1930s: Shirley Temple and Adolphe Menjou. The usually dapper, immaculately tailored Menjou (he was voted Best Dressed Man in America nine times) was, at first glance, an odd choice not only to team with a child but to portray the rumpled, unkempt Sorrowful Jones. But it works; Shirley’s Marky brings out the debonair sport in Menjou’s Sorrowful, the one we knew was there all the time, by inspiring him to move to a more suitable apartment and upgrade his wardrobe.  (Curiously enough, Menjou would play a similarly disheveled grump, and have a similar rapport with kids, in his last picture, Disney’s Pollyanna in 1960 — this time with two child stars, Hayley Mills and Kevin Corcoran.)

Shirley says in Child Star that Menjou once offered to play hide-and-seek with her, but otherwise tended to keep his distance (“off-camera he treated me with the reticence adults commonly reserve for children”). But when the camera’s rolling the two have a remarkable chemistry. It’s there when Marky and Sorrowful first meet, as she stands beside her father on the divider railing in Sorrowful’s shabby office. Sorrowful orders Marky “down offa there”, but she teases him: “Look, Daddy, he’s running away! Is he afraid?…You’re afraid of my daddy! Or you’re afraid of me. You’re afraid of something…” There follows a remarkable moment when Sorrowful picks Marky up, supposedly to get her off the railing, but holds her for a short while, her hands resting on his shoulders, while their eyes meet. Then he sets her down and growls to his henchman Regret (Lynn Overman), “Take his marker…A little doll like that’s worth twenty bucks. Any way you look at it.” (“Yeah,” Regret grumbles, “she oughta melt down for that much.”)

The chemistry is there, too, in a charming scene where Sorrowful and Marky talk about God, and he grudgingly agrees to teach her to say her prayers: “All right, get outta bed. I’ll show you how to pray. Sort of. But don’t you tell anybody, see?” The topper to the scene is the look on Sorrowful’s face when he hears why she wanted to learn: “And please, God, buy Sir Sorry a new suit of clothes.” In the very next scene, Sorrowful the sartorial butterfly has hatched out of his rumpled cocoon. (“Sir Sorry the Sad Knight” is the name Marky gives Sorrowful; she names all his cronies according to the stories she’s heard about King Arthur.)

 
Marky’s “Lady Guinevere” is Bangles Carson (Dorothy Dell), nightclub singer and kept doll of Big Steve Halloway (Charles Bickford). Bickford, of course, was in the early stages of a long and distinguished career. Dell might have been, too; she was only 19 when she made Little Miss Marker, her second picture, with a husky contralto voice and a wise way with a good line. She too had a strong rapport with Shirley, only this time it extended to off-camera, where she was as much a big sister to her as Bangles is to Marky. Dorothy Dell might have become Paramount’s answer to Alice Faye, Joan Blondell or Jean Harlow. Alas, when this scene of Bangles singing Marky to sleep was shot, Dell had only three months to live. Early in the morning of June 8, 1934, she was returning from a party in Altadena with a friend, Dr. Carl Wagner. On a deceptively sharp curve on Lincoln Avenue in Pasadena, Wagner lost control. The car hit a rock, then, flipping end over end, a light pole and a palm tree. Dorothy was killed instantly, crushed in the mangled wreck. Wagner was thrown clear but  died six hours later without regaining consciousness. Shirley was back at Paramount then, making another loan-out (Now and Forever); the studio staff kept the news from her as long as they could.
 
 
Some of Shirley and Dorothy’s chemistry is on display in this scene of the two singing one of Bangles’s songs, “Laugh, You Son of a Gun” (by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger). I post it here not only for Shirley, but for Dorothy; she deserves to be remembered. (UPDATE 9/1/14: Alas, the video clip from Little Miss Marker that was originally embedded here has now gone dead. Here’s a soundtrack-only clip of the song, as it was recorded live on the set during filming; hopefully a full clip will become available someday):

 

 

LMM-Frame05-TitleWLittle Miss Marker fleshed out and in many ways improved Runyon’s original story. The amnesiac-father angle was always a bit of a credulity stretch; in the movie he becomes a suicide — driven off the end of his rope when the bet he placed with Sorrowful turns out a loser. This heightens Sorrowful’s sense of obligation to Marky: the race was rigged and he knew it when he took the man’s bet. It also links Marky to that losing horse, the ironically named Dream Prince. When Big Steve, Dream Prince’s owner, is suspended over suspicions about that fixed race, Steve and Sorrowful set Marky up as Dream Prince’s dummy owner so the horse can continue to run. Marky’s affection for “the Charger” (another one of her fanciful King Arthur names) draws her, Sorrowful and Bangles closer together, and leads to a crisis when Big Steve gets wind of shenanigans behind his back.
 
Little Miss Marker was a smash hit. With it Shirley Temple truly arrived, and it remains one of her best pictures with one of her best performances. It proved that her show-stopper in Stand Up and Cheer! was no fluke, that she could handle the central role in a major feature and hold her own with a castful of seasoned professionals. Just look at her billing in the picture’s opening credits: her name alone, before the title and just as big — bigger in fact than Menjou, Bickford, Runyon, even director Alexander Hall. Runyon’s story would be filmed again over the years, going from good (Sorrowful Jones [1949] with Bob Hope) to bad (40 Pounds of Trouble [’62] with Tony Curtis) to awful (Little Miss Marker [’80] with Walter Matthau). In every single one, the little girl playing Marky made absolutely no impression whatever. Can you even name them? (If you said Mary Jane Saunders, Claire Wilcox and Sara Stimson, move to the head of the Trivia Seminar.) Marky is Shirley Temple’s role for as long as movies live.
 
And how the boys at Paramount must have crowed over that “Adolph Zukor Presents” line; take that, Fox! If you don’t know what to do with Shirley Temple, stand aside. (Paramount did in fact offer to buy Shirley’s contract for $50,000 outright. Fox declined.) Besides “announcing” Shirley and making her a real star, Little Miss Marker served notice to the geniuses over at Fox that they’d better get off their duffs and come up with something better than that miserable walk-on in Change of Heart. Luckily for Fox, they didn’t waste any more time; they put Shirley in a flurry of tailor-made pictures that are all but unique in the first year of any newborn star — a concentrated series of hits so impossible to ignore that it would spur the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, unsure what else to do, to invent a brand new award category just for her.

 
To be continued
 

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 3

At this point in our story it’s still the spring of 1934. Before renting Shirley Temple out to Paramount to become a star, Fox frittered her away in one more pointless bit in Now I’ll Tell. Actually, the picture’s full title on screen was “Now I’ll Tell” by Mrs. Arnold Rothstein, and as that suggests, it purported to be the inside dope on the high-flying life and mysterious death of Mrs. Rothstein’s deceased husband, the gangster/gambler who fixed the 1919 World Series, was shot in November 1928 (apparently for welshing on a poker debt), and died two days later refusing to name his killer. Names were changed to protect the guilty, so Spencer Tracy starred as “Murray Golden”, with Helen Twelvetrees as his saintly, noble wife (Mrs. Rothstein wrote the story, remember!), and with Rothstein’s many mistresses combined into one person and played by 18-year-old Alice Faye.

Shirley’s role was an inch or two better than in Change of Heart: 42 seconds on screen and a whopping five lines of dialogue (to wit: “And we saw a cow there, too!”, “Does a black cow make black milk?”, “Good night”, and “Good night, Daddy” — twice). Publicity poses like this one may have led Shirley to misremember her role as that of Tracy’s daughter; in fact, she played the daughter of Tommy Doran (Henry O’Neill), a boyhood chum of Golden’s who grows up to be a police detective — on the other side of the law from his old pal. A decent enough gangland melodrama, Now I’ll Tell hit screens one week after Little Miss Marker, and could only have underscored Fox’s cluelessness.

(A side note: While Fox quickly learned to value Shirley, they never did know what they had in Spencer Tracy. They put him in 18 pictures in five years, usually as mugs and lummoxes, with the occasional loan-out here and there. Gradually he built a reputation as one of the best actors in town, but Fox kept wasting him on parts you could practically train a gorilla to play. Eventually they let him slip through their fingers into a contract with MGM in 1935. Within two years at Metro, Spence had snagged his first Oscar nomination; in the following two years he got his second and third, winning both times.) 

After Now I’ll Tell, however, Shirley’s days of Poverty Row shorts, four-line bits and uncredited walk-ons were finally behind her. For her next picture, she got top billing at last from her home studio, and just to remind audiences where they’d seen this kid before, Fox changed the title to…


Baby Take a Bow

(released June 30, 1934)

BTAB-poster02WFirst, an explanation of a trivial point, just so you don’t suspect sloppy copy editing here at Cinedrome. The title of Jay Gorney and Lew Brown’s song “Baby, Take a Bow” has a comma, and the comma appears in this and some other posters, ads and lobby cards for the movie. But it’s not on the picture’s main title card as it appears on screen. Therefore, I’ll be using the comma when referring to the song, but not using it when I’m referring to the movie. Got it?
 
Anyhow, “Baby, Take a Bow” isn’t in Baby Take a Bow — except as a line of dialogue spoken by James Dunn (once again playing Shirley’s father); but more of that later.
 
There’s an intriguing mystery about the source material for Baby Take a Bow that’s worth going into before we get to Shirley’s version of it. It was originally a play by James P. Judge titled Square Crooks that ran on Broadway for 150 performances in 1926. That was a pretty decent run in those days, especially for a one-set play with a cast of nine, so Square Crooks probably turned a profit for its investors. In any case, it was bought by Fox and filmed as a silent in 1928.

Robert Armstrong and John Mack Brown played two ex-cons trying to go straight who fall under suspicion when a crony from their criminal days steals a pearl necklace from their wealthy employer. The thief tries to get the two to fence the pearls but they refuse. Complications arise when the thief, sensing the cops hot on his trail, stashes the necklace with Armstrong’s unsuspecting little girl, who thinks it’s a birthday present. What follows is a comic round of button-button-who’s-got-the-button as the thief tries to retrieve the pearls; the heroes try to return them to their boss; an implacable insurance detective seeks to get the goods on the heroes, whom he suspects of the theft; and the little girl thinks it’s all a game of hide-and-seek.

The mystery I mentioned arises from a reading of Variety’s review of Square Crooks. The reviewer “Mori” praised it lightly as a “moderately interesting” B programmer (it ran only 60 minutes), but added, “Only chance with a story of this kind was to build a central character. But here five different people and a juvenile player divide interest, with the baby drawing first honors.” Mori didn’t identify the “baby”, and neither does the picture’s IMDb listing or the listing for the original play on the Internet Broadway Database (where the credits are admittedly incomplete). So unless a print of Square Crooks survives in the Fox vault (which, for a silent that came out during the hectic talkie revolution, is highly doubtful), the name of the little girl who Mori thought stole the show is probably lost forever to history.

 

Be that as it may, we certainly know who played the kid in the sound remake. Shirley is shown here with Claire Trevor, who plays her mother and James Dunn’s wife. Trevor is younger and softer in Baby Take a Bow than we remember her from her better-known performances — Stagecoach; Key Largo; The High and the Mighty; Murder, My Sweet — she could almost pass for Ginger Rogers here.

Baby Take a Bow opens as Eddie Ellison (Dunn) is released from Sing Sing, promising to go straight. His girl Kay (Trevor) meets him at the gate, with continuing tickets for them to Niagra Falls for a justice of the peace wedding and honeymoon. At the same time we meet insurance investigator Welch (Alan Dinehart in an interesting performance), a tinhorn Javert who bluffly pals around with the men of various police forces — and tries in vain to make time with Kay. Everybody, especially Kay, makes it clear that they don’t like him, but Welch remains oblivious, blithely carrying on as if he’s one of the guys. Six years later, when Eddie and Kay have built a happy home with their daughter Shirley (star and character share the given name), it will be Welch who tries to hound Eddie and his pal Larry (Ray Walker) back into prison.

 
Unlike Little Miss Marker over at Paramount, Baby Take a Bow gives ample evidence of having been thrown together in haste. It begins as melodrama, then segues into farce as Dunn, Walker, Trevor, Shirley and Ralf Harolde as the thief chase the pearl necklace up, down, back and forth in the Ellisons’ apartment house. Then for the last reel it shifts back to melodrama as Harolde finally nabs the pearls and kidnaps Shirley to use as a shield in making good his escape. All ends happily, with the thief in custody, the pearls returned, and the heroes exonerated. Even the meddling Welch gets his just deserts.
 
Director Harry Lachman was evidently too hurried — or too clumsy — to negotiate these shifts in tone; the comedy scenes fall particularly flat. The picture’s chief pleasure, predictably, is Shirley herself. But there are other small ones along the way, such as this, a tossed-off scene in which Kay and Shirley go through some dining-room calisthenics while listening to an exercise progam on the radio. Mother and daughter (and the actresses playing them) are clearly having fun, and it’s contagious.
 
 
Also among those pleasures is another song and dance number for Shirley and James Dunn — the one touch of music in the picture. The song is “On Account-a I Love You” by Bud Green and Sam H. Stept, performed by father and daughter at a rooftop birthday party for Shirley in which she shows off the new ballet dress Mommy and Daddy have given her. Again, the haste of the production is evident in the under-rehearsed hoofing (dance director Sammy Lee apparently didn’t even have the few days he was allotted for “Baby, Take a Bow” in Stand Up and Cheer!). Still, the number is a highlight and worth sharing. At the end of the song, you’ll see Dunn turn to Shirley and say, “C’mon, baby, take a bow,” thus justifying the picture’s title (again, the YouTube clip is colorized, and again I ask your indulgence):
 

 

Variety’s reviewer “Kauf” pegged Baby Take a Bow exactly: “Without Shirley Temple this might have been a pretty obvious and silly melodrama, but it has Shirley Temple so it can go down on the books as a neat and sure b.o. (box office) hit, especially for the family trade.” (It’s a pity Mori couldn’t have reviewed it; it would be interesting to have him compare it to Square Crooks — assuming he even remembered a six-year-old silent B picture as late as 1934.) Meanwhile, back east at the New York Times, the anonymous reviewer sounded the first notes of praise mixed with highbrow condescension that would increase in some quarters in coming years (and would lead eventually to a successful libel suit against novelist Graham Greene and the British magazine Night and Day):

Little Shirley Temple continues in her new film at the Roxy to be the nation’s best-liked babykins. A miracle of spontaneity, Shirley successfully conceals the illusion of sideline coaching which, in the ordinary child genius, produces homicidal impulses in those old fussbudgets who lack the proper admiration for cute kiddies.

Then, in the next sentence, the reviewer gave credit where it was due: “In ‘Baby, Take a Bow,’ she tucks the picture under her little arm and toddles off with it.” (And by the way, it’s worth noting that “nation’s best-liked babykins” line. This, mind you, on the strength of only Stand Up and Cheer! and — especially — Little Miss Marker.)

Before embarking on her next picture at Fox, Shirley was shuttled back to Paramount for another loan-out:

Now and Forever

(released August 31, 1934)

Now-&-Forever-LC02W

 

 

 

 

Shirley’s billing on Now and Forever was again above the title, but third this time. Still, when you’re billed third after Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard, you’ve really got no kick coming. (On screen she gets an “and”: “And SHIRLEY TEMPLE”.) Even more significantly, the music under the opening titles is an instrumental rendition of “Laugh, You Son of a Gun” — reminding audiences of Little Miss Marker the way Baby Take a Bow had reminded them of Stand Up and Cheer! 

 

 
Now and Forever also reunited Shirley with director Henry Hathaway, who had presided over her near-death experience with a pony on To the Last Man. In this picture, Gary Cooper plays Jerry Day, a globe-trotting confidence man, with Carole Lombard as Toni, his accomplice and companion. In the credits she’s identified as “Toni Day”, but the script makes it pretty clear that they’re not married; in the first scene he tells her, “I told you I was married,” not, “was married before.” Anyhow, Jerry was married, but when his wife died, he left his infant daughter with her wealthy, disapproving family; he figures the child must be five or six now. When he and Toni find themselves out of cash, he proposes to go to his stuffed-shirt brother-in-law and sell his parental rights for $75,000. But one brief visit with little Penny (Shirley), who naturally doesn’t know him, changes his mind. He reveals himself to her and takes her with him while his brother-in-law fumes and blusters.
 
First stop, New York, where Jerry runs a scam on a Mr. Felix Evans (Sir Guy Standing) for $5,000 in a phony mining deal. Then it’s bon voyage for Europe to meet Toni in Paris. Their ship is barely out of port before they meet Mr. Evans strolling the deck. Jerry manages to stammer out that he was suddenly called away to Europe, and Evans gives him a smooth, knowing smirk. “Quite a coincidence, Mr. Day. Because the same thing happened to me.” And Evans calmly wishes him a good day.
 
Jerry and Penny join Toni in Paris, where, after a little jealous tension, Toni and Penny bond with one another. Toni has an uneasy conscience over bringing Penny into the lifestyle she and Jerry have adopted, and in his way, so does he. He tries to settle down into an honest job in Paris, but his and Toni’s rich tastes are his undoing. Then the sinister Mr. Evans reenters his life. Evans has his eye on the jewels of Mrs. J.H.P. Crane (Charlotte Granville), a dowager widow who has taken a shine to Penny, and he wants Jerry to help him lay hands on them.
 
That’s really as far as we need to go with Now and Forever because…well, frankly, despite the nostalgic value of Cooper, Lombard and Temple in the same picture, it’s a bit of a dud. The script by Vincent Lawrence and Sylvia Thalberg (sister of Irving) is as bland and pointless as the title, and this sort of ersatz Ernst Lubitsch was never director Hathaway’s strong suit. Shirley sings one song, “The World Owes Me a Living” from the then-current Disney Silly Symphony The Grasshopper and the Ants, which serves as Jerry’s unofficial theme song (he’s whistling it when he first meets Penny). But even that’s a cheat; Hathaway cuts away for a long scene of Jerry stealing an emerald necklace and stashing it in his daughter’s teddy bear, with Penny’s voice barely audible in a distant room of the old lady’s mansion. Now and Forever is really only memorable for two things. One is Shirley’s recollection of the fun of working with Carole Lombard (“If she really employed bawdy humor and truck-driver expletives, it was never within my hearing. Wherever she went she seemed to wear a halo of crystalline happiness.”).
 
The other thing is a scene in which Penny learns that her father is a jewel thief and has lied to her about it. On the set that day, just before the cameras rolled, some blabbermouth inadvertently spilled the beans about Dorothy Dell’s gruesome death. The tears we see in that scene aren’t Penny’s disillusionment with her father; they’re Shirley’s genuine grief at the loss of her friend from Little Miss Marker.
 
After this second excursion to Paramount, Shirley returned to Fox for her next job, the first real “Shirley Temple picture” — in the sense that it was tailor-made just for her — with the song that, as she put it, would stick to her “like lifelong glue”. Except for a famous near-miss several years later (which I’ll get to in good time), there would be no more talk about loaning her out.

 
To be continued
 

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 4

According to the IMDb, Now and Forever‘s U.S. release date was August 31, 1934. However, it wasn’t reviewed by the New York Times or Variety until October 13 and 16, respectively. Apparently, either Fox sent the picture off to down-market engagements two-and-a-half months before opening it in New York — or (more likely, I think) the IMDb has the date wrong.

Whatever the case, both Andre Sennwald in the Times and Abel Green (again) in Variety pegged Shirley as Now and Forever‘s saving grace. Sennwald:  

The little girl has lost none of her obvious delight in her work during her rise to fame. In “Now and Forever” she is, if possible, even more devastating in her unspoiled freshness of manner than she has been in the past…With Shirley’s assistance [the photoplay] becomes, despite its violent assaults upon the spectator’s credulity, a pleasant enough entertainment.

And Green:

“Now and Forever” is a remote title; it strains credulity; it can’t stand analysis; it has sundry other technical and plausibility shortcomings — but it has Shirley Temple and that virtually underwrites it for boxoffice…Shirley Temple in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” would probably click just as well.

In these reviews, both written by seasoned showbiz observers, the subtext is unmistakeable: Shirley Temple saves the show; Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard do their best, but without Shirley they’d have gone down with the ship. And Shirley is still only six years old.

Next it was back home to Fox for…

Bright Eyes

(released December 20, 1934)

Shirley’s last picture of 1934 teamed her for the third time with James Dunn — not as her father this time, but as her godfather, an airplane pilot named “Loop” Merritt. William Conselman’s script (from a story by Edwin Burke and director David Butler) gave the two stars an unusual setting: the early years of commercial aviation, when airmail was an innovation and passenger flights were strictly for the well-to-do, who could fly coast-to-coast only in short hops of 200 miles or so, while the vast majority of the moviegoing audience could only dream of someday, maybe, going up in a plane. Much of the picture was shot on the grounds of Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale, ten miles north of downtown Los Angeles, and it served as a publicity gold mine for American Airlines and Douglas Aircraft, both of which cooperated generously with the production.
 
Shirley plays Shirley Blake, whose father, Loop’s best friend since childhood, died in a plane crash some years before the story opens. Shirley spends much of her time with Loop and his aviator pals, and is something of a mascot around the airport, while her widowed mother works as a maid to a family in nearby Flintridge (then, as now under its incorporated name of La Canada Flintridge, an affluent suburb of L.A.). 
 
The airport is a lot more fun than home; Shirley loves her mother and the other servants, but the family they all work for is a trio of world-class pills. Mr. and Mrs. “Smythe” (real name Smith, but that’s not good enough for them) are a couple of selfish, snooty social-climbing snobs. As the story opens on Christmas Eve, Mrs. Smythe (Dorothy Christy) is reprimanding Shirley’s mother Mary (Lois Wilson) for taking so many personal phone calls and visits from her aviator friends. As Mary slinks contritely back to the kitchen, the effete Mr. Smythe (Theodor von Eltz) smirks, “I told you when you engaged her that it wouldn’t work out.” “Well,” she sighs, “she was so pathetic about wanting a nice home for her little girl that I let my sympathy get the better of my judgment.” Then, showing the true depth of her sympathy, she adds, “I’ll let her go right after the holidays.”
 

BE-frame01a-WithersWAs bad as the Smythes are, they’re not the worst of it. That would be their daughter Joy (Jane Withers), a screaming little monster in a perpetual state of tantrum, and the most misnamed child in the history of human life on Earth.

In real life, eight-year-old Jane was nothing like the character she played. Bright Eyes was her big break after a handful of uncredited bits since 1932. Fox quickly signed her to a seven-year contract and she went on to become a star in her own right, though inevitably in Shirley’s shadow, especially since they worked for the same studio. The two girls never worked together again — which is a pity, because Jane was the perfect foil for her younger co-star, and in Bright Eyes she comes as close as anybody ever did to stealing a show from Shirley Temple. Playing an obnoxious, spoiled-rotten brat, Jane was genuinely funny — no small achievement when you consider how many child actors over the years have tried to be funny, only to come off looking like obnoxious, spoiled-rotten brats.

Jane continued acting into her early 20s, even after 20th Century Fox dropped her in 1942, then she retired from the screen in favor of marriage to a rich Texas oil man. That foundered after eight years, and Jane made a comeback as a character actress in George Stevens’s Giant in 1956. Thereafter, she stayed busy in movies and on TV, and she became familiar to millions of baby boomers as Josephine the Plumber in a series of commercials for Comet Cleanser in the 1960s and ’70s. As of this writing Jane Withers is still with us, and hopefully in good health and spirits. Continued long life to her.

But back to Bright Eyes. Rounding out the household is Uncle Ned Smith (Charles Sellon), a crotchety old invalid who drives his wheelchair around the house like an assault vehicle, barking and grumbling sourly at everybody. Underneath the crust, however, he’s an old softie, especially toward Shirley; it’s just that he has no patience with his nephew and niece-in-law’s hifalutin airs (the original family name is good enough for him), and he can’t stand the holy terror Joy. He knows the Smythes don’t like him any more than he likes them, that they only fawn over him in hopes of a big payoff when he finally kicks the bucket, and he enjoys lording it over them for just that reason.
 
Finally there’s Mrs. Smythe’s cousin Judith Allen (Adele Martin), visiting from back east for the holidays. By a remarkable coincidence, Judith is the former society debutante whose family pressured her into jilting Loop Merritt years earlier. It’s clear she still thinks the world of Loop, but just as clear that he feels once-bitten-twice-shy; the best she can get from him when they meet is an icy politeness.
 
So that’s the situation going into Christmas Day, when Mary Blake, hurrying through her duties and rushing off to join a Christmas party at the air field with Shirley, Loop and the boys, is struck and killed by an automobile. Uncle Ned orders the Smythes to take the orphaned Shirley in, but they’re not happy about it. Neither is Loop, and as Shirley’s godfather he wants to bring her to live with him, even though the life of a seat-of-the-pants aviator is marginal at best. Uncle Ned thinks he knows what’s best, and takes steps to adopt Shirley. This prompts Loop to take on a dangerous flight in deadly foul weather to earn the money to hire a lawyer to fight Uncle Ned’s expensive legal team. Meanwhile, Shirley, knowing full well how unwelcome she is in the Smythe house, stows away on Loop’s plane. The stage is set for a nasty custody battle — that is, if Shirley and Loop can manage to survive the flight.
 
Bright Eyes was the first movie created from the ground up specifically to showcase Shirley Temple, and it has many of the elements that would become standard in Shirley’s pictures: Shirley the orphan, the legions of grown-ups charmed by her, the cranky old coot for her to win over (although in this case she’s won him over before the movie begins), etc. And not incidentally, it has the Shirley Temple song, “On the Good Ship Lollipop” by Richard Whiting and Sidney Clare. I’m not posting a YouTube clip here because, frankly, I don’t think I need to — is there anybody over the age of 18 who doesn’t know this scene? It’s interesting to note, though, that the song isn’t about a seagoing vessel — it’s about an airplane. As Shirley sings in the verse: 
 
I’ve thrown away my toys
Even my drum and trains
I want to make some noise
With real live aeroplanes
Someday I’m going to fly
I’ll be a pilot too
And when I do
How would you
Like to be my crew
 
On the goo-oo-ood ship Lollipop…
 
Bright Eyes was Shirley’s last teaming with James Dunn, who had pretty much been her steady escort to the top of the heap at Fox. Dunn himself, however, was on the way down, thanks in large part to his increasing dependency on alcohol. He didn’t make the cut when Fox merged with 20th Century in 1935, and he drifted off to other studios: first Warners, then Universal, then a long sojourn on Poverty Row, almost unemployable. He made a comeback of sorts — ironically, at 20th Century Fox — in 1945, winning an Oscar as the charming, alcoholic father in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (a virtually autobiographical role). He never really made it back to the top, or out of the bottle, but his Irish charm never entirely deserted him, and he worked steadily until his death at 65 after stomach surgery in 1967.
 

*                    *                    *

 

In a nutshell — and not counting five shorts and bit roles under her old contract to Jack Hays, or the two walk-ons in Change of Heart and Now I’ll Tell — Shirley Temple’s output for 1934 consisted of a breakthrough debut in Stand Up and Cheer!, a confirming star turn in Little Miss Marker, a placeholding appearance in Baby Take a Bow, credit for the save in Now and Forever, and a tailor-made vehicle in Bright Eyes. A great year for any rising star, and unprecedented for one who turned six midway through it.

In Child Star Shirley remembers that when Oscar nominations for 1934 were announced, “a vicious cat fight had erupted. My name was on the nomination list and odds-makers had me an almost certainty to win.” She goes on to assert that a storm of protest arose over the Academy’s failure to nominate either Myrna Loy for The Thin Man or Bette Davis for Of Human Bondage, and that as a result her own nomination was rescinded and voting rules changed to allow for write-ins. I’ve been unable to find this confirmed anywhere else, and I suspect Shirley’s memory was playing her false. She doesn’t say which picture she believed she had been nominated for (if they’d had supporting awards in ’34, she might have been a cinch to win for Little Miss Marker, but those categories were still two years in the future). Shirley is right, however, about the write-ins and the protest — though the storm was more on behalf of Davis than Loy (in the end, the award went to Claudette Colbert for It Happened One Night; Davis, even with the write-ins, came in third).

Be that as it may, there was no ignoring Shirley’s meteoric rise to the top tier of box-office stars, and the Academy Board of Governors conferred a new award, a miniature statuette “in grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the year”. The emcee at that year’s awards was the prolific Kentucky humorist, author and columnist Irvin S. Cobb (shown here with Shirley), one of those writers whose fame more or less died when he did in 1944. Most of his 60-plus books and 300 short stories are out of print now, and he is probably best remembered for what he said that night. First: “There was one great towering figure in the cinema game, one artiste among artistes, one giant among the troupers, whose monumental, stupendous and elephantine work deserved special mention…Is Shirley Temple in the house?” Then, after Shirley joined him at the podium: “Listen, y’all ain’t old enough to know what this is all about. But honey, I want to tell you that when Santa Claus wrapped y’all up in a package and dropped you down Creation’s chimney, he brought the loveliest Christmas present that was ever given to the world.”

In Child Star, even 50-plus years on, Shirley’s disappointment still sounds tender to the touch (“If mine was really a commendable job done, why not a big Oscar like everyone else’s?”), but I think she overlooks the specialness of her special award (the only one given that year). The miniature Oscar that was created just for her would remain the standard recognition for outstanding juvenile performers for the next 26 years, and would be given 11 more times. The last went to Hayley Mills for Pollyanna in 1960; after that, beginning with nine-year-old Mary Badham for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962, the kids would have to take their chances with the grownups (and some — Patty Duke, Tatum O’Neal, Anna Paquin — would even win). Of those dozen miniature-Oscar winners — who include Mickey Rooney, Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien and others — the little girl who inspired the creation of it was the youngest to receive it. In fact, she remains to this day the youngest person ever to win anything from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I doubt if that record will ever be broken. 

Shirley Temple’s career hit its stride with Bright Eyes. Nineteen-thirty-four had been a banner year, and the banner would continue to wave in ’35. I’ll get to that next time.
 

To be continued
  

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 5

The Little Colonel

(released March 21, 1935)

LC-poster02bWShirley’s first picture of 1935 was a period piece, her first costume drama as a star. The source material was a children’s book by Annie Fellows Johnston of McCutchanville, Indiana. Mrs. Johnston turned to writing at the age of 29 when her husband died in 1892, leaving her with three small stepchildren to raise on her own. The Little Colonel, published in 1895, was her third novel, and it proved so popular that she wrote a sequel a year until 1907. She wrote, in all, some four dozen books before she died in 1931 at age 68, but The Little Colonel was the only one that was ever filmed. It’s a pity Mrs. Johnston couldn’t have hung on for four more years and seen the apotheosis of her most famous creation.

Anyone who thinks that a movie is never as good as the book should try reading The Little Colonel. Mrs. Johnston’s ever-so-precious style hasn’t weathered the years well; I suspect it hadn’t by 1935, either. (It’s available online here if you want to check it out.) The story, as the saying goes, had “good bones”, and writer William Conselman fleshed them out rather better than Mrs. Johnston had. (Conselman also wrote Bright Eyes and would write for Shirley again.)

In Conselman’s script (unlike the original book), the story opens before the birth of its title character. A title tells us it’s “Kentucky in the ’70s”, and we meet old Colonel Lloyd (Lionel Barrymore), an unreconstructed Confederate for whom the War isn’t over. At a soiree at his plantation he offers a toast: “Gentlemen, I give you the South — and confusion to her enemies!” But it’s the Colonel who’s due for confusion; one of those “enemies”, a Northerner — named Sherman, no less — has won the heart of his beloved daughter Elizabeth (Evelyn Venable). The Colonel interrupts her and her intended (John Lodge) in the act of eloping, and he warns her: “Elizabeth, when that door closes, it’ll never open for you again.” Elizabeth leaves without another word, and she doesn’t close the door — she slams it.

Next scene, it’s six years later and the Shermans — Jack, Elizabeth and their daughter Lloyd (Shirley) — are at a military outpost on the edge of the western frontier. Lloyd has become the darling of the post, and she receives a commission as honorary colonel — an addition by Conselman that makes the girl a “little colonel” in fact, not just as the nickname the author gives her in the original story. The family has sold everything they own and left their Philadelphia home. Papa Jack is to continue west to make a new home for them; when he’s well-established and it’s safe, he’ll send for his wife and daughter. Until then, Elizabeth and the Little Colonel will return to Kentucky and live in a small cottage on the family property that was left to her by her mother.

When the Old Colonel learns there are new tenants in the Cottage, he drops by to welcome them. But when the door is answered by his daughter Elizabeth, he storms off in a rage. “You’re a bad man to make my mother cry,” little Lloyd tells the old man’s portrait in the Cottage parlor. Later, when the two Colonels — Old and Little — finally meet, he doesn’t realize who the girl is, and he berates her for dirtying her dress making mudpies. Whoever your mother is, he tells her, she should teach you better. The Little Colonel stamps her foot — “Don’t you dare say anything about my mother!” — and hurls a fistful of mud at his white suit.

Later, when the old man learns who she is, he is mollified, even apologetic. He may have disowned his daughter and her husband, but he sees no reason not to associate with his granddaughter — especially since she reminds him so much of himself (and his outcast daughter, though he won’t admit it).

When Lloyd’s Papa Jack staggers home, sick with fever after having been swindled of the family’s savings by two hucksters (Sidney Blackmer, Alden Chase), Lloyd is sent to live with her grandfather to avoid catching what has laid her papa low. In time, just as we expect, the Little Colonel will effect a family reconciliation. But in the meantime she and her grandfather will just about drive each other to distraction, they’re both so willful, stubborn and short-tempered.
It’s easy to imagine that the Old Colonel’s consternation at the little girl’s spunk in standing up to him was a reflection of Lionel Barrymore’s own response to his little co-star; there’s a befuddled mix of exasperation and amusement that seems to come from both character and actor. Like the people they play, Barrymore and Shirley’s working relationship got off to a tetchy start: At their first rehearsal, when Barrymore stammered and groped for his lines, Shirley (who, being still too young to read, had memorized the whole script) prompted him. This sent the veteran actor storming off to his dressing room, where he sat sulking (and probably drinking) and threatening to walk off the picture.
Shirley describes in Child Star how both director David Butler and her own mother gently but firmly prodded her to make peace: you brought this on, they said, you have to make it right. And she did. She says she managed it by going to his dressing room, addressing him as “Uncle Lionel”, and asking for his autograph (“To my favorite little niece,” he wrote, “Your Uncle Lionel.”) It’s hard to believe it was a simple as that, for the seasoned old trouper to be coaxed out of his pout by the toddler who caused it, but that’s what Shirley says (oh to have been a fly on that wall!). Anyhow, Barrymore didn’t walk, and The Little Colonel crackles when he and Shirley are on screen together.

There’s another teaming in The Little Colonel that also makes it crackle. Playing the Old Colonel’s butler Walker was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Robinson began in vaudeville in 1900, and by 1934, when The Little Colonel was made, he was universally recognized (and for that matter, still is) as one of the greatest tapdancers who ever lived. Shirley was always proud that she and Robinson were the first interracial dance team in movie history. More than that, because of the age difference between six-year-old Shirley and the 56-year-old Robinson (and at the time, let’s face it, because of the difference in the color of their skin), they were one male-and-female team whose dances carried no hint of courtship or romance — nothing but the sheer joy of dancing together. (“The smile on my face wasn’t acting,” Shirley said in Child Star; “I was ecstatic.”) The teaming was Winfield Sheehan’s idea, and he hesitated only because he was unsure if Robinson could act; his three previous screen appearances had been dance-only. Robinson passed a screen test, and that was that. In all, he and Shirley would make five pictures together (I’ll get to the others in their time), and it all started here.

Their first dance together was the famous staircase dance. It was Robinson’s signature act, and he modified it to accomodate Shirley’s abilities; she couldn’t have come up to his level in the rehearsal time they had — but then, probably nobody could, no matter how long they rehearsed. Shirley remembered her “Uncle Billy” as “a superlative teacher, imperturbable and kind, but demanding…Every one of my taps had to ring crisp and clear in the best cadence. Otherwise I had to do it over.”

It’s been a while since I posted a YouTube clip of Shirley, and this is a good time to resume. Not the staircase dance, though. As good as it is, you don’t see as much of their body language, especially their faces beaming in the pleasure of each other’s company, as you do in this one, which comes later, with Walker and little Lloyd cavorting in the stables, to the accompaniment of “Oh! Susanna” on the harmonica:

 

 

It must be said that racial attitudes of the 1930s make The Little Colonel (and The Littlest Rebel, later in ’35) an awkward experience for some people today. It’s hard not to view these movies through the hindsight of how far African Americans have come (on screen and in real life) in the last 80 years. It’s worth remembering, though, the progress they had made by 1935 — what little there was, and only on screen at that — in the 40 years since The Little Colonel was written (or even the 20 years since The Birth of a Nation). We rightly cringe now when Colonel Lloyd calls to his granddaughter’s black playmates, “Come on, you pickaninnies!” But in Annie Fellows Johnston’s novel he uses an even uglier word — and for that matter, so does the Little Colonel herself. And to be fair to The Little Colonel (the movie), there’s a scene where Lloyd attends a black church’s baptism ceremony in a stream that runs through her grandfather’s property; the scene is presented unpatronizingly and without condescension. Also, the two most prominent black characters are played by Robinson as Walker and, as the Little Colonel’s cook and housekeeper “Mom Beck”, Hattie McDaniel (five years before she became the first African American to win an Academy Award). Both of them imbue their characters with a warmth and dignity that rises above the racism of the time.

Plus, of course and always, there’s the sheer pleasure of Shirley and Bojangles dancing.

 
 
Apropos of nothing, and apparently just because the powers that be at Fox felt like it, The Little Colonel ends — after Papa Jack has gotten well, his fortunes have been restored, the swindlers brought to justice, and Colonel Lloyd reconciled to his daughter and son-in-law — in Technicolor. The rationale is young Lloyd’s penchant for casting her stories in colors: “Tell me a blue story”; “This is a yellow story”. Evidently, she asks her grandfather for “a pink party” (the surviving version isn’t clear; something seems missing), and he replies, “Yes, just as pink as those flowers,” as a vase of black-and-white roses change to pink-and-green. I leave The Little Colonel with a shot from this party scene because it’s Shirley’s first appearance in the newly-perfected Technicolor process — and her last for several years.
 
 
 

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 6

Our Little Girl

(released June 6, 1935)

OLG-poster01WI’m not going to spend a lot of time on Shirley’s next picture because…Well, if (as I said in Part 3) Now and Forever is a bit of a dud, Our Little Girl is a flat-out stinker. A country doctor (Joel McCrea) gets so wrapped up in his practice and his research that his wife (Rosemary Ames), feeling ignored, seeks comfort first in the company, then in the arms, of their bachelor neighbor (Lyle Talbot). Meanwhile, the doctor’s nurse (Erin O’Brien-Moore) nurses an unrequited love for him. Caught in the middle of all this, and neglected by both her parents, is the couple’s daughter (Shirley).

 

Shirley couldn’t save this one; nothing could. The script by Steven Avery and Allen Rivkin was an indigestible stew of sugar, soap and corn, and director John Robertson (a veteran whose credits went back to 1916) was utterly defeated by it. On the other hand, even a brilliant script couldn’t have survived Robertson’s leaden, clomping direction, which made the picture feel much longer than the 64 minutes it actually ran. Perhaps not incidentally, this was Robertson’s last movie, as it was for leading lady Rosemary Ames, whose two-year, eight-picture career ended here.

Shirley never made a worse movie, and neither did Joel McCrea. (Lyle Talbot did — but only because he made three pictures with Ed Wood.)

Variety’s reviewer “Odec” predicted (accurately) that “despite [the] story”, Shirley’s fans would make the picture profitable. At the New York Times, Andre Sennwald was less conciliatory: “As we have learned to expect, ‘Pollyanna’ and ‘The Bobsey Twins’ [sic] are classics of gutter realism by comparison with the sentimental syrups which Miss Temple’s impresarios arrange for the Baby Duse. Dyspeptic, yes, but Our Little Girl had it coming, and worse. (Mr. Sennwald still spoke fondly of Little Miss Marker, but he was clearly reaching a saturation point, if not with Shirley, at least with her vehicles. As fate would have it, he would review only two more of them — Curly Top and The Littlest Rebel, with increasing asperity — before dying in a gas-line explosion in his Manhattan penthouse on January 12, 1936; Sennwald was only 28.)

In Child Star, Shirley said of Our Little Girl, “I forgot it as soon as possible.” As well she might, but it wasn’t because of the picture itself; it was due to things that happened during shooting.

First: Shirley was going through the normal tooth losses of any kid her age, but shooting couldn’t be held up while they grew back, so she wore temporaries for the camera. One day on Our Little Girl‘s rural location, she sneezed two of hers out into a grassy meadow. The whole crew searched long through the grass, but to no avail, and the company had to wrap for the day while new ones were crafted for the little star. Shirley had conceived a girlish crush on Joel McCrea, and seeing his annoyance at the delay, she was accordingly chagrinned.

But worse was to come; the very next day, Shirley’s chagrin turned to mortification. Standing with McCrea by a stream while lighting gaffers fiddled endlessly with their lights and reflectors, and with the long silence broken only by the trickle of the nearby brook, Shirley — there’s no gentle way to say it — wet her pants. Understandably, she immediately burst into tears. Mother Gertrude gently led her sobbing daughter to their trailer, where socks and undies were replaced, then Mother bucked up Shirley’s courage for the unavoidable return to the set. “Finally I mustered enough confidence to open the door,” Shirley wrote, “but only by convincing myself the whole thing had never happened.” She considered that moment her “Oscar performance”.

Poor Shirley. Even fifty-plus years on, writing in Child Star, her humiliation is still palpable. No wonder she forgot Our Little Girl without delay. We should too.

 

Curly Top

(released August 1, 1935)
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Now this was more like it. Curly Top may not be Shirley’s best movie, exactly — there are several pictures ahead of it in that queue — but it just might be her most typical. And as a showcase for the full range of her talent it has few equals. The late film encyclopedist Leslie Halliwell cited it as an example of Shirley at her personal best, when he placed her in his fanciful Halliwell’s Hall of Fame (“for captivating the mass world audience and enabling it to forget the depression”).

Shirley plays Elizabeth “Curly” Blair, an orphan who charms Edward Morgan (John Boles), one of the rich trustees of the orphanage where she lives; Morgan legally adopts Curly while pretending to be acting on behalf of one “Hiram Jones.”

The story was a liberal reworking of Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy Long Legs, which told of Judy Abbott, an orphan who, when she grows too old to stay at her orphanage, is sponsored through college by a benefactor who insists on remaining anonymous. By story’s end Judy learns that the mysterious “John Smith” is wealthy Jervis Pendleton, whom she knew (and had a girl’s crush on) from his visits to the orphanage. Now full-grown (and college educated), Judy marries him. Webster’s novel had already been filmed in 1919 with Mary Pickford and in 1931 with Janet Gaynor (and would be again in 1955, as a musical starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron). Since Fox had produced the 1931 version and still owned the screen rights to the story, they were at liberty to refashion it to fit Shirley.

Needless to say, if the boys at Fox couldn’t wait for Shirley’s adult teeth to grow in, they certainly couldn’t sit around while she reached an age to marry John Boles, so Patterson McNutt and Arthur Beckhard’s script supplied Curly with an older sister Mary (Rochelle Hudson) to be adopted with her and to discharge the romantic duties with the handsome Boles. Hudson and Boles even held up their end with the songs: Hudson, a neophyte singer, did quite well with “The Simple Things in Life” (by Edward Heyman and Ray Henderson), while Boles returned to his musical comedy roots with “It’s All So New to Me” (also by Heyman and Henderson) and the picture’s title song (Henderson and Ted Koehler).

 
 
 
But like the story, the supporting players (Boles; Hudson; Jane Darwell and Rafaela Ottiano as matrons at the orphanage; Esther Dale as Boles’s aunt; Billy Gilbert and Arthur Treacher as his cook and butler) were all beside the point. Shirley was just about the whole show. She is even the focus of both Boles’s songs. After singing “It’s All So New to Me”, while the orchestra wafts on in the background, he strolls around his palatial drawing room, where he fancies Shirley beaming down at him from the paintings on the walls…
 
 
 
…Then there’s the title tune, “Curly Top”. First Morgan sings it to and about Curly, then for the second chorus she does atapdance on top of his piano (he’s rich, he can afford it). Curly Top also has what became, for Shirley, a signature song second only to “On the Good Ship Lollipop”:”Animal Crackers in My Soup” (by Ted Koehler and Irving Caesar). The song is a real charmer, but I’m not posting a YouTube clip of it for the same reason I didn’t for “Lollipop”: surely just about everybody knows it.
 
 
But they may not know this one (once again, colorized). It comes later in the picture, when Curly, who hasn’t forgotten her and Mary’s friends back at the orphanage, persuades Morgan to stage a charity show to benefit her former home. In it, she performs “When I Grow Up” (Heyman, Henderson), in which she sings of what her life to come will be like. Shirley’s mishap by the brook on the set of Our Little Girl reminds us — as it no doubt did her co-workers — that this showbiz phenomenon was really just a little girl after all. Conversely, “When I Grow Up” reminds us that this little girl was a genuine, honest-to-God phenomenon. I mean, how many kindergarteners would you ask to imagine themselves at 16, 21 and 75? Well, they asked it of Shirley, and she delivered a virtual one-girl production number:
 

 
Variety’s Abel Green pegged Curly Top as “cinch b.o. for almost any house”, and, as usual, he was absolutely right. And even the Times’s Andre Sennwald found the picture (at least while Shirley was on) “completely bearable”: “Her remarkable sense of timing has never been revealed more plainly than in the song and dance scenes in her new film, and she plays her straightforward dramatic scenes with the assurance and precision of a veteran actress. With all this, she has lost none of her native freshness and charm.”
 

Curly Top was Shirley’s last picture for Fox Film Corp., and her last with Winfield Sheehan, who had piloted her career since Stand Up and Cheer! As chief of production in the wake of William Fox’s personal and professional nosedive in 1929-30, Sheehan had managed to stave off the studio’s total financial collapse (largely through hanging on to Will Rogers and locking Shirley into a long-term contract), but the waters were still rocky. Even before Curly Top went into production, there were rumors of negotiations with the upstart Twentieth Century Pictures, a thriving new kid in town, but one in need of a studio complex and distribution system — one like Fox’s, for example. On May 29, 1935, a merger was announced; the new studio would be called 20th Century Fox. Less than two months later, Winfield Sheehan was out as head of production, replaced by the man who had spearheaded Twentieth Century to a success that entitled it to be senior partner in its merger with the more venerable Fox. The man, moreover, who would be in charge of Shirley’s career for the rest of the 1930s: Darryl F. Zanuck.

To be continued


 

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 7

 
Logos05aWThe creation of 20th Century Fox was announced as a merger, but it was really a friendly takeover. Darryl Zanuck (former production head at Warner Bros.) and Joseph Schenck (former president of United Artists) had formed 20th Century Pictures in 1933 as an independent concern, renting equipment and studio-and-office space from UA. In two years 20th Century had produced 18 pictures, all but one of which had made money, and several of which had made quite a lot: Folies Bergere de Paris, The House of Rothschild, The Affairs of Cellini, The Call of the Wild, Les Miserables, etc. But Zanuck got his hackles up when UA wouldn’t sell any of its stock to 20th Century, and he started looking around.

 

Enter Sidney Kent, president of Fox Film Corp. When Kent entered into merger negotiations with Zanuck and Schenck, he probably had visions of “Fox-20th Century Pictures”, thinking he was co-opting the rising competition and bringing a hot young producer into the Fox fold. But he didn’t figure on the drive and energy of Darryl F. Zanuck.

Neither did Winfield Sheehan. The Fox production chief knew there’d be room for only one chief at the new studio, and he braced himself for a struggle. But he was overmatched; Zanuck was younger, more aggressively ambitious — and, frankly, he had a better record at the box office. By the end of July 1935 Sheehan had taken a $420,000 buyout and left the company. Sidney Kent stayed on as president, at $180,000 a year, plus $25,000 as president of National Theatres Corp., Fox’s distribution affiliate. Just to show who 20th Century Fox’s real key figure was, Zanuck was made vice president in charge of production at $260,000 a year, plus ten percent of the gross on the pictures he supervised — plus enough stock in the company to ensure another $500,000 a year.

The assets Fox brought to the merger consisted mainly of its studio complex and distribution system serving some 500 theaters. In terms of on-screen talent, however, the holdings were far more modest. Foremost among them was Will Rogers, in 1935 probably the most beloved private citizen in America. He made as many as four pictures a year for Fox, and every one was guaranteed money in the bank. A close second was Shirley, also a guaranteed winner. In distant third and fourth were 20-year-old Alice Faye, whose star was fast rising, and Janet Gaynor, her own popularity on the way down. Suddenly, less than three months after the merger, Will Rogers was dead in the wreckage of his friend Wiley Post’s plane up at the north end of Alaska — and Shirley Temple was alone at the top of 20th Century Fox’s star pyramid.
 
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By this time Shirley was selling more than just theater tickets. First came dolls, in baby and little-girl sizes, through an agreement with the Ideal Toy Co. The first model duplicated the red polka dot dress she wore in Stand Up and Cheer!; later editions capitalized on her aviator suit from Bright Eyes and the 19th century togs of The Little Colonel. Within a year other products appeared sporting her image or her name: Everything an American girl could possibly wear — dresses, overcoats, hair ribbons, barrettes, pajamas, hats, berets, pins, anklets, costume jewelry — or use — soap, mugs, plates, pitchers, paper dolls, coloring books, playing cards, scrapbooks, pocket mirrors, notepads, toy sewing machines, candy molds. Then there were the product tie-ins: Quaker Puffed Wheat, Wheaties, flowers by Postal Telegraph, Sperry Drifted Snow Flour, and on and on. To say nothing of the flood of unauthorized products in the U.S., England, Spain, Germany, France — everything from rag dolls and figurines to tiaras, rings and cigar bands. These kept the lawyers at Ideal, Fox and elsewhere busy in a largely fruitless effort to stem the tide of fly-by-night piracy.

Such popularity did have its worrisome side, especially for Shirley’s parents; the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby was still news. Their concern would be borne out during a radio broadcast on Christmas Eve 1939, when a woman in the audience, unhinged by grief, pointed a gun at Shirley, determined to kill the body that she believed had stolen the soul of her own dead daughter; the danger passed when the woman was seized and disarmed by two FBI agents who had been alerted to her suspicious presence. But that’s getting ahead of my story. For now, in 1935, the studio engaged burly John Griffith to serve as Shirley’s chauffeur and bodyguard (Shirley considered him a grown-up playmate). “Watch the kid like a hawk,” Zanuck told Griffith. “If anything happens to her, this studio might as well close up.”

 

The Littlest Rebel

(released December 19, 1935)

LR-music01bWShirley’s first picture to bear the new 20th Century Fox logo (with its now-famous fanfare) had been in the works before the merger, as the cover of this sheet music suggests. The ostensible source was a play by Edward Peple that ran for 55 performances on Broadway in the winter of 1911-12 before embarking on a long and prosperous tour, making a child star of the ill-fated Mary Miles Minter. The play had been filmed before in 1914, a version now presumed lost. (Playwright Peple, like The Little Colonel author Annie Fellows Johnston, did not live to see Shirley’s remake, having died of a heart attack in 1924, age 54.)
Surprising as it may sound, Edward Peple’s play is still in print. I have a copy on order, but it hadn’t arrived by the time this post was ready to go live. When I’ve had a chance to peruse the script, I’ll have a sense of how closely Edwin J. Burke’s script followed it, and if necessary I’ll post an update here. For the present, all we have is the testimony of Variety’s reviewer that there was “no trace of the Edward Peple play in the Burke film version.”

But actually, that’s a bit of an overstatement. In fact, several of the characters’ names survived from stage to screen. Shirley plays Virginia Cary, a six-year-old resident of her namesake state whose birthday party is interrupted by news of the firing on Fort Sumter. Her father (John Boles) soon rides off to war, leaving the plantation in the hands of his wife (Karen Morley), little Virgie, and their loyal slaves, led by butler Uncle Billy (Bill Robinson) and his assistant James Henry (Willie Best). Late in the war, the Union Army sweeps through, and Virgie’s defiance earns the amused respect of Yankee Col. Morrison (Jack Holt). When Capt. Cary sneaks home to attend his wife’s deathbed and is captured, a sympathetic Morrison tries to help him and Virgie escape through Union lines, but father and daughter are caught and the two men are condemned to the firing squad — Capt. Cary for spying, Col. Morrison for aiding and abetting the enemy. Virgie and Uncle Billy rush to Washington, hoping to obtain a pardon from President Lincoln. I won’t say how this all turns out, but even if I did it would hardly amount to a surprise or a spoiler.

 

LR-frame01a-BestWThe Littlest Rebel was aimed at duplicating the success of The Little Colonel; in fact, it surpassed it, and was one of Shirley’s smoothest pictures. The only thing that really dates it today — and it dates it terribly — is the racial attitude I mentioned in my notes on The Little Colonel. That attitude is even more glaring and uncomfortable in The Littlest Rebel because the picture deals directly with the Civil War itself. When Edward Peple wrote his play in 1914, the war was well within human memory; even by the time the movie was made, that generation had not yet passed away (three years later, in 1938, the 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg would occasion a reunion of nearly 1,900 Civil War veterans). The Old South with its genteel planter aristocracy and loyal, happy, contented slaves was an article of faith in the Myth of the Lost Cause, one that died hard and bitterly, and it’s on full display in The Littlest Rebel. It’s difficult to argue with modern viewers who find it just too hard to take. (Shirley even plays one scene in blackface disguise, though at least we are spared the sorry spectacle of hearing her speak with a “darkie” accent.)

Modern misgivings about The Littlest Rebel tend to focus on Willie Best as James Henry. Comedian Robert Klein once described Best as “the man who single-handedly set back race relations in this country fifty years.” That was an exaggeration for comic effect and a disservice to Best. Nevertheless, Klein’s joke had a kernel of truth. Willie Best was, essentially, Stepin Fetchit with better diction; like Fetchit (another talented performer, born Lincoln Perry), he adopted a comic persona — shiftless, slack-jawed, none too bright — that played into the hands of racists then and now, only too eager to believe it represented African Americans in general. Both men were unable (or not allowed) to give their characters the kind of dignity that Bill Robinson, Hattie McDaniel, Clarence Muse, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and a very few others were able to project during those years of artistic apartheid.
 

So: The Littlest Rebel has Willie Best’s James Henry to neutralize (if not nullify) the humanity of Bill Robinson’s Uncle Billy — rather than complement and reinforce it, as Hattie McDaniel’s Mom Beck had done in The Little Colonel. Plus a slave population so happy in bondage that they have no interest in emancipation and don’t even understand what it is. With all that, it’s not surprising that many viewers prefer not to watch the picture today — much less show it to children who can’t place it in its proper historical context.

 
 
Still, if you can place it in its context and make the necessary allowances, The Littlest Rebel has its compensations. John Boles and Jack Holt may not quite strike the sparks with Shirley that Lionel Barrymore or Adolphe Menjou did, but they’re personable performers who are at ease with her, and vice versa. Shirley’s own acting instincts are at their best, and her performance shows (paradoxical as it may sound) a sort of sophisticated simplicity. This scene, for example, is extremely well-played. It’s in Uncle Billy’s cabin; Col. Morrison is searching for little Virgie’s father, who’s hidden in a trapdoor in the ceiling. The colonel doggedly questions Virgie, who tries to convince him her father is gone, but she’s not accustomed to lying and becomes rattled under his cross-examination.
 
This scene of Virgie’s audience with President Lincoln is another highlight. Lincoln is played here by Frank McGlynn Sr., one of Hollywood’s main go-to guys when it came to our 16th president (McGlynn played the role 11 times between 1924 and 1939). Here Virgie and the president discuss her father’s case while sharing slices off an apple.
 
McGlynn and Shirley had worked together before; in Little Miss Marker he played Doc Chesley, the racetrack vet tending to Marky’s “charger” — the “Kind Keeper”, Marky calls him. (And by the way, another memorable touch in this scene is the moment when Lincoln greets Virgie and Uncle Billy — memorable for the look of surprise and pleasure on Uncle Billy’s face that the President of the United States is shaking his hand.)
 
Chief among The Littlest Rebel‘s compensations is — do I really need to say it? — Shirley and Bojangles dancing. Like this scene, with Col. Morrison riding up to Uncle Billy’s cabin,where Billy and Virgie try to act carefree and nonchalant,dancing to “The Arkansas Traveler” on the harmonica and banjo to keep the colonel from suspecting that Virgie’s father is hiding in the garret overhead. (UPDATE 8/6/14: Alas,this clip has been removed from YouTube and the associated account closed. The only other clips of this dance are of far inferior quality, but I’ll keep checking.) (UPDATE #2, 8/21/14: This clip is colorized and the focus is too fuzzy, but it will suffice to give a sense of the exuberance of this dance. I’ll keep looking for something better.)
 
 
 
This one, in which Virgie and Uncle Billy become street entertainers in an effort to earn the money for train tickets to Washington to see President Lincoln, may be Shirley and Bojangles’ best-known number (second, perhaps, to the staircase dance from The Little Colonel). Like the staircase dance, it’s “a capella“, so to speak, performed without musical accompaniment except for the sounds they make themselves. The clip, again, is colorized — and this may be a good time to discuss the preponderance of colorized clips among these posts on Shirley. In the 1980s, when colorization had its brief run, nearly all of Shirley’s 1930s pictures were released that way on VHS — no doubt in hopes of appealing to young children, who (then as now) did not share their elders’ admiration for black-and-white photography, nor their dislike for computer-coloring. Even today, on DVD, these movies offer the choice of viewing one way or the other. Anyhow, here are Shirley/Virgie and Bojangles/Uncle Billy in The Littlest Rebel‘s boardwalk dance:
 
 

Variety’s reviewer “Land” pegged The Littlest Rebel exactly, noting its striking similarity to The Little Colonel, yet conceding that it probably “won’t dampen the enthusiasm of the Temple worshippers…All bitterness and cruelty has been rigorously cut out and the Civil War emerges as a misunderstanding among kindly gentlemen with eminently happy slaves and a cute little girl who sings and dances through the story…Story is synthetic throughout but smart showmanship instills the illusion of life.” In the New York Times, Andre Sennwald agreed: “You may have got the mistaken notion from ‘So Red the Rose’ [a Civil War melodrama released the month before] that the war between the States was filled with ruin, death, rebellious slaves and horrid Yankee barbarians. ‘The Littlest Rebel’ corrects that unhappy thought and presents the conflict as a decidely chummy little war…As Uncle Billy, the faithful family butler, Bill Robinson is excellent, and some of the best moments in ‘The Littlest Rebel’ are those in which he breaks into song and dance with Mistress Temple.”

For Shirley’s next picture, her first of 1936, it would be back into modern dress, although the story on which it was based had been written even before The Little Colonel:

 

Captain January

(released April 24, 1936)

CJ-music01aWCaptain January seems to have a special place in the hearts of Baby Boomers of a Certain Age, perhaps because it was one of Shirley Temple’s first features to go into television syndication in the 1950s. The source material was an 1891 novella by Laura E. Richards. Born Laura Elizabeth Howe in 1850, Mrs. Richards was the daughter of Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. A prolific author in her own right, Mrs. Richards wrote over 90 books, including, with her sister Maud Howe Elliott, a biography of their mother that won them a Pulitzer Prize in 1917. Mrs. Richards also wrote the children’s nonsense poem “Eletelephony” (“Once there was an elephant,/Who tried to use the telephant –/No! No! I mean an elephone,/Who tried to use the telephone…”). Unlike the authors of The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel, she lived long enough to see two movies made from her modest little story, dying in 1943 at 92. Whether she saw either movie, or what she thought of them, is not recorded.

Mrs. Richards’s Captain January is a short-and-bittersweet tale of a retired old seafarer, one Januarius Judkins (“Captain January”), who lives alone tending a lighthouse on a small island off the rugged coast of Maine.

One night during a terrible storm he sees a ship founder in the rocky sea around his island. Venturing out in search of possible survivors, he finds only one, an infant girl clutched in her dead mother’s arms. He retrieves the child and several corpses, including both the baby’s parents. The anonymous dead he gives a decent burial on his island, the orphan girl he takes to shelter in his lighthouse. The next day a trunkfull of clothing belonging to the infant’s mother washes up on shore, but it contains no hint of the dead parents’ identities beyond some embroidered initials. With no way of knowing the baby’s name or family, he raises the girl himself, naming her Star Bright.

Ten years later, a woman on a passing cruise ship catches a glimpse of Star and is convinced she is the daughter of her dead sister, lost at sea with her husband and child while sailing home from Europe ten years earlier. It’s soon established beyond doubt that Star is Isabel Maynard, the long lost and presumed dead niece of that cruise ship passenger, Mrs. Morton. At first, Mrs. Morton wishes to take the girl to live with her, with full gratitude to Captain January for rescuing and raising her. But when she sees how it will break the hearts of both Star and the captain, she relents, and lovingly leaves the girl with the only father she’s ever known.

Even so, Captain January knows that his days on earth are nearly done, and he arranges with his friend, sailor Bob Peet, to keep an eye on the lighthouse whenever he sails by: If the little blue flag is flying, all is well; if the flag has been struck, it’s time for Bob to come and collect Star, and to take her to live with the Mortons, who will welcome her as one of their own — which in fact she is. Finally, in the spring of the following year, January feels his heart failing, and with his last ounce of strength he hauls down the little flag, then returns to his favorite chair to wait. “For Captain January’s last voyage is over, and he is already in the haven where he would be.”

 
 
Captain January was first filmed as a 1924 silent with Baby Peggy and Hobart Bosworth as the little orphan and her lighthouse-keeper foster father. For reasons known only to scenarists John Grey and Eve Unsell, this version features a name switch: the orphan girl is nicknamed “Captain January” while her guardian is “Jeremiah Judkins”. Otherwise, the silent version has elements that would survive in Shirley’s remake twelve years later: The busybodies in the nearby village conspiring to wrest the child from her guardian “for her own good”; the ingenious ending that restored the orphan to her family without taking her from her beloved guardian. (By the way, I am delighted to report that as of this writing, Baby Peggy — now known as Diana Serra Cary — is still with us, and if all goes well, will turn 96 next October 26. Continued long life to her.)
For Captain January‘s 1936 incarnation, Sam Hellman and Gladys Lehman, who had written Shirley’s signature role in Little Miss Marker, were engaged to write the script with Harry Tugend. The first thing the three did was to straighten out the names: Shirley plays Star, the orphan of the storm, while veteran character actor Guy Kibbee played the old lighthouse-keeper (the first time somebody besides Shirley played the title role in one of her pictures; it wouldn’t happen again until The Blue Bird in 1940).
The writers also supplemented the contents of that washed-up trunk of Star’s mother’s clothes; there is now enough in the trunk to include a photograph of Star’s mother, and to establish that she was an opera singer who once played Lucia di Lammermoor. This sets up an amusing scene later where Star, Captain January, and January’s friend Captain Nazro (Slim Summerville) sing a burlesque of the famous sextet from Lucia, with the parts reduced to three and Star squeaking that hers is “too high!…Still too high!” The trunk also contains other clues to Star’s identity; the fact that January never followed through on them as thoroughly as he might have, and that Nazro later does, becomes a point of conflict in the movie’s plot.
 
 
 
The village busybodies from the 1924 movie are here reduced to one, but she’s a formidable battleax: Agatha Morgan (Sara Haden), the new local truant officer. Like all busybodies, she delights in overstepping her bounds; not content with making sure Star is enrolled in school, she makes it her personal mission to get the child away from Cap’s “disreputable” custody. When the lighthouse is slated for automation and it looks like Cap will be thrown out of a job, it’s clear to everyone that Mrs. Morgan will be only too eager to pounce. Captain Nazro, fisherman Paul Roberts (Buddy Ebsen), and the sympathetic schoolteacher Mary Marshall (June Lang) take steps they feel are necessary, and the plot accordingly thickens.
Years later, director David Butler reminisced about the shooting of this scene, where Captain Nazro brings a live crane as a birthday present for Star. The crane, Butler recalled, clamped its beak onto Shirley’s nose and refused to let go, even as Shirley’s mother and teacher, the crane’s handler, and sundry crew members fluttered around in varying states of agitation. The story, frankly, has the air of an old-timer’s tall tale, and sure enough, Shirley makes no mention in Child Star of such a thing happening.
 
She does, however, remember problems with that obstreperous crane. At their first meeting, the bird did peck in her direction, tumbling her backwards in surprise. “They always go for the eyes,” a propman warned. “Keep your distance.” (That makes more sense than latching onto the nose.) All efforts to wrangle the crane were met with attacks — until one of the crew drove flathead nails through the webbing in its feet, anchoring it to the floor. Thus the scene shown here was shot, with the three humans standing well out of reach, then the bird was released, none the worse for the experience. Shirley says Butler swore everybody to secrecy, but word leaked out and late that afternoon a representative from the humane society showed up to investigate. Fortunately for Butler and 20th Century Fox, every time the woman tried to inspect the bird’s feet for telltale perforations, she got pecked at for her trouble, and the whole thing blew over.
 
The musical highlight of Captain January‘s three songs was Shirley’s song-and-dance duet with gangly, stilt-legged Buddy Ebsen to “At the Codfish Ball” by Lew Pollack and Sidney D. Mitchell. As choreographed by Jack Donohue, it was a long and complex routine that ranged over a long stretch of the Fox backlot, made extra-challenging by the almost comical discrepancy between the length of Shirley’s stride and Buddy’s. “Somehow,” she remembered, “he shortened his stride and I learned to fly.” The focus is a little soft in this YouTube clip, but the number still comes through:
 
 
The other songs were an opening number, “Early Bird” (Also by Pollack and Mitchell), which had Star popping out of bed in the morning and breaking the fourth wall, singing directly to the camera (and hence the audience) as she gets dressed.
 
Then there was this rather odd little number. The song was “The Right Somebody to Love” by Pollack and Jack Yellen. It was one of those wistful little ballads like “Where Is Love?” from Oliver! — the kind of song that can be sung child-to-parent, parent-to-child, or sweetheart-to-sweetheart. In this case, Star sings it to Cap, followed by this fantasy sequence where their roles are reversed, and Cap is the baby being tended by nurse Star. It was filmed on a giant-size set designed to make Kibbee look like an infant — which meant that Shirley, in turn, looked positively Lilliputian.
 

Both Abel Green in Variety and Frank S. Nugent in the New York Times found Captain January to be “okay film fare” (Green) despite the “moss-covered script” (Nugent). One of the most interesting reviews came from across the Pond, where Graham Greene, writing in the London Spectator, found the picture to be “a little depraved, with an appeal interestingly decadent…Shirley Temple acts and dances with immense vigor and assurance, but some of her popularity seems to rest on a coquetry quite as mature as Miss [Claudette] Colbert’s, and on an oddly precocious body, as voluptuous in grey flannel trousers as Miss [Marlene] Dietrich’s.” Greene would pursue that line of thought in subsequent reviews, and would in time catch the gimlet eye of 20th Century Fox’s legal department. But I’ll get to that in its turn.

For the record, just in case you’ve lost track, Shirley was now seven years old; her eighth birthday was the day before Captain January opened in New York. Of course, hardly anybody besides her parents knew that; the rest of the world — including Shirley herself — thought she had just turned seven.

Next time: Fox’s top two female stars go head-to-head.

To be continued

 

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 8

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Since I last posted on The Littlest Rebel I’ve had a chance to examine both Edward Peple’s play and novel of that title (both were copyrighted in 1911, so it’s impossible, without input from Mr. Peple’s heirs and descendants, to know whether the play was based on the novel or vice versa). It’s clear that Variety’s reviewer “Land” misspoke when he said there was “no trace” of Peple’s play in Edwin J. Burke’s script. In fact, Burke followed Peple’s broad outline quite faithfully, making such changes as the passage of 25 years and the talent on hand would call for. The stagebound bombast of the play’s dialogue is purged entirely, as is the “colored” humor that was hopelessly dated by 1935 (albeit replaced with humor that looks equally dated to us today). In the play, Virgie saves her father from the firing squad by appealing for clemency to Gen. U.S. Grant; having her appeal to President Lincoln in the movie was an obvious improvement. And, of course, song-and-dance opportunities were inserted for Shirley and Bill Robinson because it would have been plainly stupid not to do so.

“Land” was being either forgetful, ignorant or unjust. If he wanted to see a movie that really had no trace of its original source, he need only have waited for the picture that 20th Century Fox hustled Shirley into immediately after shooting wrapped on Captain January.

 

 

Poor Little Rich Girl

(released June 25, 1936)

PLRG-music01aWDon’t be misled by the picture’s title as it appears on the cover of the sheet music  below (and on several of the posters and lobby cards); the title was Poor Little Rich Girl, with no “The“. Poor Little Rich Girl has a distinction it shares with Our Little Girl: They are the only two pictures from Shirley’s reign as Fox’s box-office queen (before and after the merger) that are not available on DVD; both can be seen only on out-of-print colorized VHS tapes.
 
There’s another distinction that Poor Little Rich Girl has all to itself: It’s one of Shirley’s decidedly odd, even bizarre, pictures. The oddity begins with the screenplay credits. Once again, as with Captain January, the script is by Sam Hellman, Gladys Lehman and Harry Tugend, this time “suggested by the stories of Eleanor Gates and Ralph Spence.” 
 
In order to clarify that “stories of” credit, we need to go back to the beginning, and it begins with Eleanor Gates (1875-1951). She published her novel The Poor Little Rich Girl in 1912, then turned it into a play that ran for 160 performances on Broadway the following year. The novel tells of seven-year-old Gwendolyn (for the play her age was upped to 11 and she was played by 15-year-old Viola Dana, the future silent movie star). To all appearances, Gwendolyn is a pampered child of wealth and privilege, but she’s really lonely, confused and unhappy. She’s neglected by her workaholic father and social-climbing mother, who leave her in the hands of servants who bully her and treat her like a nuisance. One night her nursemaid, eager for an evening off, gives her an overdose of a sleeping medication that puts Gwendolyn into a near-death coma. In her delirium she has a bizarre Alice in Wonderland-style dream in which all her waking fears, confusion and insecurity take literal and symbolic form. By the time the crisis has passed and she is out of danger, her repentant parents have realized how important she is to them and vowed to neglect her no more. The play was filmed in 1917, with reasonable fidelity, and starring Mary Pickford.
 
A casual reading of Poor Little Rich Girl‘s credits might seem to imply that Miss Gates and Ralph Spence collaborated on the “stories”, but they didn’t; they may not even have ever met. Spence (1890-1949) was a writer of intertitles during the silent era who was famous for adding spice to otherwise pedestrian pictures (“All bad little movies when they die go to Ralph Spence,” read a full-page ad he took out in a Hollywood trade paper). Why he got story credit on Poor Little Rich Girl might have remained a mystery, but Shirley herself offers a convincing explanation in Child Star. It seems two writers filed a nuisance suit over Poor Little Rich Girl, claiming it had been stolen from a story they wrote on spec for Shirley and submitted to Fox in 1934. Shirley says Eleanor Gates herself resolved the issue by attesting that the title was hers, but the picture’s plot was taken from Spence’s story “Betsy Takes the Air”. So if Shirley’s recollection is right (and it sounds reasonable to me), 20th Century Fox bought Poor Little Rich Girl‘s title from Eleanor Gates and its story from Ralph Spence. In any case, one thing is abundantly clear: Fox may have made all the right payments to avoid any possible hassle, but Poor Little Rich Girl is in no way a remake of Mary Pickford’s 1917 The Poor Little Rich Girl, nor is it based on Eleanor Gates’s novel or play. 
 
It is, however, about a poor little rich girl. Shirley plays Barbara Barry, the daughter of young widower Richard Barry (Michael Whalen), multi-millionaire owner of Barry’s Beauty Soap. Barbara is pampered to the point of absolute boredom, with no friends or playmates. If she sneezes more than once in an hour, she’s shunted off to bed by her nursemaid Collins (Sara Haden). Mrs. Woodward, the housekeeper (Jane Darwell), convinces Barbara’s father to enroll the girl in a private school where she can be among children her own age, and he arranges for Collins to take the girl to the school in the Adirondacks that Barbara’s late mother once attended.

While waiting for the car to take them to the station, Barbara asks Collins what she’ll do while Barbara’s away at school.”I’m going to take a little vacation,” Collins tells her. Barbara asks what a vacation is. “It’s a rest, dear. It means getting away from people you’ve been with every day and seeing new faces. You really become another person on a vacation.”

The words leave a fateful impression on Barbara. When they get to the station, Collins stops to send a telegram telling the school that Barbara is on her way. That’s when she misses her purse; she must have dropped it as she got out of the car. She tells Barbara to wait, and rushes outside to search. There she’s run down by a car and winds up in the hospital, unconscious and unidentified.

Meanwhile, back in the station, Barbara gets tired of waiting and decides to take a “little vacation” of her own — and the “other person” she decides to become is Betsy Ware, an orphan in her favorite series of stories that Mrs. Woodward has been reading to her. In this guise she meets Jimmy Dolan and his wife Jerry (Jack Haley and Alice Faye), vaudevillians down on their luck and looking to break into radio. Taking little “Betsy” into their act, they rename her “Bonnie Dolan” and make the rounds as “Dolan, Dolan and Dolan” — and sure enough, before you can say “audition” they’ve landed starring spots on a radio show. On top of that, their show is sponsored by the Peck Soap Co., arch-competitor to Barry’s Beauty Soap, and little Barbara/Betsy/Bonnie has charmed the socks off cranky old Simon Peck (Claude Gillingwater), who had long vowed never to sponsor a radio program. All this happens within two days, while Barbara’s father, who assumes his daughter is safely ensconced at school in the Adirondacks, is romancing the Peck Soap Co.’s head of advertising (Gloria Stuart).

Well, all of this gets sorted out in time for a happy fadeout — that is, for everyone except poor Collins, the nursemaid, whom we last see comatose in the hospital while doctors puzzle over her identity, and who is never heard from again.

PLRG-SS02c-Temple,-creepW 
And then there’s this character. He’s never identified by name, so I can’t even say who the actor is (if there are any name-the-unknown-actor buffs out there who can enlighten me, I’ll be eternally grateful). Anyhow, this guy shows up shortly after Barbara leaves the train station to embark on her “little vacation”. He stalks her for the rest of the movie, following her everywhere she goes and eavesdropping on her conversations with the people she meets. At one point he accosts her in the hallway of the apartment house where she’s staying with the Dolans, and he offers to buy her some peppermint candy if she’ll walk down to the corner with him. He calls her a “cute little trick” and tries to get her to tell him who her real daddy is. Who is this guy?? A kidnapper for ransom? A child molester? His presence is never explained, but he gives Poor Little Rich Girl a gruesome undercurrent of creepy menace that’s hard to square with the picture’s musical comedy trappings; he’s like a scorpion on a wedding cake. No two ways about it, the Hellman-Lehman-Tugend script for Poor Little Rich Girl is one screwy piece of work.

 

 
 
 
The movie’s saving grace is its score by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, one of the best ever composed for one of Shirley’s pictures and one of the few that can properly be called a score as opposed to simply a collection of songs. Gordon and Revel’s numbers are clever, catchy and full of surprises. This is charmingly demonstrated in the very first song, “Oh, My Goodness”, which Barbara sings to four of her dolls after being banished to her bedroom for excessive sneezing. She begins by bemoaning her fun-deprived life: 
 
I wanna make mudpies
In fact I’d like to be a mess
I wanna make mudpies
I know that I’d find happiness
If I got jam on my fingers, chocolate on my face
And molasses all over my dress
 
Then the number segues into the song proper, as Barbara scolds the dolls for their naughty behavior:
 
You’re the only friends I’ve ever had
But one minute you’re good
And the very next minute you’re bad
 
At times I ought to hate you
You make me feel so blue
But honest I can’t hate you
When you smile at me the way you do
Oh…
My…
Goodness!
 

…and then, exactly the right touch: the dolls jump up and dance for her. The whole scene is a perfectly delightful expression of the loneliness of a friendless little girl, presented in song (by Shirley) and dance (by the dolls).

Other songs round out the musical program with variety and a satisfying range of styles. There are spoofs of commercial jingles in the ditties for the competing soap companies, “Buy a Bar of Barry’s” and “Wash Your Necks with a Cake of Peck’s”. A standard love song, “When I’m with You”, introduced by an unbilled Tony Martin at the very beginning of his career — and one year before his three-year marriage to Alice Faye. The song is then reprised by Barbara, singing to her father (and including the rather alarming line, “Marry me and let me be your wife.”). These and other songs, often heard in different forms in the background, on pianos, hand-organs and what-not, add to the varied musical texture of Poor Little Rich Girl.

A highlight comes when Dolan, Dolan and Dolan makeemd_wKe their debut on the Peck’s Soap Hour with “You’ve Gotta Eat Your Spinach, Baby”. The number begins with Jimmy singing a conventional love song, which Jerry turns into a playful flirt-song. Then “Bonnie” stalks on and the number morphs into a sort of American variation on a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song: the girl sings a manifesto of youthful rebellion (“No-o-o-o spinach!…Halle-loooo-jah!”);  Jimmy and Jerry counter with a stern assertion of adult authority (“Children have to do as they are told…Children shouldn’t be so very bold”), resulting in a sullen surrender (“Yes, sir…yes, ma’am…”):
 
 
Once the conflicts have been cleared up, and the Barry’s/Peck’s rivalry resolved with a merger, Poor Little Rich Girl goes out on a high note: a bravura song-and-dance number, “Military Man” (light on the song, very heavy on the dance). Shirley remembered nerves getting frazzled when she, Jack Haley and Alice Faye met to post-dub their taps to a playback of the silent image of their dance. All three knew the routine cold, but with no music to guide them, not even a metronome or choreographer Jack Haskell to give them the beat, matching their tap sounds to their mutely dancing picture proved tricky in the extreme. They finally got it, of course, and in recognition of their hard work I include this colorized clip here. Besides, it’s a whole lot of fun:
 

Years later, Alice Faye shared her memories of Poor Little Rich Girl with her great fan W. Franklyn Moshier, author of the self-published The Films of Alice Faye (which was picked up by Stackpole Books in 1974 and published as The Alice Faye Movie Book), and Frank Moshier shared those memories with me when I knew him in the early ’70s. Evidently, Alice rankled at having to play second fiddle to this eight-year-old; according to Frank, she never talked about “Shirley”, it was always “that Temple child”. Alice told Frank, and Frank told me, stories of Shirley throwing tantrums on the set — red-faced, stomping, screaming “Miss Faye pushed me! Miss Faye pushed me!” Frank had the good sense not to include such tales in The Films of Alice Faye, but he did assert that “while pure and wholesome in appearance and the darling of everyone from Key West to Puget Sound, Shirley was more than a little difficult to work with.”

Nonsense. I didn’t believe these stories in 1972 and I don’t believe them now. They simply fly in the face of everything — everything — that everybody else who ever worked with Shirley had to say about her. We can only speculate on what prompted such melodramatic yarns; both Shirley and Alice — and for that matter, Frank Moshier — are beyond asking about it now. In any event, Alice Faye was not through playing second fiddle to Shirley Temple. Within a very few months, she’d be doing it again.

To be continued

 

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 9

During shooting on Poor Little Rich Girl, director Irving Cummings drew Shirley’s mother aside and warned her that (as Shirley recalled it in Child Star) “the studio would have to find better stories for me; I had lost that baby quality and was getting an emotional understanding, ‘like Helen Hayes when she started.'” Cummings’s point was well taken, but like contract players at other studios, Shirley was at the mercy of the 20th Century Fox front office, and their interest was in keeping her a baby as long as possible. Certainly that was how they played it for her next picture.

Dimples

(released October 11, 1936)

D-LC03WI’m going to pass over Dimples as quickly as duty will allow because, like Now and Forever, it’s a bit of a dud, and for similar reasons. The setting is New York in 1850; Shirley plays Chalvia Dolores Appleby, known by all as “Dimples”. As in Now and Forever, she’s the child of an unregenerate grifter, only this time it’s not her father but her grandfather, “Professor” Eustace Appleby (Frank Morgan). The Professor calls himself a music teacher of “the Pianoforte, the Bugle, the Melodion, the Drum, also Bird Calls”, but mainly he just stands in the crowd shilling while Dimples and his other “students” sing, dance and play their instruments in the streets. Then he starts the contributions when Dimples passes the hat and, while other bystanders are dropping coins in, he works the crowd picking pockets. In another similarity to Now and Forever, Dimples catches the eye of wealthy old Mrs. Drew (Helen Westley), who wants to lift her out of the Bowery poverty in which she lives with the Professor. At the same time, Mrs. Drew becomes estranged from her nephew Allen (Robert Kent) when he becomes romantically involved with (gasp!) an actress whom he decides to star in a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin — in which he later hires Dimples to play Little Eva.
 
Unlike Shirley’s character in Now and Forever, Dimples is wise to her reprobate forebear and goes out of her way to shield him. When he steals a clock from Mrs. Drew’s house, she returns it, telling the kind lady that she stole it and the Professor made her bring it back. When Allen Drew wants to hire Dimples for Uncle Tom’s Cabin but has no part for the Professor, she turns the role down until he agrees to give the Professor a job. In this way and others, the Professor becomes the child and Dimples the guardian. 
 
D-Frame01a-Temple,-MorganWIn Child Star Shirley remembered Frank Morgan’s tireless efforts to upstage her and steal focus during their scenes — fiddling with his cuffs, flourishing his handkerchief, placing his stovepipe hat on a table between her and the camera so that she couldn’t be in the shot without stepping off her mark and out of the light. (“Both of us knew perfectly well what he was doing. There was no way I could cope, short of biting at his fingers.”) Director William A. Seiter was on to Morgan’s tricks too; in this scene, where Dimples sings “Picture Me Without You” (one of four pleasantly forgettable songs provided by Jimmy McHugh and Ted Koehler), Seiter made Morgan sit in a chair with his back to the camera. (“When this picture is over,” cracked producer Nunnally Johnson, “either Shirley will have acquired a taste for Scotch whiskey or Frank will come out with curls.”)
 
Shirley’s consternation is understandable, but the problem with the Professor isn’t Morgan’s performance — he’s as delightful as ever — it’s the character. The man is simply no damn good. There isn’t an honest bone in his body; every word that passes his lips is a lie, and he’ll steal anything that isn’t bolted to the floor. He never makes the slightest effort to reform the way Gary Cooper’s Jerry Day tries to do in Now and Forever — at least not until the waning seconds of the picture, when it comes much too late to be convincing. Variety’s reviewer “Odec” described the Professor as “Micawberish”, but that’s a slander on the great character from David Copperfield. Wilkins Micawber is merely feckless and improvident; Eustace Appleby is what later generations would call a sociopath and pathological narcissist — Robert Kent’s Allen Drew is much closer to the mark when he denounces the Professor as a “senile old scoundrel.” On top of that, he’s stupid, and Dimples’s frequent efforts to cover for him (which convince no one) only make her look like a fool. The Professor’s bumbling perfidy casts a sour pall over every scene he’s in, and Frank Morgan, despite his skill at stealing scenes (maybe even because of it), is powerless to make this good-for-nothing tinhorn Fagin likeable.
 
Dimples does have its pluses. Bill Robinson, doing off-camera duty this time as dance director, gave Shirley some sprightly syncopated routines, like this one here to McHugh and Koehler’s “He Was a Dandy”, flanked by Thurman Black and Jesse Scott. The picture sports a few anachronisms. It’s explicitly set in 1850, but it opens on a shot of a campaign poster for Franklin Pierce and involves a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; both Pierce’s election and the novel’s publication didn’t happen until 1852. Still, there’s a nice period feel to it, and the glimpse of the 1850s American theater is pretty authentic. Maybe too authentic — the play’s Uncle Tom and Topsy (and, for plot reasons, Frank Morgan) appear in blackface, as do such genuine African Americans as Stepin Fetchit and the Hall Johnson Choir (in those days even people of color, on the rare occasions they were allowed to perform with whites, were required to “black up”).
 
Neither “Odec” in Variety nor Frank S. Nugent in the New York Times was overly impressed with Dimples. Odec assured exhibitors that they’d make money as usual on Shirley’s latest, “but it won’t be due to the fact that ‘Dimples’ is solid, expertly fashioned entertainment. It’s anything but that.” Nugent, for his part, was downright exasperated: “Why they bother with titles, or with plots either for that matter, is beyond us…Now leave us alone a while; we want to brood.”

Just one more point about Dimples before we move on. In Child Star Shirley recalled filming Little Eva’s death scene (which she plays much the way a child actress in the 1850s would probably have done it), and actor Paul Stanton, as Eva’s grieving father, sobbing so broadly that he shook the bed she was lying on. However, Shirley transplanted the recollection from Dimples to The Little Colonel the year before, and she identified her over-emoting stage father as John Lodge, who played her “real” father in that picture. Such are the occasional vagaries of even the most reliable memory.

Stowaway

(released December 18, 1936)

 STWY-poster01WStowaway gave Shirley an exotic setting, a story that didn’t require her to carry the show all by herself, and cast-mates who were strong enough to share the load. Shirley played Barbara Stewart, nicknamed “Ching-Ching”, the orphaned daughter of missionaries in Sanchow, China. At the approach of bandits from the hills, she’s about to be orphaned again — or worse — because her guardians the Kruikshanks (also missionaries) refuse to flee from the approaching marauders. Defying them, the wise local magistrate Sun Lo (Philip Ahn) spirits Ching-Ching away with a boatman to Shanghai.

 

But upon arrival, the boatman robs the sleeping Ching-Ching and disappears, leaving her to wander the city alone. That’s how she meets Tommy Randall (Robert Young, on loan from MGM), a wandering American playboy. After their encounter, the girl falls asleep in the rumble seat of Tommy’s automobile while he goes roaring off on a drunk with another wealthy globetrotter (Eugene Pallette). Tommy’s valet Atkins (Arthur Treacher) tracks his employer from bar to bar and manages to get him aboard their departing ship safe and (reasonably) sound, along with Tommy’s auto — and, unbeknownst to all, the sleeping Ching-Ching.

When the befuddled Ching-Ching awakens the next morning, she’s immediately spotted for a stowaway and chased from deck to deck. She takes refuge in the stateroom of Susan Parker (Alice Faye) and Susan’s future mother-in-law Mrs. Hope (Helen Westley), on their way to Bangkok to join Susan’s intended. Before long, Ching-Ching is reunited with her “Uncle” Tommy; for his part, Tommy agrees to stand good for the child’s passage until her guardians can be contacted. Also, even through his pounding hangover, he can see that Susan is the most beautiful woman aboard ship. Susan’s eyes are clearer than his, but it’s plain to see that the attraction is mutual.

On the voyage from Shanghai to Hong Kong, Ching-Ching plays unwitting matchmaker between Tommy and Susan, to the consternation of Mrs. Hope, who urgently cables her son Richard (Allan Lane) not to wait till they reach Bangkok but to fly at once to meet the boat at Hong Kong. The ever-obedient Richard does as he’s told, and the inevitable romantic complications arise, with Susan eventually cold-shouldering Tommy when she mistakenly thinks he has returned to his ne’er-do-well ways. In the meantime, the ship’s captain (Robert Greig) learns from the American consulate that Ching-Ching’s guardians the Kruikshanks have paid with their lives for their refusal to flee those approaching bandits; the child will have to be returned to Shanghai and the orphanage there.
 
Tommy persuades Susan to adopt Ching-Ching when she and Richard are married, promising to take the child off their hands as soon as his lawyers can arrange it. But Richard, under the influence of his domineering mother, will have none of it; he sees no reason to do Tommy any favors and he doesn’t give a hoot about Ching-Ching. Shocked by his (actually, their) callous attitude, Susan breaks the engagement. Soon thereafter, Tommy, seeing Ching-Ching about to be sent off to a life of “marching in lock-step and eating gruel”, desperately begs Susan to marry him — in name only, he assures her, just so he can adopt Ching-Ching, with a quickie Reno divorce and a generous settlement for Susan as soon as they reach the States.
 

Well, we can all guess where this is headed, and sure enough it gets there — with a wise judge in Reno (J. Edward Bromberg) consulting with Ching-Ching before denying a divorce petition for probably the first time in the history of the State of Nevada.

Stowaway reunited Shirley with director William A. Seiter (and also with writer William Conselman, who had done so well by Shirley on Bright Eyes and The Little Colonel, writing this time with Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin, from a story by Samuel G. Engel). Without the odious Professor who blighted Dimples (and without Frank Morgan’s upstaging stunts), Seiter was able to do much better by Shirley, mainly by not forcing her to be the whole show.

Not that she doesn’t have plenty to do. Ching-Ching is still the fulcrum of the plot, as Marky was in Little Miss Marker, serving as matchmaker for Robert Young and Alice Faye almost exactly the way Marky did for Adolphe Menjou and Dorothy Dell. And life in a remote village deep in the heart of China hasn’t deprived Ching-Ching of a keen grasp of American popular music (which she credits to “Sun Lo’s phonograph”): When she visits an amateur-hour theater in Hong Kong with Tommy and Susan, Ching-Ching takes the stage to sing “You Gotta S-M-I-L-E to Be H-A-Double-P-Y” (by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel). Then she reprises the song in the style of Al Jolson, then Eddie Cantor (that’s some record collection that Sun Lo has!) — and finally a la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with a white-tie-and-tails dummy strapped to her toes that just happens to be sitting backstage.
 
Stowaway‘s take-away hit was Gordon and Revel’s “Good Night, My Love” — introduced by Shirley as a lullaby learned at her late mother’s knee, then later reprised by Alice as a love song, with a new “grown-up” lyric. (In Child Star Shirley confessed to a private, childish jealousy over Alice getting the last word on “her” song. “Instantly I knew her rendition had finessed mine. Hers was deeper-throated, more resonant, and her facial expressions insinuated much that I sensed was important without knowing why.” Could this be a glimpse of conditions on the set that would lead Alice decades later to speak of “that Temple child”?) 
 
STWY-Frame03a-XmasWAlice also sang “One Never Knows, Does One?”, another one by Gordon and Revel, this time with no little-girl version for Shirley. Then Shirley closed out the show with “That’s What I Want for Christmas”, written by the uncredited Gerald Marks and Irving Caesar. This last number comes at the very end, after the story has been brought to a satisfying conclusion, and it plays almost like a curtain-call encore. Evidently it was added at the last minute to exploit the movie’s holiday engagement at New York’s Roxy picture palace (it didn’t sift down to the rest of the country until after the turn of 1937).
 
Reviews of Stowaway were a big step up. Variety’s “Bige” called it “a nifty Shirley Temple comedy with musical trimmings” and said it was “apt to regain whatever ground has been lost by the kid star’s last few efforts.” (For the record, Shirley’s “last few efforts” had been Dimples, Poor Little Rich Girl, Captain January, The Littlest Rebel and Curly Top. Apparently Dimples had left a really bad taste.)
 
At the New York Times, Stowaway appears to have restored Frank S. Nugent’s faith in both 20th Century Fox and Shirley in particular (“[a] clever little baggage when she is kept in her place…”). “For the first time in several starts,” he wrote, “she has an amusing script behind her, an agreeable adult troupe with her and a clever director before her. The combination has produced a thoroughly entertaining romantic comedy, unquestionably the best thing the gifted moppet has done since ‘Little Miss Marker.’ It practically convinces us there is a Santa Claus.” Even John Mosher, at that citadel of sniffy sophistication The New Yorker, conceded, “I am sure that this new film of [Miss Temple’s] should be the bright spot, perhaps the brightest spot, of the holiday season for her great following.”
 
Stowaway is indeed a charmer, the more so since Shirley doesn’t have to supply all the charm. Robert Young and Alice Faye have a playful romantic chemistry, and he’s in good comic form while she’s in excellent voice; Arthur Treacher is amusing as Tommy Randall’s valet, in a state of perpetual nonplussedness; Helen Westley, as the old harridan Mrs. Hope, offers a clever change from her cuddly matron in Dimples; Eugene Pallete is, as always, a hoot playing a shipboard lush (albeit too briefly this time); and as the ship’s captain, Robert Greig — that stalwart Australian character actor whom audiences are always happy to see but whose name they can never remember — adds his own patented grace notes of dignity.
 
Watching Shirley’s movies in succession today, something is beginning to make itself noticeable by the time one gets to Stowaway, and it bears on Irving Cummings’s remark to Mother Gertrude about Shirley “losing that baby quality and getting an emotional understanding.” Remember, at this point it’s been just a hair over three years since the day Shirley auditioned for Lew Brown and Jay Gorney on Stand Up and Cheer!; since then Shirley has made 15 pictures. She’s no longer a toddler, as Cummings noted, and as for “emotional understanding”, she has certainly come to understand how cute she is. She has by no means lost the “spontaneity and cheer” that Mordaunt Hall noticed in Little Miss Marker, or the “unspoiled freshness of manner” that Andre Sennwald found the saving grace of Now and Forever. But she no longer has the element of surprise on her side, and from her mother’s coaching her to “sparkle” she’s begun to develop tricks: the carefully calculated giggle, the pumping fists, the pouting lips — the mannerisms that have provided fodder for countless parodists since the 1930s. 
 
This is noticeable now only by viewing in rapid succession (and closely, and more than a few times) the movies that audiences in the mid-’30s saw only once, and spread out over years. But Darryl Zanuck had already noticed it himself, and he decided to shake up the formula a little before it got too stale. And so it was that Shirley, for the first time in her career, got the opportunity to star for a truly great director.

 

To be continued

 

 

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 10

On July 30, 1936 there was a story conference on what would become Shirley’s next picture after Stowaway. At that conference, according to notes published in Rudy Behlmer’s Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck, the Fox studio chief said:

I feel the only way to make this story is to disregard the formula of all the previous pictures Shirley Temple has appeared in to date…My idea…is to forget that it is a Shirley Temple picture. That is, not to forget that she is the star, but to write the story as if it were a Little Women or a David Copperfield…All the hokum must be thrown out. The characters must be made real, human, believable. Only then can we get a powerful, real story.

The role must be written for Shirley as an actress, and nothing sloughed over because Shirley is in it and therefore it will be good. We don’t want to depend on any of her tricks. She should not be doing things because she is Shirley Temple, but because the situations — sound and believable — call for them. In other words, write a role and let Shirley adapt herself to the picture.

This conference took place almost a full year before the picture was released. Without checking studio archives, we can’t be sure if Zanuck had already assigned a director, but given his determination to disregard the Shirley Temple formula, he probably had. In any case, the assignment went to John Ford, whom Zanuck had under non-exclusive contract. Ford had been directing since 1917, had already won the first of his four Oscars for The Informer at RKO, and was on the threshold of his own personal Golden Age, which would extend into the 1960s. According to Ford biographer Scott Eyman, Ford gave two accounts of his reaction to being assigned a Shirley Temple picture. In the one Eyman finds more likely, Ford said “my face fell atop the floor.” In the other, more consistent with the director’s self-image as a no-nonsense moviemaker, “I said ‘Great’ and we just went out and made the picture.”

Wee Willie Winkie

(released July 23, 1937)

 WWW-poster01fWCalling the picture “Rudyard Kipling’s” Wee Willie Winkie was a bit of an overstatement. The original story was published in 1888, when the future Nobel Prize winner was 22. It told of Percival William Williams, the six-year-old son of an army colonel stationed with his regiment in British India at the foot of the Khyber Pass on the indistinct border with Afghanistan. Percival has a penchant for nicknaming people, including himself, so he has adopted the name Wee Willie Winkie from one of his nursery-books. Winkie is bright but typically mischievous for a boy his age, and under the military discipline imposed by his father he is forever earning, then forfeiting, a succession of Good Conduct Badges.

 

One soldier that Winkie takes a particular shine to is Lt. Brandis, whom he nicknames “Coppy” for his copper-colored hair. His affection for Coppy is so great that when he sees Coppy “vehemently kissing” the daughter of one Major Allardyce he keeps the secret to himself.

Shortly thereafter, for yet another infraction, Winkie once more loses his Good Conduct Badge and is “confined to quarters under arrest” — what a later generation would call “grounded”. But when he sees Coppy’s Miss Allardyce, in a fit of willful independence, riding out beyond the river where all are forbidden to go, Winkie breaks arrest and rides after her on his little pony.

He catches up only when her own horse stumbles and throws her, twisting her ankle so that she cannot stand. She pleads with him to ride back to the post for help. But Winkie has been taught that “a man must always look after a girl”, and when he sees men approaching from the hills — bandits, perhaps, or worse — he dismounts and whips his pony, sending it galloping home without its rider. When the natives come across the boy and the injured young woman, they begin mulling over whether to take them hostage for ransom.

Winkie bravely stands up to them, to their great amusement, ordering them to send to the post for help. One of the natives, a former groom at the post, warns his fellows that disturbing these two will only be asking for trouble, and the debate among them goes on long enough for Winkie’s pony to reach home and for the alarm to be sounded. As the regiment rides to the rescue, the Afghans see the approaching soldiers and prudently melt back into the hills. Winkie and Miss Allardyce are brought back to the post, where Winkie is hailed as “a pukka hero”; his breaking arrest is forgiven, and he even regains his Good Conduct Badge.

WWW-frame01a-McLaglen,-TempleWNeedless to say, in Ernest Pascal and Julien Josephson’s screenplay nearly all of this was changed. Percival was changed to Priscilla and given a widowed American mother (June Lang). The colonel backs up a generation, becoming Priscilla’s grandfather (C. Aubrey Smith), who sends for Priscilla and her mother when he learns they are living in poverty in America. Priscilla is still nicknamed Wee Willie Winkie, but her military discipline is self-imposed in an effort to become a soldier, since that seems to be the only type of person her grandfather the colonel likes. “Private” Winkie still takes a shine to Lt. “Coppy” Brandis (Michael Whalen, Shirley’s father in Poor Little Rich Girl), but he throws over Maj. Allardyce’s daughter to romance Winkie’s mother. While he’s doing that, Coppy’s duties as Winkie’s best friend among the soldiery devolve onto a new character, Sergeant MacDuff (Victor McLaglen).
 
In the closest Wee Willie Winkie comes to Kipling, young Pvt. Winkie again bravely faces and scolds an array of scornfully unassimilated Afghans, in this case led by the proud warlord Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero). But the movie goes Kipling one better: Winkie even averts a frontier war and brings peace when her grandfather Col. Williams and Khoda Khan agree to resolve their differences for the child’s sake.
 
It’s not uncommon these days to hear Wee Willie Winkie described as Shirley’s best picture at 20th Century Fox — and John Ford’s worst. As for Ford, he would go on to direct Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley for Darryl Zanuck, winning Oscars for the latter two. To be sure, Wee Willie Winkie isn’t in the same league with any of those. But the worst? Hardly. Take a gander at Tobacco Road, When Willie Comes Marching Home or What Price Glory sometime. 
 
But Shirley’s best? Well, here those folks may be on to something. Ford, Pascal and Josephson followed Zanuck’s orders to write a role and “let Shirley adapt herself” to it, and not to depend on any of her tricks. She pouts but little (and only when called for), never breaks into dance, and sings only once, a couple of choruses of “Auld Lang Syne” at the bedside of Sgt. MacDuff as he lies mortally wounded after a skirmish with Khoda Khan’s men. The scene is a famous one, and justly so; it may be the best-played scene of Shirley’s entire career, staged and composed with masterful restraint by Ford and quietly scored by Alfred Newman. Winkie has no idea that MacDuff is dying; the knowledge has been kept from her. As she sings we see conflicting emotions flit across her face — affection for her good friend, confusion at the sense that something’s not right with him, then a banishing of the confusion, persuading herself that he’s only fallen asleep.
 
In Child Star Shirley devoted more space to Wee Willie Winkie than to any of her other pictures — partly because labor unrest was roiling the studio during production (the studio even shifted the shooting schedule, sending the company off for several weeks of location work at Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley while demonstrations at the studio gates blew over), partly because her mother underwent surgery for a benign tumor during that time. But mostly it was because Wee Willie Winkie was her favorite, at least in retrospect. “Of all my films,” she wrote, “I rate Wee Willie Winkie the best, but for all the wrong reasons. It was best because of its manual of arms, the noisy marching around in military garb with brass buttons, my kilts bouncing. It was best because of daredevil stunts with snipers and stampeding horses. It was also best because I finally seemed to earn the professional respect of someone so blood-and-thunder macho as Ford.”
 
That respect was a while in coming. Try as she might at first, Shirley couldn’t charm Ford or coax him into collegial conversation. Where other directors had dandled her on their knees, he would merely stride past chewing on his handkerchief, ignoring her when he wasn’t giving her carefully detailed and specific direction, as if he didn’t trust her to do things right. Ford began to thaw when he saw how eagerly she embraced the close-order drill called for in the script, then a little more when he noticed how she didn’t flinch in the face of a rearing stunt-horse (remember that pony on the set of To the Last Man?) or a marksman shooting out a lamp over her head (actually, Ford wanted Winkie to flinch that time; the shot had to be redone). The clincher was this scene, a potentially dangerous shot of Winkie scampering to safety out of the path of a stampeding herd of horses, which Shirley volunteered to do without a double. No doubt about it, the kid had guts. Eleven years later, when they worked together on Fort Apache, Shirley would ask Ford to stand godfather for her first child, and he would agree.
 
In my notes on Captain January I quoted Graham Greene’s review in the London Spectator, in which he mentioned Shirley’s “oddly precocious body”, as voluptuous as Marlene Dietrich and “interestingly decadent”. Over Wee Willie Winkie he crossed a line. Writing in the highbrow magazine Night and Day (which he co-edited) on October 28, 1937, he said:
 
“The owners of a child star are like leaseholders — their property diminishes in value every year…Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has peculiar interest: Infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant’s palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep.

“It is clever, but it cannot last. Her admirers — middle-aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”

Greene closed out with a left-handed compliment, noting that the story was “a long way after Kipling. But we needn’t be sour about that. Both stories are awful, but on the whole Hollywood’s is the better.”

Fox was less than mollified; they sued for libel, charging that Greene had accused the studio of “procuring” Shirley “for immoral purposes”. Greene fled to Mexico, and the British court found for the plaintiffs, ordering damages of 3,500 pounds sterling, 500 of it to come from Greene personally. (The amount of the judgment was about $17,500 at the time; multiply by 20 to get an approximation of the amount in today’s dollars.) From Mexico Greene wrote his Night and Day colleague Elizabeth Bowen: “I found a cable waiting for me in Mexico City asking me to agree to apologise to that little bitch Shirley Temple — so I suppose the case has now been settled with the maximum publicity.” In Child Star Shirley wrote about the dust-up with some amusement, noting that at the time the whole thing had gone pretty much over her head.

Students of Graham Greene’s prose have spent decades parsing Greene’s review, digging for his intent. Some say he was kidding (“Shirley Temple = Marlene Dietrich? Seriously?”), others that he was satirizing Shirley’s handlers or her audience. Still others contend that Greene was obviously right, that the sexualization of Shirley Temple on Fox’s part was conscious and deliberate (“I’m obsessed with sex?? You’re the one showing me all these dirty pictures!”). Personally, I won’t weigh in on all that — except to say that very often, a review tells us more about the reviewer than it does about the work under discussion.

In any event, other reviews were more circumspect, if hardly more complimentary. The New Yorker’s John Mosher, sniffy as ever, sniffed, “Miss Temple’s talent is rather overexploited at times, and she seems just a bit too pert. Mr. Kipling’s children were never allowed to take over the platform in quite this fashion.” Variety’s “Flin” liked the picture well enough, but tempered his opinion (as Variety often did) with marketing advice, saying that “as a roadshow attraction at advanced admission prices, ‘Winkie’ is too long for the continuous type of film theatres. Temple is boxoffice dynamite because of the kids who flock to see her, but youngsters can’t sit still for an hour and three-quarters. They’re squirming all over the place; however, reducing footage for general exhibition will be easy. It also is essential.” And the New York Times’s Frank S. Nugent ended his cease-fire, which had begun with Stowaway: “The picture, on its unassuming and frankly sentimental surface, is a pleasing enough little fiction, sure to delight every Temple addict and likely to win the grudging approval even of those who, like myself, are biding their time until she grows up, becomes gawky and is a has-been at 15.”

WWW-frame05a-Lang,-WhalenWSeen today, Wee Willie Winkie bears out Shirley’s opinion more than it does Mosher’s, Flin’s or Nugent’s. The picture is certainly not too long. Children may squirm during the protracted love scenes between Michael Whalen and June Lang, but so do adults. Both were bland Fox contract players on an unstoppable career path toward B pictures and, at the onset of middle age, television. Whalen’s dark good looks were about to be rendered irrelevant by the rise of the far more charismatic Tyrone Power. As for Lang (Shirley’s “mother” was only 11 years older than she was), within seven years she would be a nameless, uncredited “Goldwyn Girl” behind Danny Kaye in Up in Arms, and would finish her career with one-off guest shots on TV cop shows in the ’50s and ’60s. Whalen and Lang were (and remain) attractive and inoffensive, but they lack the chemistry — with either the audience or each other — that Robert Young and Alice Faye showed in Stowaway, or Faye and Jack Haley in Poor Little Rich Girl. (The blue-green of this frame-cap, like the sepia of others, reproduces the tinted stock Wee Willie Winkie sported on its original release.)

 

John Ford was probably no more interested in Lang and Whalen’s romantic subplot than we are today. What he emphasized in Wee Willie Winkie was the theme he would later explore more deeply, and more famously, in his “cavalry trilogy” of 1948-50 (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande): military life on an often hostile frontier, with an almost fetishistic reverence for its rugged pomp and pageantry. And in the chemistry department, Wee Willie Winkie makes up in Victor McLaglen, C. Aubrey Smith and Cesar Romero what it lacks in June Lang and Michael Whalen. As Scott Eyman astutely notes in his biography of Ford, the on-screen relationship between McLaglen’s Sgt. MacDuff and Pvt. Winkie mirrors the one between Ford and Shirley between takes: “eye-rolling impatience at the thought of being saddled with such a ridiculous apparition, followed by grudging respect, ending in a protective friendship.” C. Aubrey Smith brings a British lion’s dignity to the now-standard role of curmudgeon for Shirley to win over. And Romero’s Khoda Khan, like the American Indians in Ford’s later trilogy, is an adversary, even an antagonist, without ever becoming a villain.
 
A key difference between Wee Willie Winkie and the cavalry trilogy, of course, and what makes it particularly appealing, is that we see the story not through the eyes of John Wayne or Henry Fonda or Maureen O’Hara, but through those of an eight-year-old American girl who comes to love the panoply and close-order drill just as much as her crusty old grandfather does. Like the Winkie in Kipling’s original story, the movie’s female version becomes the mascot and hero(ine) of the regiment, and she returns their respect and affection.
 
For Shirley’s next picture, 20th Century Fox would once again mine the deep vein of 19th century European literature. This time, however, Darryl Zanuck appears to have had second thoughts about his determination not to rely on any of Shirley’s tricks.

 

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.

Heidi

(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
story.

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

 

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 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.
 
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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 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.)
 
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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.
 
BB-Frame09aA-Ekelund
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) 

YP-poster03

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.

Epilogue

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.