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of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 11

So 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 suggest 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)

According 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.

Then 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.'"

But 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...
.

Friday, July 11, 2014

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)

Calling 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.

Needless 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."


Seen 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.

.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

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)

I'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. 

In 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)

Stowaway 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"?) 

Alice 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.

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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 8

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)

Don't be misled by the picture's title as it appears on the cover of this sheet music (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.


 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 make 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.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 7

The 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.

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)

Shirley'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.

The 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:

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)

Captain 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 "Catain 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...
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