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of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

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.
(UPDATE 8/6/14: Alas,this clip has been removed from YouTube
and the associated account closed. The only other clips of this dance
are of far inferior quality, but I'll keep checking.) (UPDATE #2, 8/21/14:
This clip is colorized and the focus is too fuzzy, but it will suffice to
give a sense of the exuberance of this dance. I'll keep looking for
something better.)



This one, in which Virgie and Uncle Billy become street entertainers in an effort to earn the
money for train tickets to Washington to see President Lincoln, may be Shirley and Bojangles'
best-known number (second, perhaps, to the staircase dance from The Little Colonel). Like the
staircase dance, it's "a capella", so to speak, performed without musical accompaniment except for
the sounds they make themselves. The clip, again, is colorized -- and this may be a good time to discuss
the preponderance of colorized clips among these posts on Shirley. In the 1980s, when colorization
had its brief run, nearly all of Shirley's 1930s pictures were released that way on VHS -- no doubt in
hopes of appealing to young children, who (then as now) did not share their elders' admiration for
black-and-white photography, nor their dislike for computer-coloring. Even today, on DVD, these
movies offer the choice of viewing one way or the other. Anyhow, here are Shirley/Virgie and
Bojangles/Uncle Billy in The Littlest Rebel's boardwalk dance:


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

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

Captain January (released April 24, 1936)

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.

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1 comment:

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Reading this series, I'm realizing just how young I was when I first saw these movies...I never connected Jack Holt with Colonel Morrison, even though I've seen him in several movies since.

I was a history buff even as a kid, though, and it always amused me a little how The Littlest Rebel got from Sumter to Sheridan in about 30 seconds, without Virgie getting any older. :)

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