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)
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.
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.""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."
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.