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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.



Caftan Woman said...

Oh, goody. I know what's coming up.

Even as a little kid, Shirley dancing with that most convenient dummy struck me as - well, dumb. Nonetheless, a cute enough number.

Ching Ching spoke a lot of Chinese. Did Shirley learn that phonetically? It sounds like her voice.

Jim Lane said...

Thanks for sticking with me, CW, and for commenting once again.

As for your question about Ching-Ching speaking Chinese: funny you should ask. I didn't mention this in the post because it didn't really seem pertinent, but Shirley talks about that in Child Star. She did indeed learn her Chinese dialogue phonetically, coached by one Bessie Nyi, a UCLA student from Shanghai. Stowaway employed a large number of extras from L.A.'s Asian community, and Shirley tried greeting them with her newly acquired phrases. They didn't understand her. Then they taught her some new phrases and sentences which, in turn, Bessie couldn't understand. It turned out that Bessie had been instructing Shirley in the Northern Mandarin dialect, while the extras all spoke only the Southern Cantonese dialect. They were mutually unintelligible. Shirley doesn't say how, or whether, this was resolved. It's possible that the movie has Shirley addressing people in Mandarin and them replying in Cantonese, each knowing what the other is supposed to be saying; I have no familiarity with the language(s), so I can only guess. Anyhow, Shirley's rattling off her Chinese by rote gave Fox a selling point on more than one of the picture's posters: "She sings and speaks in Chinese!"

Unknown said...

Shirley was definitely a talented actress. In some cases, her and Margaret O'Brien (who I love as well) are unfavorably compared. I do believe that if Shirley was given some of the same scripts as Margaret, she would have been great as well. Fox found a formula that worked for them, but Shirley, imho, was a great actress and could have benefited from more challenging scripts.

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