Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 14

And so we come to the endgame of the Shirley Temple Phenomenon. It's the
summer of 1939; Shirley is 11 years old -- though she and the rest of the world
still think she's only ten -- and she's bumping up against a principle that won't
even be articulated until 1997: what critic Louis Menand called "The Iron Law of
Stardom". In a New Yorker article by that title published in March '97, Menand
posited his "Iron Law" as one of the immutable laws of the universe, like gravity
or the speed of light. Put simply, the Iron Law is this: stardom never lasts more
than three years. Menand was careful, however, to distinguish between "stardom"
and "being a star". Once a star, always a star, he said, but actual stardom is
something else -- "the period of inevitability, the time when everything works
in a way that makes you think it will work that way forever...the intersection
of personality with history, a perfect congruence of the way the world
happens to be and the way the star is." Thus, Menand explained, Elizabeth
Taylor remained a star all her life by virtue of being the person who was
Elizabeth Taylor from 1963 (Cleopatra) to 1966 (Who's Afraid of Virginia
Woolf?), and Al Pacino remains a star as the person who was Al Pacino
from 1972 (The Godfather) to 1975 (Dog Day Afternoon).

By this reasoning, and with hindsight, we can see that Shirley in 1939
fits the pattern. She remains a star, but it's by virtue of being the person
who was Shirley Temple from 1934 (Little Miss Marker and Bright Eyes)
to 1937 (Wee Willie Winkie and Heidi). Nineteen-forty will round out not
only the decade, but her reign atop the box office and her career at 20th
Century Fox as well.

The Blue Bird (released January 19, 1940)

The Blue Bird was Shirley's second brush with a Nobel Prize winner, after Rudyard Kipling and Wee Willie Winkie. Belgian poet, essayist and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (1862 - 1949) was a leading proponent of the Symbolist movement in European art and literature of the late 19th century. His most influential and commercially successful play was probably Pelleas and Melisande (1893), a doomed-lovers tragedy that inspired numerous operas, all of which are performed these days far more often than the original play.

A close second to that, however, would have to be The Blue Bird, which was an immediate hit when it premiered at Konstantin Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theatre in 1908. When Maeterlinck won the Nobel Prize in 1911 "in appreciation of his many-sided literary activities, and especially of his dramatic works," the citation explicitly mentioned "a poetic fancy, which reveals, sometimes in the guise of a fairy tale, a deep inspiration". This could only have been a reference to The Blue Bird, which was then sweeping the world and would have been prominent in the minds of the Swedish Academy (in those days, commercial success was not considered a disadvantage when Nobel Prize time rolled around).

The Blue Bird recounts the many adventures of the boy Tyltyl ("til-til") and his little sister Mytyl ("mee-til"), the children of a poor woodcutter somewhere in Central Europe. One night the children are roused from sleep by a bent and withered old woman who, changing shape, is revealed as a beautiful fairy named Berylune. The fairy dispatches the two on a quest to find the Blue Bird of Happiness, in which they are to be accompanied by their dog and cat, both of whom are magically given human shape for the occasion. Also accompanying them, and also in human form, are the spirits of Bread, Water, Milk, Fire and Light. The children's search takes them to many fanciful places -- the palace of Berylune, which once belonged to the infamous Bluebeard; the Palace of Night, deep underground; the Graveyard of the Happy Dead, where they are briefly reunited with their late grandparents and seven brothers and sisters who all died in childhood; the Palace of Happiness, where luxuries and joys abound; and the Kingdom of the Future, where they meet children waiting to be born, all of whom have a knowledge of their destiny that they will lose once they begin their earthly lives (Tyltyl and Mytyl even meet their own future little brother, who already knows that he too will die in infancy). In the final scene Tyltyl and Mytyl awaken back in their own beds; their parents think they have only slept through the night, but the children know better -- how could both have had the same dream? Whether dream or magic, their quest has failed, they never did find the elusive bird they sought. Then, to their surprise, they see that the Blue Bird is right there in their own house, and was there all along. At the very end the bird flies away, and Tyltyl turns to the audience and says, "If any of you should find him, would you be so very kind as to give him back to us?... We need him for our happiness, later on...."

My memory of Maeterlinck's play is unfortunately sketchy; it's been more than 40 years since I read it, and I wouldn't read it again if you held a gun to my brother's head. I found it to be long, turgid and utterly pointless, and it calls for spectacular effects that might have been wonderful to look at but make awfully dry reading (given the state of stagecraft in 1908, Stanislavski's set designers, carpenters and stage managers must have been tearing their hair as opening night drew near). The play was a great success in the first and second decades of the last century, no doubt because the fantastic effects it calls for made for quite a wondrous spectacle to behold. But after that first flush of success and the afterglow of the Nobel Prize, its charm quickly evaporated.

The reason isn't hard to figure out. Despite its elaborate settings and special effects, and characters symbolic of everything under the sun, The Blue Bird simply has no story. Why do Tyltyl and Mytyl undertake this convoluted journey? Why don't they just tell the old hag to get lost, then roll over and go back to sleep? The kids have nothing at stake in this quest; they're just gallivanting around in Maeterlinck's head. In The Wizard of Oz -- to cite an example that will come up more than once in the course of this post -- what Dorothy and her companions are after is crystal-clear, and there's never any doubt what's at stake. That's why The Blue Bird hasn't been staged in 90 years, and is never even read except under duress by hapless students in university drama classes -- while L. Frank Baum's tale still sells thousands of copies every year.

With all that said, 20th Century Fox's 1940 version of The Blue Bird has been given a bum rap over the years. The main thrust of the rap is that The Blue Bird was Fox's attempt to duplicate the success of MGM's The Wizard of Oz (this has also fed the myth that Shirley "lost" the role of Dorothy). It would be closer to the truth to say that both pictures were attempts to duplicate the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (In which, by the way, both failed. The Blue Bird, in Time Magazine's inevitable snark line, "laid an egg", but Oz didn't do much better, either with the critics or at the box office; it was voted "Most Colossal Flop" of 1939 by the Harvard Lampoon, and it took 16 years and two reissues for the picture to turn a profit.)

Now let's stipulate right up front that The Blue Bird is nowhere near the same league as The Wizard of Oz -- but what movie is? Of all the many differences between them, the most basic one, and the one that most redounds to the advantage of The Wizard of Oz, is that MGM was adapting L. Frank Baum while 20th Century Fox was adapting Maurice Maeterlinck.

Or trying to. The Blue Bird's greatest faults are inherent in Maeterlinck's play; this was one case where Fox might have been justified in jettisoning everything but the title. Instead, Ernest Pascal's script made an honest effort (with moderate success) to streamline, simplify and motivate the wild excesses of Maeterlinck's fantasy. First, merely as a practical matter, the birth order of the lead siblings was reversed, making Mytyl (Shirley) the older and Tyltyl (Johnny Russell) the younger. The size of their expedition was streamlined, with their only companions being the cat Tylette (Gale Sondergaard, right) and dog Tylo (Eddie Collins, next to her). Of Maeterlinck's five spirits, only Light remained (played by Helen Ericson), and she served, logically enough, as the children's guide on their quest. (The group is shown here as they set out, with Jessie Ralph as Berylune on the left.)

Pascal also attempted to motivate the quest by making Mytyl something of a brat, selfish, petulant and malcontented. She whines in an early scene about how unhappy she is -- so it makes some sense for her to strike out, dragging her kid brother behind, looking for that Blue Bird. It also adds meaning to her return home -- when, as the saying goes, she truly knows the place for the first time, and finds that the Blue Bird of Happiness has been there waiting for her all along, if only she would see it. This change (and it's amazing, when you think about it, that Stanislavski didn't suggest it to Maeterlinck in the first place) means that Mytyl and Tyltyl have been on a real journey from one psychological place to another, and not just running around all night getting into trouble.

Finally, Pascal simplified the children's travels considerably. First they visit their late grandparents (Cecilia Loftus and Al Shean), who are awakened from their eternal slumber now that the children are thinking of them (all those dead brothers and sisters are mercifully dispensed with). This visit, bittersweet as it is, teaches Mytyl and Tyltyl that Happiness is not to be found in the Past, and they must regretfully move on, leaving Granny and Grandpa to resume their dreamless sleep.

Next, in a scene with no counterpart in Maetterlinck's play, the children visit the home of Mr. and Mrs. Luxury (Nigel Bruce and Laura Hope Crews), two aging twits with far more money than brains, who unhesitatingly indulge their every shallow whim. At first the children are seduced by all the fancy clothes and fun to be had, but they come to realize that Happiness is not found in Things, and they escape (this despite the treachery of Tylette, who for feline reasons of her own tries to thwart them at every turn).

There follows another departure from Maeterlinck. After they escape from The Luxurys, the children must pass through a great forest. Tylette, hoping to rid herself of the children and thus gain her freedom, runs ahead of them and incites the trees (represented by Edwin Maxwell, Sterling Holloway and others) to avenge themselves on the children of the woodcutter who is always chopping them down. The trees take the bait, even calling on their old enemies lightning and fire -- so eager are they to destroy the children that they willingly immolate themselves in a great forest fire. Tylette, however, has outsmarted herself; trying to lure the children to their doom, she is herself burned to death, and only the courageous efforts of the loyal Tylo enables the children to escape to safety. 

The fire is a highlight of The Blue Bird; even in this age of computer graphics when anything is possible and nothing is surprising, it is full of astonishing moments. This scene (the work, once again, of the great Fred Sersen) accounted for one of The Blue Bird's two Oscar nominations, for special effects. (The other was for Arthur Miller and Ray Rennahan's Technicolor cinematography. In both categories The Blue Bird lost, and justifiably, to The Thief of Bagdad.) This forest fire would be the best scene in The Blue Bird if it weren't for...

...the Kingdom of the Future, where (returning to Maeterlinck's text) Mytyl and Tyltyl find countless children are waiting to be born. In this remarkable scene, which
looks like something designed by Maxfield Parrish, Mytyl and Tyltyl wander among the eager throng, so amazed at what they see that they completely forget to look for the Blue Bird. They meet a little girl who joyfully greets them by name (Ann Todd, not to be confused with the British actress of the same name), telling them that she will be their little sister, "in a year perhaps." Then she adds sadly, "I'll only be with you a little while."

Mytyl and Tyltyl wander among children who are preparing for
what will be their calling in life. One boy proudly displays the
anesthetic he will discover; another tinkers with an electric light.
Still another, solitary and melancholy, tells them his destiny is to
fight against slavery, injustice and inequality -- but people "won't
listen...they'll destroy me."

Then into the hall strides Father Time (Thurston Hall), coming to call those whose time it is to be born -- including that melancholy fighter against injustice. (If this boy is who we think he is, it tells us that Mytyl and Tyltyl are visiting the Kingdom of the Future on February 11, 1809. A clincher, for those who notice such things, is composer Alfred Newman quoting a couple of bars from his score for John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln the year before.)

Father Time has to speak sharply to these young
people (Dorothy Joyce and Tommy Baker). They
knew this day would come, but they couldn't help
themselves -- they've fallen in love. She begs to
go with him ("Please, we love each other, and I
shall be born too late.") while he pleads to stay
behind ("I will be gone before she comes down.").

Time is implacable, and both lovers know they
cannot choose. At last the boy tears himself
away and the girl falls sobbing. Soulmates, they
know they will never meet on earth, but will live
their lives out in a cold, lonely world without
ever understanding why.

The children whose time has come
board a graceful alabaster ship with
silver sails and the figurehead of a
swan. As the boat pulls away from
the quay into a golden sea and sky,
the children left behind, still awaiting
their turn, bid their friends a joyous
bon voyage. The departing passengers
fix their eyes on the far horizon, and
they sing:

To the world so far away
Sail we now at break of day.
Mothers waiting there below.
Do they hear us? Do they know?

From the unseen distance another song
can be heard -- the song of the mothers
coming out to meet them.

The last we see of the children -- those on the ship
as well as those left behind -- is a glimpse of each
of the two young lovers. First the boy -- miserable,
downcast, the only one not singing...

...then the girl, the only one not waving a cheering farewell.
She lies awash in her own tears, knowing in her broken heart
that her life is over without ever having had a chance to begin.
As the ship sails into the golden mists, it is a journey begun
in lovers' parting -- lovers who are fated to be born, live, and
die, never to meet again this side of Heaven.

Before we move on, I want to pause to acknowledge
this little girl. Her name is Caryll Ann Ekelund, and
in The Blue Bird she plays a child who tries to sneak
aboard the boat transporting children to be born. Father
Time catches her -- this is the third time she's tried to
be born before her time -- and he scolds her gently before
sending her back to wait her turn. Caryll Ann was four
years old in the summer of 1939 when she played this
wordless cameo -- and sadly, she did not live to see
herself on the big screen. At a Halloween party later
that year, a jack-o-lantern candle ignited her costume
and she died three days later of her burns. She was
buried in the pink tunic she wears here.

This lovely and poignant scene in the Kingdom of the Future -- straight out of Maetterlinck, but massaged by Ernest Pascal to make it less cumbersome and archly precious than it reads in the original play -- is the last stop on Mytyl and Tyltyl's journey; having visited the Future, and still not finding the Blue Bird, there's nothing left for them but to return home.

The next morning, Mytyl amazes her parents with her cheerful attitude ("Oh Mummy! Everything is so wonderful, isn't it?"), so different from her petulant whining of the night before. And along with this newfound happiness in hearth and home, the children, to their surprise, even find the Blue Bird they have been searching for -- but then, just as suddenly, they lose it again as the heedless bird flies away. Nevertheless, the new, improved Mytyl is undismayed. "Don't worry," she says, "we'll find it again...I know we can, because now we know where to look for it." Then, like the Tyltyl of the play, she addresses her last words directly to the audience: "Don't we?"

The Blue Bird was the most expensive of all Shirley's pictures -- $1.5 million, she tells us -- and it took a terrible bath at the box office, both in its original road-show engagements in New York, Detroit and San Francisco, and after going into general release at Easter. This was not, as legend would have it, because it suffered by comparison with The Wizard of Oz, but simply because The Blue Bird's time had long since passed. Even the 1918 silent version, lavishly produced within a decade of the play's premiere, was a flop. (The curse repeated itself yet again in 1976, when a U.S./Soviet co-production directed by George Cukor sank like a rock. Some people never learn.)

The idea that The Blue Bird suffered by comparison with The Wizard of Oz in 1940 basically springs from the fact that it suffers by that same comparison today. Almost everyone who sees The Blue Bird nowadays can't help seeing similarities to Oz, and of course Blue Bird can only be found wanting. There is, for starters, the black-and-white prologue, with the switch to Technicolor when the real adventure begins (although The Blue Bird never returns to black-and-white; in keeping with Mytyl's improved outlook, the Technicolor stays to the end). Also, there's the premise of the fantasy/dream and the look-for-happiness-in-your-own-back-yard moral. Which is ironic, considering that those elements are not found in L. Frank Baum but were swiped by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf from Maeterlinck's play and grafted onto their script for Oz (where they did not belong). In a real sense, MGM's Wizard of Oz was an imitation of The Blue Bird, and not the other way around.

If viewers today were as familiar with Maeterlinck's dreadful play as they are with Oz, The Blue Bird's virtues would stand out more clearly. Ernest Pascal greatly improved on the original, tightening and focusing the diffuse and rambling story, and adding two elements lacking in the play: a villain (Tylette the cat) to scheme against the children, and a champion (Tylo the dog) to come to their aid in times of danger. For all his improvements, however, Pascal never solved the dramatic problem at the heart of this fatally flawed play: there is simply no reason for Mytyl and Tyltyl to undertake this dangerous quest, and no clear reward at journey's end to justify it. It was a shaggy-dog fairy tale when Maeterlinck wrote it, and a shaggy-dog fairy tale it remained.

The play's reputation had lost its luster by the time Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox undertook to film it, and the movie's reviews reflected the fact. In the Times, Frank S. Nugent confessed to having "long considered 'The Blue Bird' complete twaddle", an opinion which the movie did nothing to dispel: "it has about the gayety [sic] and sparkle of the first half of 'A Christmas Carol'". Variety's "Flin" wrote: "Whatever freshness and imaginative charm the Maurice Maeterlinck poem play possessed a generation ago seem to have tarnished through the years...Not even Shirley Temple, in a gallery of sparkling technicolor [sic] settings, and aided by all the wizardry of the finest technical workmanship, can make it seem new." (To be fair, Shirley didn't have much chance. Her performance is strong, but dominated by the story rather than dominating it; as written by both Maeterlinck and Pascal, Mytyl is as much a spectator to The Blue Bird's goings-on as we are.) Flin correctly cited the scene in the Kingdom of the Future as "the best and perhaps complete justification for the production...However trite some other passages of 'The Blue Bird' seem to be, this episode is touching and fine eerie storytelling." And in The New Yorker, John Mosher said, "All in all, I should rank 'The Blue Bird,' with its pretty moments and its lapses, too, somewhere halfway between the Disneys and 'The Wizard of Oz.'" (Notice that Oz, which an earlier New Yorker review had called "a stinkeroo", is at the bottom of Mosher's scale.)

The opinion of The Blue Bird that would be most interesting to hear, alas, I have been unable to find: that of Maurice Maeterlinck himself. Maeterlinck landed in the U.S. later in 1940, a refugee from the Nazis storming across France and his native Belgium, and he remained here until 1947, when he returned to his home in Nice (he died at 86 in 1949). He may well have seen The Blue Bird somewhere along the line, but what he thought remains unknown. In Child Star Shirley quotes Darryl Zanuck as saying only that the playwright was consulted on the script, and that he objected to the cutting of so many of his characters, but more than that I cannot say.

Whatever Maeterlinck might have thought, The Blue Bird was a sincere effort, exerted with all the resources at 20th Century Fox's command, and it holds up today on the strength of its production values -- and, it must be said, despite the deadly weaknesses of the source material. It holds up, that is, if -- and it's a big "if" -- one can watch it without making invidious comparisons with The Wizard of Oz.

But whatever I or anyone else may think today, in 1940 The Blue Bird utterly failed to find its audience -- as the silent version had done in 1918, and as another version would do 36 years later. Its failure was probably Maeterlinck's fault more than Shirley's, but hers was the more familiar name, and the stain of the flop stuck to her. The next time out, things would not get better.

Young People (released August 23, 1940)

As Fox had followed the lavish The Little Princess by placing Shirley in a B western, so they followed the even more lavish The Blue Bird with an even-more-B musical. But more significantly, perhaps, by the time Young People opened in New York in August -- in fact, even before Variety reviewed it in July -- the picture was already a lame-duck movie. Fox chairman Joseph Schenck had announced on May 12, 1940 that the studio was "releasing" (i.e., "firing") Shirley from the remaining 13 months of her seven-year contract. The effort of crafting vehicles for a growing child star -- and of dealing with Gertrude and George Temple's increasing objections to the unvarying parade of orphan and waif roles -- had become more trouble than the diminishing box-office returns were worth. So Young People would be Shirley's swan song at 20th Century Fox. The Blue Bird might at least have ended her career with a bang; Young People was a whimper.

Shirley's co-stars were Jack Oakie and Charlotte Greenwood as Joe and Kit Ballantine, a husband-and-wife vaudeville team who informally adopt the infant daughter of their best friends, the O'Haras, when both parents succumb to untimely deaths.

The infant grows into Wendy (Shirley) and is incorporated into the act, now called The Three Ballantines. As Wendy approaches adolescence, Joe and Kit decide to retire from show business to a little farm they've bought in Connecticut, where Wendy can enjoy a "normal" life. But their brash showbiz manners scandalize the staid provincial citizens of their new home and the Ballantines become outcasts and objects of local ridicule, to the point where they are driven out of town in frustrated disgrace.

In the end, a fortuitous hurricane makes landfall near the town, Joe becomes a hero by rescuing a group of children caught out in the storm, and a tearful scolding by Wendy of the town's leading citizens and the Ballantines' chief tormentors (Kathleen Howard and Minor Watson) brings these bigoted small-town snobs to their senses, and the Ballantines are belatedly welcomed by their new neighbors with open arms.

In Child Star Shirley says Edwin Blum and Don Ettlinger's script for Young People "made cheerless reading", and it makes even more cheerless viewing. The new songs by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon (still three years from their Oscars for "You'll Never Know" in Hello, Frisco, Hello) are lackluster, and the movie has a half-hearted romantic subplot for Arleen Whelan and George Montgomery that makes one long for the scintillating screen chemistry of June Lang and Michael Whalen in Wee Willie Winkie.

In early scenes, Young People illustrates Wendy's start in Joe and Kit's act by tipping in, clumsily, footage from Shirley's "old" movies. First Jack Oakie and Charlotte Greenwood sing a chorus of Henry Kailikai's "On the Beach at Waikiki", followed by an extended shot of Shirley's hula dance from Curly Top. Then, most egregiously, Oakie and Greenwood perpetrate a crass and stupid trashing of Brown and Gorney's "Baby, Take a Bow" before the movie cuts to Shirley's solo of the song from Stand Up and Cheer! "The film's value," Shirley accurately writes, "amounted to less than the sum of its parts." Shirley deserved better, and so did Jack Oakie and Charlotte Greenwood. Hell, George Montgomery deserved better. Ironically, Young People was directed at his usual headlong pace by Allan Dwan, who years later would assert that Shirley was "over" before he undertook to direct her in Heidi. Shirley was by no means "over" in 1937, but by 1940 (and her third picture for Dwan), she certainly was.

Reviews were surprisingly indulgent -- perhaps betraying a certain degree of relief that there would be no more Shirley Temple pictures for the foreseeable future. "Walt" in Variety wrote: "'Young People' establishes the definite spot for continuance of Shirley Temple in pictures through her adolescent and formative years. Not as a star, burdened with carrying a picture on her own, but in the groove of a featured player sharing billing and material with other top-notch above average programmer..." The Times's Bosley Crowther added, "If this is really the end, it is not a bad exit at all for little Shirley, the superannuated sunbeam." Even The New Yorker's John Mosher, who rightly pegged Susannah of the Mounties as "very minor Temple", said, "Miss Temple has obviously retired in the full tide of her powers...she shows no weariness, no slacking up, no arthritic pangs."

If these valedictory tributes were intended even subliminally to soften the blow and let Shirley go out a winner, it didn't work. Young People, even with its shoestrings-and-stock-footage budget, was a flop. Shirley was no longer tops at the box office -- she had dropped to fifth in 1939, and by 1940 was out of the top ten -- and Frank Nugent finally got the wish he expressed in his review of Wee Willie Winkie: Shirley would be a has-been at 15.

*                    *                    * 

Shirley's divorce from 20th Century Fox had been neither amicable nor particularly acrimonious. As late as April 1940 Darryl Zanuck had even resurrected the idea of starring her in Lady Jane, but she had outgrown the part by then -- in Young People she was already developing hips and breasts (in Child Star Shirley recalls getting her first period at her "tenth" birthday party in 1939). Both Zanuck and the Temples were ready for a split, and on April 10 Gertrude Temple retained agent Frank Orsatti to negotiate Shirley's release. Later that year, Orsatti landed Shirley a two-picture contract with MGM, but it would prove to be an uncomfortable fit. Metro turned out to be unhappy with Shirley's hair, her face, her figure, her singing and her dancing, while neither Shirley nor her mother were happy with the studio's makeover attempts. Mrs. Temple nixed the idea of Shirley co-starring with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway, fearing (probably correctly) that in their company her daughter would get short shrift.

On top of that, Shirley's first meeting with producer Arthur Freed had not gone well. Shirley says (and frankly, I believe her) that Freed said, "I have something made just for you. You'll be my new star!", then stepped out from behind his desk and exposed himself to her. Shirley reacted like the 12-year-old she was, bursting into a nervous laugh that didn't sit well with the notorious casting-couch jockey, and he angrily ordered her out of his office. At almost the same moment (again, I believe Shirley), L.B. Mayer was in his office coming on to an affronted Mother Gertrude -- stopping short of exhibitionism but making his intentions plain. Perhaps coincidentally, Shirley's contract was quickly redrafted: only one picture, with no approval or creative input from Shirley or her mother.

The sole result of Shirley's sojourn at MGM was Kathleen ('41), a "tedious, thinly plotted fable" (Variety) where, according to the Times's Theodore Strauss, "In those wistful, winsome close-ups Miss Temple seemed to be trying to say just one thing: 'Get me out of here!'" In any event, that's exactly what happened.

Next, Shirley went under contract to David O. Selznick, which worked out better for her, although her days of stardom were behind her. Throughout the 1940s she would give some effective performances -- Since You Went Away ('44), Kiss and Tell ('45), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer ('47) -- but Shirley was slow to learn that what had made her "sparkle" as a five-and-six-year-old could look infantile and affected in a young woman of 18 or 19. An ill-starred marriage at 17 to Army Air Corps Sgt. John Agar (who parlayed the connection into a long but inconsequential career in B movies) ended in 1950 -- outlasting Shirley's movie career by one year (her last picture was A Kiss for Corliss in 1949).

Shirley did, in time, get the hang of grown-up acting, as the host and occasional star of Shirley Temple's Storybook and Shirley Temple Theatre (NBC, 1958-60), giving intelligent and measured performances in "The House of the Seven Gables", "The Land of Oz", "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and other episodes. (I remember as a child being unable to connect this adult Shirley to the curly-haired little girl in those old movies that were turning up on TV about the same time.) But by then acting was more a hobby than a calling, and when the show ran its course in two season she left it as she had left Hollywood in 1949, with never a backward glance. Ahead lay a third career -- or fourth, if you count wife to Charles Black and mother to their two children, plus a daughter by John Agar -- in politics and international diplomacy. And let us not forget her courageous battle with breast cancer in the 1970s, becoming one of the first celebrities to go public with her experience in that brush with death. All in all, the second half of the 20th century took her far from the tot who stood security for her movie-father's bet on a fixed horse race and flew off on the wings of the Good Ship Lollipop. She had the grace and poise to take her long life as it came, and to make the most of it.

It's been a while since I posted a YouTube clip of Shirley. I think it's fitting to conclude with this one of her last public appearance on January 29, 2006, accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild. She is three months away from her 78th birthday (having long since learned her true age):

This was the woman who left us on February 10 of this year; long live her memory. She changed forever what it means to be a child star -- mainly because, as critic Mark Steyn aptly put it, she wasn't a "child star" at all. She was a star who just happened to be a child.


So there you have it, Shirley Temple's entire career as a rising star and reigning princess during Hollywood's Golden Age. As I said at the very beginning, while I had nothing but fond memories of Shirley, I had not seen any of these 24 pictures since I was about the age Shirley was when she made them. Several of them I had never seen at all. Seeing them -- again or for the first time -- was like a trip in a time machine with two stops: one at Shirley's childhood, and another at my own.

Standouts? Well, the first one that comes to mind is...

Wee Willie Winkie  This may be the best picture -- as a picture -- of them all, and John Ford made the difference. It was, in effect, a sort of children's introduction to the Cavalry Trilogy -- for that matter, almost a trainer-wheel introduction for Ford himself, a dry run for the later, full flowering of his art, after his experience in the Navy during World War II had deepened and enriched his understanding of military camaraderie. The fact that 19-year-old Shirley would be on hand for the first chapter of the trilogy, 1948's Fort Apache, only strengthens the connection. There is nothing in Shirley's career quite so moving as Pvt. Winkie singing "Auld Lang Syne" at Sgt. MacDuff's bedside, followed by her affectionate gaze at the friend who she doesn't realize -- or cannot admit -- has just died.

Little Miss Marker  There's a reason this picture made her a bona fide star; it has what just may be her most fully realized and least self-conscious performance. If Sgt. MacDuff's deathbed in Wee Willie Winkie is Shirley's best single scene, a close second is the first exchange of dialogue and eye-contact between Shirley's Marky and Adolphe Menjou's Sorrowful Jones.

Curly Top  I think Leslie Halliwell got this one right; Shirley's full range of talents -- acting, singing and dancing -- are showcased here at their very peak, topped off by the almost startling tour de force of "When I Grow Up".

Stowaway  This one stays in the mind -- mine, at least -- for the deep bench of Shirley's supporting cast, and for her sly comic rapport with Robert Young. 

The Little Princess  Another strong supporting cast, beautiful Technicolor, Shirley's acting chops at their most assured, and the most lavish production Shirley ever had to carry -- which she did, easily.

Poor Little Rich Girl  A whimsically charming score and fine chemistry with Jack Haley and Alice Faye help this one triumph over the bizarre elements of the script. Plus another tour de force in that tap routine to "Military Man".

Also, in varous bits and pieces, anything -- acting or dancing -- with Bill Robinson (honorable mention: Buddy Ebsen). 

And finally, a special nod to The Blue Bird, just because it's an honest and unstinting effort that has been so cruelly and unjustly maligned for nearly 75 years, forced to undergo a comparison that no movie ever made could possibly withstand.

So long, Shirley, and thanks for the memories -- these and so many more.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 13

In Child Star Shirley says that after the release of Little Miss Broadway Darryl Zanuck announced that her next picture would be an adaptation of Lady Jane by Mrs. Cecilia Viets Jamison. Published around the turn of the 20th century (1903, as near as I can tell), the novel told the Dickensian tale of an orphan girl in New Orleans of the 1890s. Little Jane and her gravely ill mother, having fallen on hard times, are taken in by a Mme. Jozain, who, seeing the fine clothes in their luggage, calculates that she'll be well compensated for nursing the mother back to health. But the mother dies, leaving the girl in Mme. Jozain's hands to be exploited and abused, her only friend a blue heron.

All ends happily, of course, but we needn't go into it any deeper than that. In trolling around the Internet looking for information on the book -- it's apparently out of print, but used copies are widely available -- I found this. It's a 1935 edition published by Grosset & Dunlap, a firm that often published movie novelizations and "motion picture editions" of classic books. As you can see, the dust jacket says, "This is the beautiful story from which the 20th Century Fox picture was made". However, Grosset & Dunlap seem to have jumped the gun; Lady Jane was never filmed, with Shirley or anybody else. Could it be that Fox purchased the book as early as 1935, anticipating making a movie, even though Shirley doesn't mention it coming up until three years later?

In any case, nothing ever came of Lady Jane. Other titles were tossed in the hopper, including one suggested casually by U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau over lunch with Shirley and her mother: The Little Diplomat. On Zanuck's orders, The Little Diplomat got as far as a treatment by studio writer Charles Beldon and a first draft by Eddie Moran, then withered on the vine. Another proposal, the 1936 children's novel Susannah of the Mounties by Canadian Muriel Denison, went the distance, as we'll see later. But for now, in the fall of 1938, Fox yet again turned to an old Mary Pickford vehicle. This time more than just the title would be used, and curiously enough, the story had some elements in common with Lady Jane. The result would be the glittering apotheosis of Shirley's career at 20th Century Fox.

The Little Princess (released March 10, 1939)

Unlike Lady Jane, A Little Princess has never been out of print since it was first published in 1905. It was the work of Frances Hodgson Burnett, who was born in England in 1849 but lived much of her adult life in the U.S., where she became a citizen in 1905, and where she died and was buried in 1924. She began writing short fiction for magazines while still in her teens, later progressing to romantic novels for adults and sentimental books for children. Her books sold well all her life, enabling her to support a transatlantic lifestyle with homes at various times in America, in England and on the Continent. Her adult novels were all popular in their day, but it's for her children's books that she remains best remembered, specifically Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885), The Secret Garden (1911) and A Little Princess.

A Little Princess first appeared in 1888 as a serial in St. Nicholas Magazine under the title Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss Minchin's Boarding School. In 1902, Mrs. Burnett turned the story into a play, A Little Un-fairy Princess, the title later shortened to A Little Princess; in January 1903 the play opened in New York (with "The" replacing "A" in the title). About the same time, Mrs. Burnett set to expanding the original story into a complete novel, and the book (full title: A Little Princess; being the whole story of Sara Crewe now told for the first time) was published in 1905.

In the novel, Sara Crewe is the seven-year-old daughter of a well-to-do British Army captain serving in India. Pampered without being spoiled, Sara is brought by her father to be educated in England, away from the unhealthful Indian climate. He enrolls her in Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Young Ladies, where the proprietress, Miss Maria Minchin, continues the practice of pampering Sara, albeit more for love of her father's money than from any affection for Sara herself. In fact, Miss Minchin dislikes and resents Sara for her native intelligence, her scholastic aptitude, and her self-possession, which Miss Minchin regards as impertinence.

Sara spends four years at the school, fawned over (insincerely) as Miss Minchin's star pupil. Then, just as Sara turns 11, her father suddenly dies, his health and spirit shattered by a series of financial reverses that have left him, and now his orphaned daughter, penniless with no friend or family to turn to. Miss Minchin's resentment boils over at the thought of the luxuries she has lavished on Sara, expecting to be reimbursed by her father. She confiscates Sara's fine clothes and evicts her from her well-appointed room. Henceforth, Sara will be expected to continue her studies while earning her keep as a scullery maid and all-around drudge, doing chores and running errands at all hours and in all weathers, wearing threadbare, ill-fitting clothes, sleeping in the attic with the rats and the discarded furniture, and taking what nourishment she can from the scraps of food thrown to her -- that is, when her "meals" are not withheld for some imagined infraction or other.

Sara endures two years of this shabby abuse with stoic dignity, years in which both she and Miss Minchin show their true colors. In the end, Sara's virtue is rewarded. While her father has indeed been lost, it turns out that her fortune has only been mislaid, and is now returned to her a hundredfold. She sweeps out of Miss Minchin's clutches richer and more a "little princess" than she ever was, while Miss Minchin is left to gnash her teeth and contemplate what will become of her if word of how Sara was treated ever gets around.

A Little Princess was first filmed in 1917 with Mary Pickford as Sara. That version was reasonably faithful to the book -- at least, as faithful as it could be in 62 minutes, especially when 16 of those minutes digressed into a long telling of "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves", which Sara recounts to her schoolmates. (This scene was supposedly included to dramatize Sara's fertile imagination, but it chiefly served to relieve Pickford for a while from having to look and act like a ten-year-old.) 

For Shirley's version -- like the 1903 New York stage production, it was The Little Princess, not
A Little Princess -- 20th Century Fox mounted a lavish production. The budget, Shirley says, was $1.3 million, "six times the cost of my first film". For this scene alone, a quick shot of Londoners cheering their soldiers off to war, the extras probably outnumbered the entire casts of Shirley's last three pictures combined. (Shirley and Ian Hunter as Capt. Crewe can just barely be glimpsed in a hansom cab in the top right background.)

Ethel Hill and Walter Ferris's script took major liberties with Mrs. Burnett's story while retaining its basic structure. To spare Shirley having to age from seven to 13, they confined the action to a single year, 1899 to 1900. Capt. Crewe has been ordered from India to Africa to fight in the Boer War, and is reported killed at the siege of Mafeking. However, we soon learn that he was not killed but is only missing in action, and is being cared for in a hospital right there in London, a semi-comatose amnesiac whose identity is a mystery to those who are tending to him. Whether Capt. Crewe is dead or missing, the effect on Sara and on Miss Minchin (Mary Nash, still in villainess mode from Heidi) is the same. The difference is that Sara refuses to believe the reports, and she haunts the very same hospital whenever she can steal away from the school, always searching for her father but never finding him, asking after him but never asking anyone who knows about that mysterious unknown patient. In the end, with a gentle assist from Queen Victoria (Beryl Mercer, serving much as Frank McGlynn's Abe Lincoln did in The Littlest Rebel), Sara is finally reunited with her father. The change is crucial: for this Sara Crewe, the happy ending is not regaining her fortune, but regaining her father.

Hill and Ferris also added a romantic subplot involving Rose (Anita Louise), a teacher at Miss Minchin's, and Geoffrey Hamilton (Richard Greene), the school's riding master (seen here with Sara before the downturn in her fortunes). Geoffrey is the semi-estranged grandson of Lord Wickham (Miles Mander), who lives next door to the school, attended by his Indian servant Ram Dass (Cesar Romero). Miss Minchin takes cruel delight in breaking up Rose and Geoffrey's romance and discharging Rose, thinking it will curry favor with Lord Wickham. 

Meanwhile, Ram Dass, crossing the roofs from his attic room to Sara's, has seen the wretched conditions under which she's forced to live. Sara tells him of all the comforts she pretends her cold, dusty garret has. Later, with the approval and connivance of Lord Wickham, Ram Dass sneaks into the room while Sara sleeps and installs all the comforts she has only imagined -- down quilts, soft cushions, cases of lovely books, food on the table and a warm fire in the grate. In this way the movie includes one of the charming touches in the book, changing the source of the mysterious largesse by establishing Lord Wickham as the curmudgeon with a heart of gold that has by now become a standard element of Shirley's pictures.

The movie also provides Miss Minchin with a brother Bertie
(Arthur Treacher) -- "our professor of elocution and dramatics."
Bertie is also a former music hall entertainer, although Miss
Minchin is too much of a snob to allow him to admit to it when
Sara's father remembers having seen him perform. And this
is all the excuse the movie needs to put Sara and Bertie
through a couple of quick song-and-dance choruses of the
1882 Albert Chevalier chestnut "The Old Kent Road" -- first
here in Miss Minchin's parlor (when she's not around,
of course), then later at the hospital to entertain
the convalescent soldiers.

In this way and others, The Little Princess tailors Frances
Hodgson Burnett's original story to Shirley's strengths.
"Studio moguls," Shirley sighs in Child Star, "had given
up the prospect of making me fit the story and had
returned to making the story fit me."

Indeed they had, but more happily than in Heidi. The Little Princess demonstrates the difference between working to Shirley's strengths and depending on her tricks -- never more so than in this sequence, which comes at the picture's two-thirds point. Sara is asleep in her garret; while she sleeps, Ram Dass steals in through the attic window and bedecks her room with comforts and finery -- but we won't know that until later because we are in Sara's dream. She dreams she's a princess holding court, with (like all dreams) people from her life taking their roles. Bertie is her court jester, Ram Dass her lord chamberlain (perhaps Sara, even asleep, is half-aware of his presence?), and Miss Minchin is there filing charges against Geoffrey for stealing a kiss from Rose. The scene is spoken in rhymed verse written by Walter Bullock, set to music by Samuel Pokrass ("There, you see, he broke the law! / What I say I saw, I saw!"). Geoffrey is acquitted because the kiss wasn't stolen, it was given freely by Rose ("There, you see! I had a feeling / This was not a case of stealing."), and the accuser is banished from Princess Sara's realm.

There follows a round of entertainment from the court dancers (to a genteel arrangement of "The Old Kent Road"), in which a new prima ballerina (who looks very much like Princess Sara herself) wins the approval of the court.

As the dance ends, Sara awakens to find her room transformed -- so completely transformed that at first she thinks she must be still asleep and dreaming.

The dream fantasy is a pure Hollywood touch, but it works for the picture rather than crippling it, as "In Our Little Wooden Shoes" had done to Heidi. In Heidi, there was no way we could believe that this little Swiss urchin would fantasize herself as a Dutch girl clomping around by the Zuider Zee in her wooden shoes, much less promenading through a stately minuet at the Palace of Versailles. But the fantasy here is entirely in keeping with the Sara Crewe we've come to know; for that matter, it's consistent with the novel's original Sara Crewe as well. Before Sara's fall from grace, everyone at the school calls her a "little princess" (some, the mean and spiteful ones, sarcastically); after her fall, it becomes even more important to Sara to be "a princess inside" and take whatever mistreatment Miss Minchin can fling at her with the grace and dignity that implies. So in her dream we see Sara as she sees herself, dispensing justice to the good and wicked alike. The scene also illustrates Sara's greatest asset in adversity: her vivid imagination. (The "Ali Baba" sequence in the Mary Pickford version tried to do the same, but it went on more than twice as long -- in a movie that was half an hour shorter -- and bore no connection to Sara's waking life.)

The Little Princess, despite the liberties it takes with Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel, is one of Shirley's strongest pictures -- classic Hollywood star-vehicle moviemaking at its best. In it, for perhaps the first time -- or maybe the second, after Wee Willie Winkie -- 20th Century Fox gave the movie a production worthy of the studio's biggest star, rather than expecting her to carry the show more (Dimples) or less (Stowaway) on her own. Reviews were indulgent. Variety's anonymous reviewer wrote, "Shirley Temple appears in Technicolor for the first time but, more important, it's her best picture in a long while." At the Times, B.R. Crisler said, with tongue slightly in cheek: "With any other child star on Earth, it is amazing to reflect, 'The Little Princess' would stand out as one of the most glaring examples of pure hokum in screen history; with Mistress Temple, it may very well be, as Mr [Z]anuck unflinchingly proclaims, the greatest picture with which Mr. Zanuck has ever been associated. And that would be greatness indeed." Even John Mosher at The New Yorker allowed, "This careful and even handsome screen version of the story Mother used to love when she was a girl is rich with all the sugar and all the poison of the past."

For Shirley's next outing, it was back to black-and-white, and a follow-through on one of the projects that had been back-burnered in favor of The Little Princess.

Susannah of the Mounties (released June 23, 1939)

We needn't spend much time on Susannah of the Mounties. Muriel Denison's novel, published in 1936, was the first of four she would eventually turn out; the sequels were Susannah of the Yukon, Susannah at Boarding School and Susannah Rides Again. This first book told of a nine-year-old Canadian girl in 1896 sent to live with her uncle when her parents are assigned to a remote corner of the British Empire. The uncle, an officer at a Royal Canadian Mounted Police outpost in the wilds of Saskatchewan, is at first surprised and unwelcoming, but Susannah soon wins his heart, along with those of everyone else on the post. My own copy of the book is still on order; when I've had a chance to look it over, if there's anything more to be said about it, I'll post an update here.

But I suspect there won't be, because once again 20th Century Fox jettisoned everything except the title. The script was credited to Robert Ellis and Helen Logan (story by Fidel La Barba and Walter Ferris), but several other writers put their oars in without credit -- never a good sign. Yet again, Shirley played an orphan: Susannah Sheldon, sole survivor of a wagon train massacred by renegade Blackfeet Indians in the 1880s. She is found by Mountie Randolph Scott out on patrol, and more or less adopted by him. From her place on the post she becomes embroiled in tensions between the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the Blackfeet tribe, especially after she befriends the son of a Blackfeet chief sent to the post as a hostage against good behavior. Together Susannah and Little Chief (played by a 13-year-old Blackfeet youth named Martin Good Rider) intervene with his father Big Eagle (Maurice Moscovich) to thwart the warmongering of the villainous Wolf Pelt (Victor Jory) and "show White Man and Indian how to live as brothers." Peace pipe smoked, fade out.

That's about it. There's a perfunctory romance between Susannah's guardian Inspector Angus "Monty" Montague (Scott) and his commanding officer's daughter (Margaret Lockwood) that falls somewhere between the similar subplot of Wee Willie Winkie and the one of The Little Princess; otherwise Susannah of the Mounties has the mediocre look and feel of a B-western (albeit spiced up with stock footage from earlier, more expensive Fox westerns). There's also an attitude toward Canada's native tribes that's almost as uncomfortable today as the treatment of African Americans in The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel. "Ugh!" is a common line of dialogue given to Blackfeet characters; other lines include "Little Chief not sleep White Man house," and, so help me, "Devil child have forked tongue!"

Reviews were dismissive, with an air of disappointment, as if the reviewers' hopes had been raised by The Little Princess, only to be dashed. Variety called Susannah "weakest in the Temple series for some time", adding, ominously: "Youngster is growing up fast, and is losing some of that sparkle displayed as a tot which carried her so far as a b.o. bet." B.R. Crisler in the Times, noting the movie's Mounties in their pillbox hats instead of the familiar peaked campaign hats, cracked: "The early Canadian Northwest Mounted Police certainly wore tricky uniforms, though. Except for the fact that they are on the screen, people at the Roxy might almost mistake them for ushers." The New Yorker's John Mosher put it succinctly, and correctly: "The whole offering must be considered as very minor Temple."

Susannah of the Mounties was directed by Wiliam A. Seiter, one of Shirley's favorites, who had already directed her in Stowaway and Dimples. Some scenes were directed without credit by Walter Lang (Seiter had performed the same fill-in duty on The Little Princess when director Lang left on "medical furlough"). Shirley's next picture would reunite her with Lang. Once again, Shirley and Lang would be working in Technicolor, and the production would be, if anything, even more lavish than The Little Princess. Results, however, would differ sharply. For the first time, a Shirley Temple picture would lose money.


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