Temple (Fox V. 7 – 9: Dimples, The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel)
Sound: C+ Extras: C Films: B-
Shirley Temple remains the epitome of the great child star
and in her time was America’s Sweetheart, as well as a symbol of The Depression
in some odd ways. She was the
embodiment of a possible better future for the country and its youth, often
expressed by the fairy tale situations and endings of the films she starred in. Of course, she was a star as a toddler in
short subjects early in the sound era by Fox Films called Baby Burlesk/The
Baby Stars (in the Koch Temple set reviewed elsewhere on this site). Temple became the breakout star and so began
the career that helped to keep Fox afloat for years.
She was such a star so far back that Fox had not merged
with 20th Century Pictures into the company we know today. Fox of today has issued all her major
feature films in a new series of DVDs and we will look at three of them. What they have in common is a focus no her
cuteness, occasional musical numbers (especially of the Folk nature) and many
African American actors in subservient roles all the way up to Bill
Robinson. He was a choreographer and
often her dance partner. Why this was
passable in an era of such severe racism is a subject for its own essay, but it
is among the factors that make Temple’s run of hit films so odd.
However, they are considered such key hits and parts of
pop culture that the prices her memorabilia command from promo materials to the
endless dolls and other tie-ins at a time when this was far from common is
massive and astounding. The prices get
very high very quickly and that interest generates sales of these titles, which
in turn generate more interest in the memorabilia. It is amazing and many are unaware of their value.
The films here include Dimples, a 1936 feature that
partly qualifies as a Backstage Musical as Temple plays the granddaughter of
pickpocket played by Frank Morgan, three years away from cinematic immortality
in The Wizard Of Oz. She wants
him to change, but can her cuteness change his heart and thieving ways? A romance might help, but it is going to
take all her energy and resourcefulness to bring out the “good”
grandfather. A bit dysfunctional, it
has the Temple formula all over it including Stepin Fetchit in his typical
stereotypical comedy role.
The Little Colonel offers Temple on a plantation
(!) the year before from Just Imagine (the 1930 science Fiction Musical
camp classic) director David Butler.
This time, her mother is disowned by her pro-Confederate father for
marrying a Yankee soldier and she has to go and sell herself to him to bring
the family back together again. No less
than Lionel Barrymore plays her grandpa and you can imagine what the right
amount of singing and tap dancing might do to change him. Clue: He does not commit Hari Kari.
Temple was in the middle of The Civil War again (how did
she survive?) in The Littlest Rebel another David Butler film from 1935
in a story where she lives on a plantation! Her father is off to war and mother deathly ill, but good thing
Bill Robinson is there as a father figure of sorts until she can try to pull
the family together again. She even
goes to Abraham Lincoln for help! You
have to see this one to believe it.
Though meant to be entertainment, the films have not aged
well on racial grounds alone, but there are some other weird issues all tied
into what we could at least identify as confused ideology. One is the paradox of the burden of saving
the family placed on Temple’s characters.
Is it her fault the family falls apart in a crisis? This seems to be an excuse for her to kick
into high-energy action and if she has all this money, these clothes, this
talent and the happy ending; it is justified by her going from zero to hero by
the end of each film. After all, if a
pre-teen can dance her way out of nightmare circumstances, why not more adults
in Depression-era America, as if economic collapse were their fault to begin with. Strangely, this “bowing and scraping” she
has to do to fix things is tied to the racial stereotypes, for whom she learns
to struggle but unlike them can escape her living hell every time because she
does not face racism even after dancing with black men.
This relationship makes the Jazz and Blues of the song and
dance numbers make more sense, while in Classical Hollywood parlance reinforces
The Star System and the power of a given personality. As long as Temple distracted from any of the problems, inequalities,
shortcomings or contradictions and the films made money, Fox did not care. She remained a star for years to come until
World War II kicked in and she was still popular, though Gone With The Wind
may have ironically killed off some of the formula as well which was wearing
thin by then. With all those issues, it
makes watching any of these films fascinating, no matter how bad, ominous,
manipulative or aged.
The 1.33 X 1 image is available in decent if grainy black
and white, plus awful colorized versions that look odd in all cases. The Dolby Digital 2.0 is in Mono and boosted
Stereo with little difference in each case.
We recommend you fiddle with each in each case to hear which suits you
best. Extras include a Movietone
newsreel and two trailers on each title, with the newsreel being different in
each case. They are not much, but add
to a second and much-needed revisionist look at one of the still biggest
careers in cinema history. Whether
child friendly today is another issue, but you have to see for yourself to
- Nicholas Sheffo