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Category:    Home > Reviews > Comedy > Musical > Children > Shirley Temple Volume Three (Dimples/The Little Colonel/The Littlest Rebel/20th Century Fox)

Shirley Temple (Fox V. 7 – 9: Dimples, The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel)


Picture: C+     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 decide.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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