Shirley Temple remains a singular entity in the history of cinema. It's just too bad that Golden era Hollywood's tainted view of race ruins so many of her films.
PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor
The entertainment elements inherent in a Shirley Temple film can seem a little elusive to the modern movie fan. Buried somewhere inside the dated designs of both cinema and social propriety, locked deep in non-PC pronouncements revolving around race, color and creed, America's most popular child star still harbors her undeniable charms. Certainly, they are sullied by their surroundings, and further fogged by the studio system idea of narrative, but when that upbeat cherub with the gorgeous golden locks puts on her hoofer's hat and taps her way through a complex bit of choreography, you can't help but be captivated.
There are several such magical musical moments to be found in the child star's substantial oeuvre, and Fox is aiding our acknowledgement by releasing Temple's films on DVD in a manner marketed directly to kids (read: colorized and lacking historic context). Dimples (1936) details the efforts of little Sylvia Appleby to reform her larcenous grandfather, The Professor (a pre-Wizard Frank Morgan). The Little Colonel (1935) finds Temple taking on the task of rebuilding her war torn family, as cantankerous Southern patriarch Lloyd Sherman (Lionel Barrymore) rejects his daughter for taking up with a "Yankee". Finally, Shirley is marked as The Littlest Rebel (also from '35) by a Northern general, a man out to capture her Confederate spy father. All three films are formed around set-piece sequences for the petite powerhouse; song and dance numbers that truly highlight what made Temple such a fan favorite. The rest is routine Tinsel Town melodrama.
| The DVDs discussed in this feature are: |
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Unfortunately, the three titles involved also harbor some of the most unsettling depictions of minority stereotyping since D.W. Griffith gave "birth" to a nation. While Bill "Bojangles" Robinson appears in Colonel and The Littlest Rebel (he merely choreographed Dimples), he is the only performer of color who comes off ethnically unscathed. While he is forced into "massa" and servant mode throughout, he is also allowed to be complex, opinionated, and heroic. He is always placed in charge of young Shirley, and is allowed to talk back to, and even undermine, the major white characters onscreen. Temple, however, never treats him as a third class individual, using her childlike innocence as a buffer against bias. Other African American actors, though, are treated terribly by the '30s motion picture mindset. Predating her Oscar winning work in Gone with the Wind, Hattie McDaniel is drenched in Colonel's miserable Mammy-isms, while even more disturbing, that icon to motion picture intolerance 'Stepin Fetchit' makes the times when he turns up in Dimples an uncomfortable experience in entertainment eugenics.
This is partially why Temple's movies can be so frustrating. On the one hand, you have the timeless tap dance sequences with Robinson; little Shirley matching the accomplished pro step for step. But then there are the moments where the n-word pops up, or shudder to think, even more inappropriate ethnic slurs. Such a schizophrenic dichotomy even extends to the drama. Each storyline centers on our sugarplum star, her earnest eagerness to embrace the world in a helping wholesome hug. The narratives then place her in a serious situation that needs to be overcome, as Shirley stands by those whom parents/society/politics deem unworthy. In the end, differences are ironed out and last minute heroics deliver the downtrodden. And beaming above it all like a grand guardian angel is the amazing Miss, apple-cheeked and flush with fantasy success.
Temple's films are thematically obvious, addressing Depression concerns while digging deep into the basic human desire for wish fulfillment and personal prosperity. The Littlest Rebel offers a perfect example of the Temple topics. All throughout this Civil War saga, our star is a chattering challenger. She wants constant reassurance that things will work out, while perceptively attacking the status quo. She will be pro-South in one scene, then spend the next questioning the rationale behind slavery. Certainly, such a system is used to keep Temple above the fray, to make it clear that the social circumstances surrounding her do not reflect her inner feelings or beliefs. By playing on the little girl lost/abandoned child syndrome strategies inherent in the scripts (Temple is often orphaned, uprooted, or generally batted around from relative to relative) we get an instant clinging reaction from the audience.
For parents, it's one of love and responsibility. Temple represents the child they brought into the world, facing issues that no child should have to suffer through. Similarly, the social stigmas of the early 20th century � child labor, immigrants, financial ruin � all enter into the picture as well. Since she is so good at heart, so pure in her personal motives, the viewer instantly wants the best for her. The rooting interest then drives the plot, which is a good thing, since other cinematic requirements like characterization are more or less missing from these films. Unless they are painted in sinister shades, most of the adults in a Shirley Temple film are interchangeable. The male figure in Dimples (a theater minded man) is as bland and basic as the fortune seeking father in Colonel or the spy daddy in The Littlest Rebel. Similarly, the women are seen as subservient, trusting, and martyr-like, giving up their own personal place to be by their man's side.
Again, this creates a link to the viewer that is almost inviolable. Since the parents � or in the case of Dimples, the criminal minded Grandpa � aren't able to properly care for their child, it is up to providence to provide. And since your typical audience member of the era was looking for ways to escape, hoping to leave the misery of a poverty stricken America behind them for a few hours, they could easily get lost in Temples' trials. They could hope for the little girl, and vicariously, do the same for themselves. In addition, the level of entertainment was tuned to touch a '30s-era crowd. That's why you see broad slapstick, jaunty juvenile antics� and, yes, the toxic treatment of minorities. It was not only what the moviegoer wanted, it was what they expected.
Setting aside the negatives for a moment, each film offers its own unique pleasures. The Littlest Rebel is probably the best, since it tells a straightforward story of life during wartime, and breezes through its quixotic version of the Civil War with about as much taste as can be expected from an early 20th century Hollywood film. Temple treats us to a couple of classic dance sequences with Robinson, and while Willie Best's belittling portrayal of an 'a-scared' slave is enough to make you cringe, the rest of the happy plantation parameters can be easily overlooked. The last minute appearance of an odd acting Abraham Lincoln (portrayed by famed lookalike Frank McGlynn Sr.) does test the disbelief suspension of even the most seasoned film fan.
Colonel's pleasures are a little more sparse. Barrymore's performance is engaging, since he really sells the 'South will rise again' sentiments with a recognizable sincerity and Robinson is nothing short of sensational. But the rest of the movie is so mannered and melodramatic that you occasionally get lost in the squabbles. Questions arise as to personal politics and pride, as well as the desire to use a child to mend foolishly fractured fences, and the last act return of some crafty con artists (they are part of a subplot involving a land deal gone bad) makes the narrative seems scattered. Thanks to Barrymore and Temple's acting chops, we allow ourselves to be manipulated and misdirected. Only the most heartless of viewers won't be touched by the family fixing finale, even if it is the result of a typical Tinsel Town formula.
Dimples is maybe the most difficult of all, for reasons both rational and racial. Frank Morgan may have been a stellar actor, but the character he is given here � the grandfather with a penchant for pilfering known as The Professor � is a really horrible parent. He constantly places Temple in harms way, and the little girl must manipulate her surroundings (and the people in them) to avoid punishment. He threatens her happiness, blatantly steals in front of her, and breaks promise after promise. He's so bad that we question Temple's attachment to him, and why she would reject a chance to live like a little queen in the house of a society matron, instead.
With a last act that features a black-face version of Uncles Tom's Cabin and � wait, it gets worse � a full blown minstrel show number, Dimples is the kind of film that truly tests our patience with the past. Robinson's influence can be felt the minute Temple starts tapping (her opening numbers are amazing in their footwork and finesse) but the lasting impression one gets from this film is Stepin Fetchin, in full charcoal face paint, slurring his way through a bad joke � and Temple returning the foul favor by directly mimicking him.
All of which makes Fox's decision to release these films exclusively as family fare all the more puzzling, Certainly Temple can be appreciated by kids, especially ones who crave something other than the standard animated antics. But Shirley Temple's appeal always skewed older, and many of her modern fans are people with fond memories of seeing her movies during latter day Saturday matinees and numerous TV reruns. Colorization always seems to be the answer when trying to give an older title a fresh coat of commerciality. Yet aficionados who want copies of these relics as reminders of Hollywood's 'heyday' are almost always angered by the infusion of hues (both monochrome and colorized versions are available on each DVD). Besides, the added contents on each disc offer nothing to the serious cinephile. Watching Temple preen for the newsreel camera as she celebrates her birthday with other stars is nicely nostalgic, but offers no real insight into the business or the little actress's career.
Without the chronological context that could help explain away some of the prejudice, the films of Shirley Temple will always suffer, at least from the standpoint of cinematic significance. She was undoubtedly the most popular child star in the history of the medium, and smartly left the business before time could taint her image. Those looking to understand her appeal will find ample proof in these otherwise problematic releases. The racism present in The Littlest Rebel, The Little Colonel and Dimples is enough to warrant a clear critical caveat. Thankfully, the talent at the center of these troubling takes is still worthwhile for some, anyway.