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Saturday, 13 December 2008

Shirley Temple

As an antidote to the last reviewed Japanese flick and some other truly dreadful recent films, I turned in this hour of need to the remarkable child who saved 20th Century Fox's hide back in the 1930s. Hard as it may be for today's seen-it-all cynic to believe and/or stomach, Shirley Temple was once the most popular film star in the world and appeared in a classic collection of movies before her teenaged years. Her later roles -- and she retired at the ripe-old age of 21 -- are not unwatchable, but lack the charm of the young moppet. However, in the movies made in that decade, there is always something to enchant the open-minded viewer -- normally her musical numbers -- and the cheeky, self-confident child becomes irresistible.



The pair that I treated myself to this week "The Littlest Rebel" and "The Little Colonel", both released in 1935, have much in common. Both are set in the Deep South, the first during the Civil War and the second some years afterwards, both allot her a mother and a father played by minor stars of the period (having two parents is something of an anomaly in her films, although her mother does die in the former), both have her winning over crusty older men (a Northern general and then Abraham Lincoln -- believe it or not -- in the first and cantankerous Lionel Barrymore as her estranged grandfather in the second), and both co-star her with Bill Robinson, the legendary Bojangles.



Being the 1930s, blacks in mainstream US movies were always in subservient roles, many of which are hard for today's modern mentality to allow (the ever-dumb Stepin Fetchit is the prototype), but some actors transcended this handicap to remain screen icons. Hattie MacDaniel who appears in the second of these two, is a case in point, memorably appearing in minor roles in dozens of big-budget films of the period and of course winning an Oscar for "Gone with the Wind". Robinson may be playing a slave in 'Rebel' and a butler in 'Colonel', but he does so with incredible dignity, sympathy, and a small degree of cheekiness as well, and we never think of him as any sort of inferior. However when he moves into dance and especially with his step-dancing routines with his young co-star, we are presented with never-to-be-diminished movie magic. An antidote indeed!
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