Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Shirley Temple....again!

I know I've written about child-star Shirley Temple several times previously, usually when I need a speedy antidote to an attack of the blues.  Her ability to cast a ray of sunshine into people's drab existence is what made her the top-grossing movie-star in the dark days of the l930s Depression.  However it was not a sudden case of the glumps that inspired me to write about the two following films from 1934, but rather the unusual fact (for me) that I had not previously viewed either of them.  Because they were both made on loan-outs from her home studio Fox (a situation never again repeated when her financial worth was realised), they tended not to be as readily available for television, video, or DVD viewing as her other films until relatively recently.  Both movies are fascinating, both in their own right and in contrast to her other pictures from the period:

Now and Forever:  One of Shirley's least-known films, it is unusual for its starry leads -- Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard.  Cooper in particular is atypically cast as a weak-willed grifter, living the high-life abroad with Lombard, relying on his wits and speedy evasive action to avoid their creditors.  In passing he mentions a daughter from a previous marriage -- conveniently never mentioned earlier -- whom he hopes to flog for $75,000 to the stuffy relatives that have been looking after her since his first wife's death.  When he goes back to Connecticut to get the dough, he finds himself charmed by the tyke, who obviously is not exactly having much fun or much of a life in her cloistered environment -- and off he goes with her to meet up with Lombard in Paris, raising the cash by selling a mythical gold mine to an old duffer, played by Sir Guy Standing, who turns out to be as big a con-man as Cooper.  Temple is rapturous about having a Daddy and fond of Standing's Uncle Felix who is escaping the law on the same ship, but wary about Lombard's sharing her father's affections.  She gradually warms to her, especially when she sees her new mother encouraging her father to take a job and live a more sedate life like real families.

However, thirty-five dollars a week from a real estate company doesn't go far in maintaining their lifestyle, especially when they want to send Shirley to a posh school; Cooper is soon reduced to stealing a necklace for Uncle Felix to fence from a wealthy dowager who has taken an interest in the winsome child.  Things end badly with Felix shot, Cooper wounded, and the old lady agreeing to take over responsibility for the child.  This is not the sort of happy scenario which usually forms the centre of a Temple film, although director Henry Hathaway manages to hold our interest in the brief 79 minute running time.  Shirley has no dance numbers and only one song "The World Owes Me a Living" (shades of Cooper's philosophy here) which while cute, is rather less fetching than her usual 'Good Ship Lollipop' repertoire.

Little Miss Marker:  Although I hadn't seen this version of Damon Runyon's tale before, it felt as if I had, since I have certainly seen the later versions: Bob Hope's 1949 "Sorrowful Jones", Tony Curtis' 1962 "Forty Pounds of Trouble", and Walter Matthau's 1980 take on the Sorrowful character (back to the original title and also featuring Curtis in a different role).  The basic story is therefore well-known and is clear from the alternate title "Girl in Pawn".  Here the usually dapper Adolph Menjou plays bookie Sorrowful Jones, known by his lowlife associates as a shabby tightwad.  When a little girl's father, desperate to place a bet, leaves his daughter as security, Menjou reluctantly agrees.  The 'sure-to-win' horse (a con initiated by Charles Bickford's Big Steve Halloway and agreed to by Menjou and the mob) loses, and the distraught father commits suicide, lumbering Sorrowful with little 'Marky'. Bickford skips town for a while leaving Menjou to register the horse in question in Marky's name before their plans to dope him and probably kill him in his next outing.  He also leaves his girl friend, a torch singer (Dorothy Dell) for Menjou to keep an eye on.  Her supposedly hard surface is touched by the youngster and she grows fonder of both the child and Menjou, finally smartening him up.

Several things make this version of the story rather different than the subsequent ones and again substantially different from Shirley's other 30s films.  Again this is not an all-singing, all-dancing role for the youngster, and while she starts off the film as a little sweetie, charming all in sight, full of fairy tales and magic, she soon becomes a tough-talking little cookie under the influence of the Runyonesque supporting cast.  In an attempt to recapture her innocence, Dell and Menjou get all of the gang to dress up as characters from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and bring in her faithful 'charger' (the horse in question).  I must say I don't recall anything like this in the later versions!  Anyhow, Bickford returns to the scene, causing Shirley to fall from the horse gravely injured.  Move to the hospital where a renowned surgeon is press-ganged from his wedding to operate on the tyke, but none of the mob have the right type blood for the necessary transfusion.  That is until Bickford is tested and complimented on his 'strong blood', saving the day.

Point of interest: like me you have probably never heard of Dorothy Dell.  It's not surprising since she made only a few films before dying in a car crash at the age of nineteen.  Her character 'Bangles' Carson comes across as a lot older with her trampy dress, torch singing, and the fancy apartment of a kept-woman complete with the requisite black maid.  She's excellent here and probably would have continued with great success, but we'll never know.  Talking about token roles for black actors in early Hollywood, amongst the support in this film is friendly, jivey janitor Willie Best, keeping a watchful eye on little Shirley.

Finally it is probably worth noting that both of these Temple vehicles just about fall into the pre-code period and are therefore somewhat blacker than the movies that would later rake in the big bucks for 20th Century Fox.
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