Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bright Eyes (1934)

A dimpled little girl began to steal the hearts of audiences in Fox theaters across the nation in 1934. First used as a short subject novelty and making a strong transition to feature films earlier in the year with the success of Little Miss Marker, six year old Shirley Temple was now a movie star, her name being placed above the title of her own major motion picture. For the first time it was a film specifically produced as a vehicle for her in Bright Eyes. It would be rare to find a very young actor that could display emotion so well. Examples include Jackie Coogan (The Kid) and Jackie Cooper (The Champ, Treasure Island), but Temple was a young girl that not only act, but sing and understand choreography better than any child her age. If little Miss Marker was Temple’s unofficial “try-out” to features, Bight Eyes was her “I’m here to stay” picture, proving that a paying audience of adults would go see a feature film that is carried by the drama of a little, curly haired girl.

Bright Eyes is a Shirley Temple film about a tragically orphaned little girl who gets caught up in a custody battle between a rich snobbish family, the family’s crotchety old patriarch, and her aviator godfather. Shirley Blake (Temple) is the bright eyed little girl whose parents are individually killed in tragic accidents, most recently her mother Mary (Lois Wilson) whose heartbreaking death falls on screen to the strike of car. Left with no legal guardian, it up to the few people that surround her to decide where she will grow up. Shirley’s love for aviation creates a strong bond between herself and her pilot godfather, “Loop” Merritt (James Dunn), and all his friends at the local airfield. However, the snobby family which Shirley was living with at the time of her mother’s untimely death, them being out of touch with Shirley’s feelings, believes she should be sent to an orphanage. The cantankerous, old patriarch of the family, Uncle Ned (Charles Sellon), though takes a liking to Shirley as a breath of fresh air in the house, and wants to care for her out of dislike for his own ignorant family. The issue goes to court, but all ends well as Loop, Uncle Ned, and Ned’s niece (Loop’s fiancée) all decide to live together as family with little Shirley.

The film is an overall light hearted story which includes a brief, surprising drama that plays out well for such a comedy. Shirley Temple is such an engaging little actress, using her youthful charm to win over any viewer. In a film that starts so innocently with Shirley playing the energetic girl with and single mother, living meager yet happy lives in comparison to the rich snobs Mary works for, you feel you know where the film is going. Temple’s rival is the rich family’s selfish daughter Joy (Jane Withers), who is everything the opposite of Shirley. In the middle of the picture drama turns it unlikely head as Mary is struck and killed by a motorist on the way to deliver and cake to Shirley who was with Loop that Christmas day. It is a heart wrenching scene as Loop must explain to a little girl, on the happiest day in her short life, that her mother is now in heaven. A scene that should make any warm blooded person a little misty eyed. After that heart-rending event the film turns into a custody battle with Shirley in the middle, a down turn in the story as now the focus is on the adults and Shirley becomes the object of possessive in the picture.

Temple singing "On the Good Ship Lollipop"
For such a small picture, the production quality is quite good. Stock Fox film director David Butler does a fine job centering the talents of little Temple. Understanding that this film is a vehicle for young star, it does seem as if the camera is played a little lower to give a more childlike angle to the picture. This tends to leave as the film turns to the adult issue of custody in the latter half of the film. Butler also does well framing shots in the confined spaces of the aircrafts Shirley spends time in. This is best displayed in the picture’s only musical number, what may be considered Temple’s signature song “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” Butler captures Temple’s wonderful expressions and plays with the use of this charming, little girl in a lightly choreographed number where dance is secondary to the glowing smile on Temple’s face. The “dance” number may be forgotten in time, but the song would be a classic for Shirley Temple, synonymous with her original rendition. The song would sell over a half million sheet copies, making it one of the most popular songs of its day.

Apart from Temple, the cast surrounding her is hit and miss. James Dunn carries the emotional weight as the prime adult character in the film. Breaking in with 1931’s Bad Girl, Dunn shows potential of being good leading man. His smile and good humor make him appealing, yet he plays a very one dimensional character. Lois Wilson who played Shirley’s mother Mary would be on screen for only a limited time, being killed midway through the film, but she plays a vital role in the development of the character of Shirley. Wilson’s Mary provided the picture with an attitude that though stricken with tragedy you need to look at the bright side of life. In a way Wilson helps to provide the window into Shirley’s soul which Temple cannot share, being still too young to do so. Therefore Wilson’s acting is very important to the picture, even though the drama is that she dies and Loop ends up fighting for Shirley’s wellbeing.

Rivals- Withers and Temple
Two other actors that deserve to be noticed in the film as the supporting actors Charles Sellon, and the old Uncle Ned, and Jane Withers, playing the selfish child Joy. Sellon’s cynical old man character provided a form of added comedy relief in the story. He is the one family member in the Smythe, he rather wanting to be known as “Smith”, house that sees the beauty in Shirley as a caring child. He was only seen as character actor, but Sellon actually plays more emotion than most in the picture, without changing his demeanor. Jane Withers would be the interesting story of the film. Chosen from a large casting call to play the joyless Joy, Withers would win the role of Joy. Even at a young age she was reluctant to play the character that would treat Temple so badly, fearing people would hate her. Temple’s mother asked the production head to trim down the role in fear of Withers stealing the scenes they were in. The scenes remained as they created more sympathy for Temple, as intended. Withers would be praised for her work as the badly spoiled child, so much so that she was awarded her a long term contract with Fox.

Frozen in time, Bright Eyes provides a minor Los Angeles area landmark with use of Glendale Municipal Airport as the setting of the airfield Shirley frequently spends her time. Most notably of the airport is the five story art deco/Spanish style air traffic control tower which stands as the symbol for the relatively small airfield. Beyond standing in as the establishing shot of the airfield, the tower and the rest of the structure are a fine example of the architecture of early twentieth century Los Angeles.

The film was a good movie for Fox Films, who would soon approach a business venture to merge with another film studio, 20th Century Film Company. Temple’s star was shining greatly for this feature which spawned a series of follow-up pictures. Her talented singing a performance during the film’s only musical number led to her being a serious musical star in her future films. For her contributions to motion pictures during the year the Academy Awards in 1935 would bestow on Shirley Temple a special miniature statue, principally for her work in Bright Eyes as well as Little Miss Marker. It was the first time the Academy had ever awarded a child an award.  It would only be the beginning for a long list of films that would fill Temple résumé as one of Hollywood’s most well-known child actors.

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