Friday, March 30, 2012

Curly Top (1935)

Twentieth Century-Fox (the recent merger of Twentieth Century Pictures to Fox Films) had found their primary money maker in the most unlikely of packages, a seven year old girl with cute dimples. Having found recent success in Shirley Temple the heads of the newly merged studio would sign young Temple to a four picture-a-year deal with the little starlet, and what they got in return were high box office receipts, as well as films that were treasured by audiences overcome by her adorable qualities. Curly Top made no qualms about who you would see once you entered the theater, a film primarily for and laid on the small shoulders of the big smile and charming acting skill of young Ms. Temple. One of the many vehicles for the young child actress, Curly Top was a simple feel-good movie showcased the acting and singing of the girl with the curly locks of hair.

Curly Top is a musical comedy of an orphan and how she comes to be adopted by a young bachelor, and his attraction to her much older sister. Elizabeth “Curly” Blair (Shirley Temple)is a young orphan whose ways of singing and innocent mischief, though upsetting the heads of the orphanage, wins the heart of a select few. Curly along with her gifted teenage sister Mary (Rochelle Hudson), who also works for the orphanage, are adopted by one of the orphanages head backers, the young bachelor Edward Morgan (John Boles), after taking a liking to the two young girls. Edward adopts the pair, but in secret, letting Mary and Curly think a friend of his adopted them, but is away while Edward takes care of them. Temple charms through much of the picture while the only real drama in the story happens near the very end when Edward starts to become serious with falling in love with Mary, followed by Mary’s short misunderstanding with Edward. In the end Edward and Mary are set to wed, all to the happy reaction of their Curly Top.

Plain and simple, this is nothing more than a vehicle for getting little Shirley Temple on the screen. Fox had a team of writers set to writing scenarios for Temple scripts, and though this is an obvious re-envisioning of a past film Daddy-Long-Legs, a film that stared the original curly-haired girl of Hollywood, Mary Pickford, which was the story of the character of Mary, it was the writers’ job to get Temple on screen. Once again Shirley showcases her adorable singing, acting, and infectious smile that were to surely sell tickets.

In the director’s chair for Curly Top was Irving Cummings, a name that popped up in about one motion picture a year in Hollywood, but is perhaps best known for directing the early western talkie In Old Arizona, for which he was nominated for best director. It is surprising to think a onetime western director to do a cute musical movie such as this, but he does an admirable job creating a fluid flow to the film and uses some creative sweeping action with the camera. While making the production look of high quality, Cummings could not take credit for Temple though; Shirley was heavily coached by her mother. Cummings would say Temple would show up knowing all her lines and all her blocking, a very professional production with the little girl, all thanks to her mother and her acting through her daughter. Temple is not completely fluid or smooth, but was very close, and most of all was downright adorable when she acted. This is what Fox executives saw, and in turn what audiences saw, making for a successful time for studio and talent alike.

Supporting little Temple, and face it, supplying the actual plot (what little there was), is John Boles and Rochelle Hudson. Boles was a long time veteran of the screen, a small time leading man for years, but is perhaps best known for his work as the most straight laced character in Frankenstein. Hudson was the teenage actress that seemed to get many good roles that pushed into a situation of possible stardom. She had been in films such as Les Miserables and Imitation of Life, pushing her beautiful, youthful looks to the big time, hoping to make her a star. Though both are adequate actors, they both lack that something special to really grab hold of your attention. Their characters are filler; flat and dull, with us never emotionally becoming attached to them unlike the plot-less Curly. All of it is set up for the star, and remember whose name is the largest and sits above the title.

The picture was a huge financial success. Twentieth Century-Fax would produce the picture for a minor sum, maybe around the $200,000 range and would be one of the year’s top box office draws. Along with another Temple film, The Littlest Rebel, Fox would have two Temple films on the top grossing list of 1935. The studio had a formula for the moment for making money, and it was Shirley Temple, a girl that won the hearts of the Motion Picture Academy just a year before and even the First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, who found it a good way to reduce the worries of the Depression era Americans by spending time watching Temple play a poor girl that made the rich and greedy alike smile with joy. Fox was very aware of the audience it was trying to win over, making Temple usually a underprivileged girl and overcoming many challenging situations.

Apart from box office revenue, the movie sold many sheets of music for the song “Animal Crackers in My Soup.” Curly Top was an undeniable hit film of its time. It would last through the decades in the minds of those nostalgic for the simpler times. Somehow Temple and her films provide that. Not to say this film is a masterful treasure, but there are strong following that cherish the little girl and her films, including this one that describes one of her most unforgettable visual qualities.

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