Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Littlest Rebel, The (1935)

20th Century-Fox
Director: David Butler
Starring: Shirley Temple, John Boles, Jack Holt

Shirley Temple fights for her right to be free in her role as The Littlest Rebel. Becoming what is perhaps the greatest financial draw at movie theaters in America during 1935, the young, dimple-face, curly haired seven year-old had taken movie audiences by storm starring in a string of clean, wholesome pictures that fit right in with the wants of the newly enforced Production Code, the board that censored movies of the era. As usual Temple plays a little girl with tons of charm, along with her singing and dancing skill, that wins over the harshest of people, this time set to the background of the American Civil War. Shirley’s overall cuteness allows you to be wrapped up in the story of her being a delightful Southern girl, surprisingly leading you to forget that her and her family actually own slaves during this feature, an act long since considered immoral.

The Littlest Rebel is a Shirley Temple drama about the struggles of a six year old Southern Belle and her family at the time when the Civil War breaks out, and how her father tries to protect and her from harm while serving in the Army with treat of the invading Union soliers literally making their way to their doorsteps. Here Temple plays Virgie Clay, who during her sixth birthday party learns of the battle of Fort Sumter, marking the beginning of war between the North and South, effectively turning the Clay family into Confederate patriots. Virgie’s father Herbert (John Boles) becomes a scout for the Confederate Army, but works tirelessly to protect his wife, daughter, and loyal slaves, including Uncle Billy (Bill Robinson), by moving them further away from Union armies down to Richmond. While carrying out this noble act of family first, Virgie’s father is aided by a sympathetic Union officer by the name of Morrison (Jack Holt), but both Clay and Morrison are caught and sentenced to death. Their only hope is in Virgie who raises money by dancing with Uncle Billy for a trip to Washington, where she visits Lincoln himself, he too being won over by the little girl, granting a pardon to both men, bringing back happiness to the Clay family.

The movie is a cute film that, as always, charms you with the overall loveliness if Shirley Temple. Her innocence and dedication to love and happiness with her family and those associated with her is the key to making this an appealing feature to watch. For as I see it there are two ways to look at this film. The first is being able to simply allow for suspension of disbelief and permitting the movie to just play out with the innocence of its original intent. If you do this the picture can be enjoyable, and overall adorable while watching little Ms. Temple. The second way is to tear apart the story’s fabric and think of it as absolutely ridiculous. The slaves of the Clay plantation actually fear the northern soldiers, as if they were frightened children and not own property with the North coming to free them from their masters. Northern soldiers do not devastate the Southern plantation as armies realistically did during war, and a little girl is able to walk into the White House to get a pardon for her rebel father, who is essentially a spy. The plot in real life does not work at all, but the movie is not about that. The film is about love, and how innocence and joy win outright in the hearts of those in times and trails of hardship. Yes, it is an overly simplistic film with unbelievable plot points, but Shirley Temple is a charmer, and in the end she must to win, at least that is movie logic.

For this picture is the usual formula of a random assembly abound Temple, providing the story while she is the object of the plot that drives the whole thing forward. Directed by David Butler, his third picture as a vehicle for Shirley Temple, his general skill with the camera is admirable as he captures everything that is necessary, but does not make the picture feel overly simple. He would not be particularly special with his filmmaking skill, but good enough to keep him in the business for a long time. The handsome and suave-like actor John Boles makes his second appearance with Temple as his child, previously in Curly Top where he adopts Temple. Boles is a steady actor with little drive when he is seen in these Temple movies, very two-dimensional as a hero, lacking a range in emotion.

A short list of small time actors line the remaining supporting cast of the film. Jack Holt plays the Morrison, the Union officer that sympathizes with Clay as he tries to protect his family. Holt was more known for his work in westerns, first as a stunt man before being cast in small roles for his decent acting skill beyond physicality. Karen Morley plays Virgie’s mother, a character who falls ill during the course of the picture, adding further drama aside from the immediate danger of being near enemy lines. Morley was a smaller known actress with years of work under MGM before arguments split that relationship. At this time she was just looking for work when it came; something that would not come often in the near future. In the short, but honorable role as Abraham Lincoln is the very little known actor Frank McGlynn, whose stage work as the 16th President would get him noticed, ultimately landing him this small part.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is the treatment of African Americans. Being the film takes place in the South during the Civil War the blacks are slaves. Though the slaves are treated well in the picture, never yelled at or mistreated, this film tries not to put down the race too much from the perspective of audiences in the mid-1930s. But through the eyes of time it is seen differently. As mentioned before, the slaves see the war as a hindrance on them as much as any Confederate, fearing for their lives and staying true to their masters instead of seeing the Union soldiers as saviors for a race of men long mistreated as pieces of property, and not human beings. They are happy-go-lucky, smiling, dancing, and undereducated people that serve by their master’s sides throughout. The most notable of these characters is the lively Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Robinson was a longsuffering vaudevillian before he made his mark as Temple’s butler in a handful of pictures. His dancing skill, like Temple’s, would win the hearts that watched him, especially when he danced with the little Caucasian girl. They could be perhaps the first mixed race dancing pair recorded on a major motion picture as the practice was very uncommon for a time of racial issues seen then, but both are so likable that it would hardly be thought of.

Critics would enjoy the delightful film, even though it was primarily fluff, but they too were won over by Temple. Audiences loved the picture enough to rank the film as one of the highest grossing films of the years. Along with the great success for Curly Top earlier in the year, Shirley Temple was the top draw in 1935, a huge triumph for 20th Century Fox. They only wished that they could bottle up this little girl and keep her at this ever cute age, but everyone grows up and this high would not last forever, and Fox looked to milk this run for everything its got in these next few short years.

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