Thursday, February 21, 2013

Wee Willie Winkie (1937)

Director: John Ford
After a number of financial successes with motion pictures starring the studio’s biggest (and at the same time tiniest) star, 20th Century-Fox decided for the first time to really put some money and major production quality behind its major box office draw. With a big name director in John Ford and respectable A-list stars in Victor McLaglen and Caser Romero it can be said that Shirley Temple would be the star of a true A-list movie with A-list backing. Wee Willie WInkie would be yet another adaptation molded around Temple and her charm, and was her finest film to date, as well as Temple’s favorite film of all time which she was a part of.

Wee Willie Winkie is adventure tale of a small girl moving to northern English occupied India with her mother, where she befriends many English soldiers and tries to become a soldier herself. An adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling short story of the same name, Temple, along with her newly widowed mother (June Lang), makes a new home in army barracks of English soldiers lead by her gruff, no nonsense grandfather (C. Aubrey Smith). There she befriends St. McDuff (Victor McLaglen) who becomes a new father figure to her. In seeking to find the approval of her grandfather the little girl, now nicknamed “Wee Willie Winkie” by the men, attempts to become a soldier, or at least as best as a cute, young girl can, to the delight of the soldiers in camp. Meanwhile Winkie befriends a prisoner named Khoda Kahn (Caser Romero), who in her simple mind does not understand is a native warlord. Kahn breaks his out of prison and while in a battle McDuff is fatally wounded. In her childish naiveté Winkie attempts to bring peace by making the soldiers and dangerous natives talk in peace, and with her charm and admiration softens the hearts of both sides. A child shows them the way.

Much like any previous Shirley Temple vehicle this picture completely revolves around her, showcasing her smile, charm, and innocence. That said, the film is very different from her previous features as well, including the lack of dancing and singing (aside from a very short, quiet song by Temple), a large plot, and a noticeable increase in production, especially with notable names in the credits besides the top credited Temple. This picture would tug more at the heartstrings of parents as Winkie is a such a young child that has little grasp on the death of a dear friend in front of her. It is somewhat a more emotional film from her usual fare, although Temple stills plays all troubles off with childish innocence, meaning only the mature characters’ hearts are breaking, fully understand what Winkie could not comprehend.

The first thing one would notice in this feature compared to the previous films of Temple is the production value and scope. To man the picture is long time film director John Ford. With his experience on larger movies (The Lost Patrol), deeper films (The Informer), and comedies (Steamboat Round the Bend), Ford had a large grasp on many genres of movies, here mixing a childish comedy, with mature undertones, and large scale. Filmed on a large ranch in Sothern California to recreate Northern India, this picture had a scale that far outweighed any previous Temple adventure, giving the plot more body and appealed further to more mature audiences.

Despite the greater production value to the film, the picture was definitely a vehicle for Temple. Credited as being based on the Rudyard Kipling story, the plot proves to be a rather loose adaptation. First off the role Temple plays was originally that of a boy in the short story, manifesting just what direction the writing was geared to in this production. Besides the fact the Winkie wants to become a soldier and love story between her mother and a soldier, the rest of the film’s script is geared to the doll-like actress and her cute endeavors in an army camp.

Academy Award winning actor Victor McLaglen plays the father figure to Winkie as Sgt. McDuff. Playing a Scottish soldier, which instantly appeals to Winkie as he wears a skirt (his kilt), he carries with him the emotional center that makes Winkie do what she does. To take a serious actor like McLaglen and put him in this spot gives the film more credibility. His lovable bear of a man wins the heart of the little girl and at his death powers Winkie to stop the fighting herself. Temple had already been the top money maker in Hollywood for the past few years, now Fox was baking her with a greater film production. Wee Willie Winkie would even be up for an Academy Award for best art direction to manifest the care that went into the production.

Equally important is the villain of the picture, Khoda Kahn played by Caser Romero. Romero, usually utilized as a supporting actor, has exotic enough features to portray men from far off lands, though here looking more Middle Eastern than Indian. His sly smirk and glancing eyes make him an easy man to cast as a “bad guy,” but he too is won over by Winkie, showing us a heart in even villainous characters. Surprisingly he comes off as both evil and heartfelt in the same scene where Temple pleads with him to stop the fighting.

Pushed to the background from the original short story is that of WInkie’s mother and her soldier love interest. Winkie’s mother, played by June Lang, falls in love with an innocent soldier nicknamed Coppy by Winkie, played by Michael Whalen. This plot is heavily watered down in the overall scope of the film and makes for a lacking B-plot in the picture that really goes nowhere. Even both actors are forgettable. Lang had a promise of an acting career that would near completely stop when she married a known mobster in 1940. Whalen on the other hand was very little heard of after this forgettable role.

With its large depth and grander production value Shirley Temple would in future years claim Wee Willie WInkie as her favorite picture she was in. Audiences would love the film as well, but there was one problem that arose from a critic that thought the studio was misusing Temple in an immoral way.

A British writer, Graham Greene, reviewed the picture stating 20th Century-Fox was touting Temple around to look desirable for men by acting more and more like an adult and putting her in former fitting clothing, in this case the soldier uniform. The studio and Temple would sue Greene for his comments and won. When Temple was 21 and gained access to the bond money she won from the case she gave the winnings to a charity in England.

It is good to see that 20th Century-Fox was finally trying to use more money in Temple features. Perhaps it was in attempt to change the direction of Temple in the foreseeable future, because Temple was not going to stay a cute little girl forever. Whatever the case Wee Willie Winkie would be an above average Temple vehicle that for some is still found enjoyable for its innocent charm.

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