Sunday, March 24, 2013

Heidi (1937)



Director: Allan Dwan

20th Century-Fox’s little, darling child star had been Hollywood’s leading box office draw for the previous years of 1935-36, and with her production based on the adaptation of the famous children’s book Heidi she was well on her way to being crowned princess of the silver screen once again. In this Temple picture the little starlet takes on the role of the popular orphan from a Swiss literary classic, a tale right up the Shirley Temple line of stories, once again changing the lives of the stonehearted and weaker willed adults that surround her.

Heidi is a Shirley Temple drama of a Swiss orphan taken away from her grandfather and made the companion to a spoiled, crippled girl. The film opens with the orphan, Heidi (Temple), being abandoned into the care of her callous, hermit-like grandfather (Jean Hersholt), transforming his heart into a kind, old man before being ripped away from him by a greedy aunt and sold to be a companion to a girl of a rich family. Heidi longs to be reunited with her grandfather, but makes the best out of being play friend of Klara (Maria Mae Jones), who is kept in a wheelchair by her caretaker/teacher Fräulein Rottenmeier (Mary Nash) in fear that if Klara becomes well she will not be needed any longer. With Heidi’s care Klara regains her ability to walk, sparking the mean spirited Rottenmeier to sell Heidi to gypsies before being rescued by her grandfather.

The picture is an adaptation, but one right up the ally for a Shirley Temple film. Though only nine years old, it is clear little Temple is aging, becoming more able to handle a more dramatic role while seeming to understand even better where her cuteness is needed in her performance, rather than playing out her part as if coached, which she heavily was by her mother. Apart from the “Shirley Temple” aspects of the picture, the film does seem to have a larger amount of production quality and a more cinematic style to the feature when compared to the films before her works previous to that of Wee Willie Winkie, seen earlier in the year. It is clear 20th Century-Fox is trying to put more into her productions before she gets older and loses her childish cuteness, which is rapidly coming.

More than ever Temple would be focus of the film, and that is not meant in a story means of saying so, because it was clear in nearly everyone one of her films she was the center of attention. No, in this case Temple was a pretty heavy influence behind the camera it seems. It is not that she directed the feature, which was manned by Hollywood pioneer Allan Dwan, a founder of one of the first movie studios in California and director of such classic films as Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks. However, Temple would be a driving force in choosing a musical segment in the feature while giving out many orders to her similar aged dancers, humorously becoming somewhat of a tiny diva on set, only in fun. She also influences the hiring of fellow child actor Delmar Watson in a minor role. Most of all Temple was the major studio asset, enlisted with numerous bodyguards, being kept away from the location sets until the last minute for her safety, a stunt double for when Heidi is kicked by a goat, and even costing the crew two days of shooting around her when she accidentally inhaled fake snow which temporarily damaged her throat. It was clear Temple was everything to the movie and to Fox.

On set there were the usual issues with any Temple set. Her mother was worried that Marcia Mae Jones play the sympathetic crippled child would overshadow Temple. Jones does carry with her a stirring role in the movie, especially as she walks for the first time for her father since the “accident.” The much older Jones would receive many fan letters from disabled children all over for her performance, but Temple’s mother made sure Shirley was on screen enough and with inspiring words and actions to not have her overshadowed. It is a small note, but one that seems to come up throughout film history with major child actors.

Allan Dwan might be directing what could be simply called a children’s movie, but it is easy to see Dwan was not new to making quality pictures. His best work was in the days of silent films, directing the likes of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in more classic films of the time, with is more recent work being in lesser known features. Dwan does however move the camera well, frames shots, and edits with a seamless manner that makes his work in Heidi rather invisible, and any filmmaker knows that if your work is done right it just seems natural and almost goes unnoticed. Such was the case with Dwan in this picture.

In watching the picture the story is rather flat. There is the drama of Heidi and how she will get away from her forced life as a child companion hoping to reunite with her grandfather, but nearly all the characters are all two dimensional, not developing or arching with the story. That is what makes Jean Hersholt’s performance all so important. The Danish-born actor with a history of supporting roles here plays the one character who is most changed in the entire picture. Introduced as a stubbornly, old, hermit on a mountain given the burden of Heidi, Hersholt and his role as the grandfather seems to be yet another flat story of the cute girl changing the grumpy, old man into a kindhearted human being. This is very true, but it is only the first third of the picture, supplying the audience the perfect introduction and connection to Heidi before the plot of her being sold begins. Though Hersholt’s role does diminish to only a few seconds here and there for the remainder of the picture, our hearts are in fact with him as a loving guardian desperately looking for his little girl. Only a month after the film was released Hersholt would begin a radio show inspired by his performance in the The Country Doctor a year earlier. This radio show, “Dr. Christian,” would become a major broadcast success making him money in several mediums for many years.

Heidi would be yet another major financial success and marked the third consecutive year in a row with Shirley Temple as the largest box office drawer in Hollywood, an unprecedented mark for any time in cinema history. A child led the way for studio and Fox was reaping as much as they could out of her. Meanwhile Shirley was clearly becoming more mature as she was only reaching double digits in age. Sure her cuteness would begin washing away soon as she aged into her pre-teen years, but she was the technically the biggest star in Hollywood, even being a proud owner of an honorary Academy Award by this time. She may not be taken seriously as an artist, but she was serious business for 20th Century-Fox, and the numbers do not lie.

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