Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Little Princess (1939)

Lil’ Orphan Annie, the apple-faced girl whose plucky spirit helped America get through the economic and spiritual malaise of the Great Depression, was of course fictional. But if she were to have a real-life counterpart, it would doubtlessly be Shirley Temple, for there was no bigger box-office draw, and certainly no film star more dearly beloved in the 30s, than her. It’s easy to see why she’s represented on this collection; as 20th Century Fox’s first big star she helped put the studio on the map, and represented founder Daryl Zanuck’s first big feather in a long line of illustrious accomplishments.

Looking at her in The Little Princess, her first color film and the first color film in the Fox collection, I can understand why so many flocked to her pictures some 80 years ago. She looks like a child but has all the mannerisms and maturity of an adult. It’s almost uncanny how she can hold her own with her adult co-stars because there almost seems to be no non-physical differences between them. But these adult attributes are filtered through the innocence of childhood, and the result is a truly perfect embodiment of both worlds.

In her role as Sara, she artfully exploits this special quality. As the English daughter (ok, we’ll let the American accent slide) of a single rich Briton, soon to be shipped off to fight the Boers (the second time that war is represented in this collection), she must herself attend a girls’ boarding school in London. But she’s no prima donna; rather, she proves herself to be quite the naïve egalitarian, befriending the servant waif Becky and bequeathing presents for all the girls even though it’s her birthday. When news breaks of dad’s death o the battlefield, the evil headmistress demotes her to an upstairs attic room, bitter that her ward’s Daddy Warbucks will no longer be supplementing the old bank account.

But Sara bridges the divide by befriending the adult employees too: Miss Rose, a sensitive teacher also at odds with her surly boss, and her husband, an equally nice chap soon to be shipped off to war. I must confess to guessing wrong the film’s ending (I never read the classic Burnett book). I thought they’d wind up adopting the now fatherless Sara, but it turns out Dad s still alive and Sara must scour the VA hospital to find him. And when she des, it’s a perfectly sublime moment, and Temple’s maturity keeps the scene from getting too cloyingly drippy, as well could’ve happened with just about any other juvenile performer.

But yet, people remember Temple as the cutesy “Good Ship Lollipop” curly-top, and indeed she was. But that alone wouldn’t have been enough to catapult her above the likes of mediocre kid actors like Jackie Coogan. Temple had something going on beyond the dimples, and she raised the bar for child actors of the future, essentially defining the role. It’s hard to imagine talents like Jodie Foster, Tatum O’Neil and Haley Joel Osment without such a measure.

Aside from Temple, the print looks great, with its early use of color a standout quality. Arthur Treacher (yes, of fish & chips fame) offers fine support as a school employee who also does a couple of song and dance numbers with the girl. Abd there’s even a fun fantasy sequence ear the end, involving all the major players in fantasy/medieval roles. A real hoot.

And the film itself is a real treasure.

Rating:  ****

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