*½/**** Image F (colorized)/C (b&w) Sound C
starring Shirley Temple, John Boles, Rochelle Hudson, Jane Darwell
screenplay by Arthur J. Beckhard and Patterson McNutt
directed by Irving Cummings
by Alex Jackson It's funny how a film like Curly Top can feel so weird and so derivative at the same time. Starting with the writing, there is barely any plot to speak of. Shirley Temple is Curly Top, the orphaned child of two circus performers who has only her older sister Mary (Rochelle Hudson) to protect her from mean headmistress Mrs. Higgins (Rafaela Higgins). After becoming enchanted with Curly during a visit to the orphanage, wealthy benefactor Edward Morgan (John Boles) seeks to adopt her under the alias "Mr. Jones." Mary insists that she be adopted along with Curly, as she had promised her parents that the two would never separate. Morgan agrees, but as he spends more time with them he begins to fall in love with Mary. Though Mary likes Morgan back, she's engaged to the handsome Jimmie Rogers (Maurice Murphy). It's up to Curly to bring her "two favourite grown-ups" together.
Screenwriters Arthur J. Beckhard and Patterson McNutt, loosely adapting Jean Webster's novel Daddy Long Legs, shoehorn in all the filler they can to push the film to feature-length. In the middle of the thing, Curly decides to put on a show to buy toys for her old orphanage. We get a few musical numbers and then the entire episode is forgotten. I missed why Morgan thought it necessary to create the "Mr. Jones" persona, but I think it was simply so that Mary could be surprised when he reveals the truth. Beckhard and McNutt constantly infuse the story with a false sense of complexity to produce the illusion that it's going somewhere. They don't even have the good sense to make Jimmie Rogers a creep--the only reason Mary breaks off their engagement is because the film dictates that she end up with Morgan. Again there is never any real conflict, just the illusion of conflict. Curly Top is literally running on fumes.
The film basically has one joke and it's a pretty lame joke at that. Because Shirley Temple is a little girl she doesn't comprehend the nuances of the grown-up world, and her efforts to parse it are hilariously naïve. When the headmistress asks her why she was brought into the office, she responds, "Don't you know?" When Morgan explains that getting married to a person means living with them for the rest of your life, Curly says that she wants him to get married to her and Mary. That sort of thing.
Curly Top could be called the 1930s equivalent of "Kids Say the Darndest Things" if it had only retained some sense of spontaneity. Temple is impressive to watch in the same way that a trained monkey is impressive to watch. In one particularly strange scene, she recites a sickly cute poem for seemingly no other reason than to show us she can recite it. Artistically speaking, I'm not sure that Temple yields anything fruitful for an audience raised on David Dorfman in Panic, Victoire Thivisol in Ponette, or even Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire. The film never sits down on the carpet with the kids. There is so much artifice to Temple's performance that Curly Top works best as a contemptuous satire on the limited cognitive development of five-year-olds. You can't imagine that she understood the joke.
Capping all of this off is Irving Cummings's painfully workmanlike direction. Cummings was nothing if not prolific: Between 1930 and 1939, he would helm almost thirty films. He was part of a system that valued his ability to churn 'em out--quantity over quality. Visually, Curly Top is static and unremarkable. There's a little bit of heat to Cummings's sloppiness (double-entendre unintended, you perv): the poem recitation is spoken directly into the camera in close-up and the effect is so crude and unexpected that it gives the film a bit of a jolt. Cummings uses rear projection and shows Curly doing a topless version of the hula, and it's all rather pleasantly hokey. Somewhere near the beginning of the second act, while Morgan is considering adopting Curly and her sister, he keeps seeing Curly in the paintings around him (one of them being Thomas Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy" (?!)). That Temple is desexualized in these scenes renders them that much more bizarre.
And so the film lacks merit both as filmmaking and as artwork. I have to say that it's not very entertaining, either. Watching Curly Top is kind of like eating a tub of frosting: it's sickeningly rich and there's no real nutritional value to it. Then again, I suppose that it's sort of stupid to try to distinguish entertainment from craft and meaning. How could you enjoy a film that hasn't either craft or purpose? I mean, what's the point?
Temple's songs ("When I Grow Up" and "Animal Crackers") are catchy enough to attain novelty value (I confess I actually downloaded "Animal Crackers" from Napster before the sheriff came to town), but it can hardly be said that they ever evolve beyond that. Temple wasn't a star because she could sing and dance, she was a star because she could play the trained monkey. I heard this horrible thing once that she was very good about performing at birthday parties and accepting presents she didn't want from families who couldn't afford them. I guess that was good for people during the Great Depression.
If there's a reason to watch Curly Top, it might be the same reason for watching any Shirley Temple movie--or any seventy-year-old movie, period: to gain some sort of insight into where the cinema and the culture has been, and therefore better understand where we are and where we're going. The film is strictly an archaeological artifact; I can't say that it upset me or angered me. It's just plain mediocre--forgettable and utterly harmless, leaving the memory as soon as it goes in. Perhaps if that hula number or Morgan's hallucinations had a more alarming paedophilic charge, I might have something to work with.
Fox's DVD release of Curly Top is surprisingly disreputable. Black-and-white and colorized versions are included, with the colorized version serving as the default viewing option--and in keeping with FILM FREAK CENTRAL tradition, I have no problem awarding it an "F." My father was a big Humphrey Bogart fan but by no means a purist, thus my first viewings of Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and Key Largo were colorized renditions taped off TBS back when Ted Turner was defacing the classics. I don't think it ruined those films for me, but ever since then I've associated the process itself with the banality of mid- to late-Eighties cable television in my home state of Wyoming. There's something nostalgic about that, I must admit, but there's also something distinctly deadening and sad. While the official Shirley Temple website suggests that this was done in order to introduce Curly Top to a new generation, the joke is on them in that the colorization stresses the relical nature of the film in ways that black-and-white wouldn't on its own.
The b&w full-frame transfer is advertised as "restored" but it looks like a bargain-basement Goodtimes treatment to me. There is no noticeable print damage, but grain is heavy and contrasts are weak. Ditto for the virtually indistinguishable Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and mono tracks: there is little depth and highs are clipped by a combination of hiss and distortion. There's also a sharp break in the soundtrack during Temple's rendition of "Animal Crackers." Cheap, man, cheap. Although I would have welcomed Mike Nelson recording an audio commentary like he did for the colorized releases of Night of the Living Dead and Reefer Madness, trailers for Dimples (in which Temple is backed by singers in blackface and Stepin Fetchit (usually brushed under the rug by modern distributors as an embarrassment, Coon Chicken Inn-style) actually receives top billing--this is a Shirley Temple film I would bother to see and write about) and Heidi comprise the sum total of extras. Curly Top is available individually or as a part of the Shirley Temple Collection Vol. 1. Originally published: December 13, 2005.