**/**** Image F (colorized)/C (b&w) Sound C
starring Shirley Temple, Frank Morgan, Robert Kent, Stepin Fetchit
screenplay by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin
directed by William A. Seiter
MAD HOT BALLROOM
*/**** Image B Sound B
directed by Marilyn Agrelo
by Alex Jackson When Chuck Workman juxtaposed Shirley Temple with Adolf Hitler in his underseen 1995 documentary The First 100 Years, he was dramatizing America's suckling on the opium pipe of Temple musicals while Hitler rose to power in Germany. This is reflective of the general attitude towards Temple in the 1940s: not only was she no longer cute, she also embodied a sense of brain-dead frivolousness in American film that the zeitgeist started snuffing out through soppy sentimentality, hardened disillusionment, or some combination of the two. Movies got heavy in the Forties, and Temple could not keep up with them.
Similar but quite different is an unused promotional poster for Crispin Glover's "countercultural" epic What is It? depicting a semi-nude Shirley Temple in S&M garb standing in front of a Nazi emblem. If Workman is viewing Temple as a distraction from the evils of Nazism, Glover is actually equating Temple with the evils of Nazism. (In the film itself, Shirley Temple is a supernaturally malevolent demon or something.) Before we go much farther I feel compelled to inform you that What is It? is adventurous but philosophically juvenile. It's absurd and, more to the point, rebellious for the sake of being absurd and rebellious. Glover is attacking mainstream cinema simply because mainstream cinema exists. He's telling us to pay no attention to him. We can't fulfill that request without violating it and we can't violate it without fulfilling it. This would seem to be the reason the Dada movement died out so fast, before silly Crispin Glover resurrected it.
What is It? doesn't attack Temple with any real depth; Glover subverts the Temple iconology simply because it's so strong, he sees her as the embodiment of the "pro-cultural" (i.e. Nazi) state. The fact that she's our most famous child actress and defiling her gives his film a genuinely icky paedophilic charge (accentuating its status as a true "countercultural" work) is more or less an added bonus. Glover is iconoclastic for the sake of iconoclasm, but in this specific instance his obscenity has some weight to it. You see, Temple is not just a pro-cultural icon, she is a corrupt pro-cultural icon.
Temple does not reflect who we are or what we aspire to become. We never get the impression that Temple is a real girl and we never get the impression that things won't work out for her. She's a trained monkey in a studio-produced lightshow. And, of course, Temple's films are not good art. They're vapid and silly and stupid. When Glover turns her into She-Wolf of the SS, there is the implication that he's filling in what was missing from Temple's films. We can make sense of an evil Shirley Temple and we can possibly even embrace an evil Shirley Temple. An evil Shirley Temple is able to suggest that there is suffering in the world, that people are capable of pain and feeling and will bleed when you prick them. An evil Shirley Temple has depth. As is, we can only opt to either accept or reject her sunny nihilism, her dictum that the cinema is meaningless as a form of artistic expression.
William A. Seiter's Dimples was one of four films Temple churned out in 1936. She plays the title character, a street urchin in 1850s New York whose grandfather, Professor Eustace Appleby (Frank Morgan, The Wizard of Oz), has taught to sing and dance in order to distract onlookers as he picks their pockets. When Dimples and the Professor perform for and rob the wealthy Mrs. Caroline Drew (Helen Westley), they're caught and Dimples takes the blame. Drew is so moved that she offers to buy the orphan from the Professor. Will he take the money and give Dimples a good home, or will he preserve his tie to his granddaughter at all costs? While they're sorting this out, Drew's nephew Allen hires the twosome to put on a production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin".
The plot is just complicated enough to take us from reel to reel and musical number to musical number without unduly telling us anything about the characters, while the filmmaking is every bit as utilitarian and basic as the screenwriting. It's static and workmanlike, serving as a humbling reminder of how far film technique has evolved in American cinema. The last Temple vehicle I watched, the previous year's Curly Top, was incompetently written and directed but that incompetence gave it some kind of life. Dimples has a staid professionalism that leeches every bit of life out of it. This is a solidly mediocre picture.
What makes Dimples a borderline interesting movie, one that's almost worth watching, is its racism. As this is 1860s New York, the production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is performed by white actors in blackface, the most offensive being the pickaninny Topsy (Betty Jean Hainey), who comes onstage, sees a vase of flowers, and begins eating one, much to the delight of the audience. Dimples marks my very first exposure to the work of Stepin Fetchit, who plays the Professor's faithful servant Cicero (why does the Professor, an impoverished pickpocket, have or need a servant? Exactly). Fetchit's Cicero is essentially a pack animal--his performance is nothing less than the personification of a donkey. Fetchit brays his dialogue through half-shut eyelids and, just like Topsy, will casually eat anything resembling food if left unattended.
Most contemporary reviews I've read of Dimples acknowledge the film's racial content with a stray sentence or two, treating it like an unfortunate distraction or evidence of how badly the film has dated. This kind of insanity defers to the period in which the picture was made and does not in any way reflect how it plays for modern audiences. Sometimes in a nearly literal sense, racism is the elephant in the room. There's a scene where the Professor and Dimples go into Allen's office to discuss joining the cast of his play. The Professor orders Cicero to follow him in, but when Allen introduces the group to his fiancé he only acknowledges the Professor and Dimples. Apparently they know that Cicero is in the room, since later on in the scene the Professor orders him to play the harmonica (which Cicero then eats). It's difficult to focus on the banter between the Professor and Dimples or the dialogue that's forwarding the plot--your eye is always drawn to Fetchit, standing there staring at the ground until the filmmakers see fit to degrade him.
Fetchit's performance is fascinating to watch. A victim of the age of political correctness, much of his work has been edited out of the films in which he appeared. It's fortunate that he's still in Dimples--he's really funny and the film is probably unbearable without him. Ironically enough, Fetchit proves to be the most modern thing in it. I didn't fully realize until a few days after viewing Dimples how much Dave Chappelle owes to Fetchit, particularly with his crack addict Tyrone Biggums character and his milkman in the "The Niggar Family" skit. The Fetchit persona no longer registers with audiences as actively subjugating blacks, but rather as violently penetrating our comfort zone and forcing us to acknowledge our complacency in accepting their subjugation. It's hard to believe that audiences would have blindly accepted Fetchit in these roles: no man could be this lazy and no man could be this stupid. Fetchit pushes racial caricature so far over the top that it stains the rest of the piece. If I didn't know better I'd say that he was trying to sabotage this stupid movie from the sidelines. Dimples tries to get us involved in poor Shirley Temple's troubles, but this big whiny nigger rotting away in the corner is a constant distraction.
Even through this modern revisionist lens, I can't quite say that Dimples works. The problem with genuinely racist films is that they don't know they're racist. There is ugliness under the surface, and it bubbles up from time to time in the form of Fetchit and the blackface performers, but there's too much surface for it to really matter. Fetchit is more than a footnote to the film, but he's not quite the central subject, either. Eventually, Temple's anaesthetic mediocrity wins out. Except for one key moment, racism never infects the Temple persona--she's the Teflon moppet. Said moment happens near the end of the film, when she sings "Dixie-Anna" onstage. She pauses and turns to Fetchit (in blackface) and asks, "Mr. Bowes, why is it a fireman wears red suspenders?"
"Well, I'll tell ya Miss [unintelligible], I don't know. Say, how come a fireman wear red suspenders?"
"Well, the reason a fireman wears red suspenders? To keep his pants up, I don't know," Temple says in Fetchit's voice while scratching her curly head. Then she flashes a seasoned-professional "ain't-we-havin'-fun" smile to the audience and goes on with her song. There you have it, folks: evidence that Shirley Temple is the Antichrist.
A Stepin Fetchit is exactly what Marilyn Agrelo's obnoxious pseudo-documentary Mad Hot Ballroom needs. Sort of a film version of a Benetton rainbow ad (the competitions are even named "Rainbow Team Matches"), Mad Hot Ballroom follows several "culturally diverse" public schools in New York City as they learn to ballroom dance and compete against one another in a city-wide competition.
I've railed elsewhere against documentary filmmakers holding "objectivity" as a golden ideal, but Agrelo's breed of subjectivity is neither pleasurable nor edifying. Her New York is the New York of Sesame Street, all sunny days sweepin' the clouds away on the way to where the air is sweet. Although we hear rumours of gangs and drunks and pedophiles, they're nowhere to be seen in the Marilyn Agrelo universe. Mad Hot Ballroom is as gooey and sweet as half-baked brownie batter and genuinely painful to watch, but what I find especially grating is that Agrelo's slick filmmaking approximates the style of big-budget Hollywood romcoms like Maid in Manhattan while retaining indie cred (and dare I say critical acceptance) by sheer virtue of its "documentary" classification. I admit that it takes talent to make a documentary that looks like a Jennifer Lopez movie, but that's not a talent worth cultivating.
Agrelo isn't shy when it comes to condescending to her subjects. One girl complains that the bad thing about being a girl is that you have to get pregnant. Another claims that "science has shown that girls are the more advanced civilization." Meanwhile, the boys discuss which girls are hot and whether or not gay marriage is wrong. ("The Bible says you can get married, it doesn't say who can get married.") In one especially cheap scene, the chubby Italian kid runs away after seeing how tall his partner is. The moment in the film I found the hardest to watch is an interview with the Jewish kid and the Muslim kid, both of whom are forced to dee-jay because their religions forbid dancing. "Everybody has been very nice to me, although I am...from another...country," the Muslim kid squeezes out. Finally, through the act of dee-jaying ballroom dancing, tensions between Muslim and Jew are no more.
The multiculturalism of Mad Hot Ballroom seems like the polar opposite of Dimples' white-dominant racism, yet in practice it's every bit as impenetrable. The schools are barely distinguishable from one another--they don't even have names but numbers, like "P.S. 150" and "P.S. 115." As a result, not only is there no dramatic tension, there are also no factions of ethnicity. New York's Jews, whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians no longer exist by themselves, they've been assimilated into one all-encompassing model. These students aren't "exposing themselves to new traditions and, in some cases, reconnecting with the cultures many left behind," as SLANT's Ed Gonzalez puts it--they're being indoctrinated into a single culture that happens to be a mutt of all cultures.
Minorities don't exist on the periphery in Mad Hot Ballroom, they're integrated completely into the mainstream. In Agrelo's utopian vision, there is no room for the outsiders: everybody and everything is melted into the same gooey pot. With Dimples we at least had the hope that the racist attitudes of the 1930s would expose Shirley Temple and destroy her; those bad feelings are completely neutralized in Mad Hot Ballroom. This is Shirley Temple purified and legitimized: slick, uncontroversial, and mind-numbing. The suffocating embodiment of bad pro-cultural art.
As they did with Curly Top, Fox gives us the option to watch Dimples in either the original black-and-white or in a computer-colorized version. The 1:33:1 b&w transfer is grainy and dark but shows only mild print damage. It can't be a good sign when the menu screen looks better than the actual film. I don't know what to say about the colorized version that hasn't been said already. If you prefer to watch the colorized version of a black-and-white movie you are a fucking retard and it's because of you that Fox spent the funds that could have gone into properly restoring the film on this lousy dye job. The colorization is high on orange, browns, and reds and it's unable to convey night scenes. Everything is swathed in perpetual daylight, helping to transform a not-very-good film into an atrocity. Audio is available in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and 2.0 stereo. Voices are clear but static is thick in the background--and though there's less of it on the mono track (which is a bit punchier as well), the two are otherwise virtually indistinguishable. There are no extras.
Paramount's issue of Mad Hot Ballroom is passable. If we're evaluating fidelity to the source print, I remember the theatrical presentation as looking brighter than this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer; reds are a little on the oversaturated side. The Dolby 2.0 Surround track is clean and free from distortion. Forced trailers for "The Oprah Winfrey 20th Anniversary Collection", No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, "Rugrats: Tales From the Crib-Snow White", The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and "Everybody Hates Chris" round out the disc, cuing up on startup. You may skip them by pressing your menu key. Originally published: March 17, 2006.
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