CAPTAIN JANUARY (1936)
**/**** Image B Sound A-
starring Shirley Temple, Guy Kibbee, Slim Summerville, Buddy Ebsen
screenplay by Sam Hellman, Gladys Lehman, Harry Tugend, based on the novel by Laura E. Richard
directed by David Butler
JUST AROUND THE CORNER (1938)
**/**** Image B- Sound C+
starring Shirley Temple, Joan Davis, Charles Farrell, Amanda Duff
screenplay by Ethel Hill and J.P. McEvoy and Darrell Ware
directed by Irving Cummings
SUSANNAH OF THE MOUNTIES (1939)
*/**** Image A Sound A-
starring Shirley Temple, Randolph Scott, Margaret Lockwood, Martin Good Rider
story by Robert Ellis, Helen Logan, based on the novel by Muriel Dennison
directed by Walter Lang and William A. Seiter
by Alex Jackson I'm thinking the common thread connecting Captain January, Just Around the Corner, and Susannah of the Mounties, the three films that comprise the fourth volume of Fox's Shirley Temple "America's Sweetheart Collection", is the sexualizing of child superstar Temple. There's progress: in Captain January, she's a sexual object; in Susannah of the Mounties, she's a sexual actor; and in Just Around the Corner, she's in transition between the two roles. I promise you, this isn't me projecting onto these blandly innocent children's movies with my filthy little mind, it's right there on the surface. In fact, even when you reflect that they are essentially dealing with child sexuality, all three films remain blandly innocent. They never get at anything that might be genuinely subversive. The Temple persona is so plastic and anaesthetic that adding sex to the mix seems merely a logical extension of her brand.
I probably need to explain myself here. When I say "sexualizing," I don't mean that the films are erotic escapades into Larry Clark territory. There is no real physical expression of lust, exactly; I say "sex" simply because I see the term as a bit more clinical than "romantic," but if you would prefer Temple is a romantic figure herein: Boys fall in love with her, she falls in love with them, and the rainbow of attendant emotions is explored. It was perhaps only a matter of time before something like this happened. The early Temple films had been painfully primitive--all she had to do was look cute and act like a precocious yet naïve little kid. If she didn't have something of substance to feed on she would inevitably run out of gas.
Temple's 1935 film Curly Top features a bizarre scene where her prospective adoptive father keeps seeing her visage in paintings around his house, including Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy". Scenes like this de-sexualized Temple by making the man's obsession mere oddball absurdity. A similar kind of obsession crops up in 1936's Captain January, but as there is nothing quite as affected in it, the de-sexualization process is never initiated and the film has an unrefined strangeness to it. Captain January (Guy Kibbee) is a lighthouse keeper who has raised Star (Temple) from a baby, ever since her parents died at sea. The main business of the film involves him trying to retain custody of Star after a mean truant officer (Sara Haden) shows up intent on sending her to boarding school. But then there's a subplot (I guess you could call it a subplot) whereby Captain January competes with Captain Nazro (Slim Summerville) for Star's affections as though she were Cameron Diaz in There's Something About Mary. Of course, Star is either ignorant of or ambivalent towards this conflict. I suppose if she were remotely cognizant of her power over these men, she wouldn't be so irresistibly loveable.
As this love triangle seems to stem directly from Temple's screen persona as the world's most wonderful child, it never becomes so confrontational as to be "creepy," settling instead on merely "strange." Looking over my notes, I'm reminded of a fantasy sequence (whose fantasy, I'm not quite sure) where Temple is a miniature nun attempting to feed a giant baby played by Kibbee. I was about to say that the scene is inexplicable, but it's perfectly explicable: it lucidly illustrates the power dynamic between the two characters. Star takes care of the Captain rather than the other way around; as she is played by the perpetually sunny Shirley Temple, it's a given that any sign of vulnerability would be limited to her caretaker.
In the final analysis, Captain January is just another Shirley Temple movie. Better than average, I suppose, though the idea of grading this stuff on a curve is too depressing a prospect to entertain. It is what it is and what it is ain't much. I'll begrudgingly admit that the idea of putting Temple among fishermen on the Atlantic coast was somewhat inspired. Guy Kibbee is particularly good at playing macho and sensitive without having the one cancel the other out. He's neither corny nor cartoonish and he provides the film a solid human core. And I will concede that the movie's populist sentiments are novel for Temple's oeuvre and not particularly heavy-handed. Star's surviving relatives are discovered and they're filthy rich, but unlike in Curly Top (where a wealthy benefactor saves Temple from a life of poverty), she ends up missing her simple life with the Captain, paving the way for a mildly ridiculous if utterly predictable deus ex machina ending.
For a while, anyway, 1938's Just Around the Corner promises to introduce a satirical edge to the class divide. Temple plays Penny, the daughter of Jeff Hale (Charles Farrell), a real estate developer who has fallen on hard times and can no longer afford the tuition for Penny's boarding school. Penny comes home to their hotel only to realize they no longer live in the penthouse but are instead staying in the basement now that Dad works as a janitor. That's OK, though, as it enables her to spend more time with her hotel pals, maid Kitty (Joan Davis) and doorman Corporal Jones (Bill "Bojangles" Robinson). She also befriends the wealthy Milton Ramsey (Benny Bartlett), who lives in her old penthouse and is coddled by his blueblood parents. He develops a crush on Penny as she teaches him how to be tough and get along with the street kids.
Milton's great uncle Samuel G. Henshaw was Jeff's employer until Jeff lost him ten million dollars on a visionary project. Later, when trying to explain the Great Depression to his daughter, Jeff shows her a political cartoon depicting several different interest groups tugging at "Uncle Sam," who does everything he can without it ever being enough. Naturally, Penny assumes the "Uncle Sam" in question is Milton's uncle Sam. She seizes the opportunity to stage a musical show, with the proceeds going to help out Henshaw--a reasonable idea that utterly humiliates the multi-millionaire.
That's a pretty funny idea, but it's about the extent of the film's provocation. Just Around the Corner is incredibly non-threatening, bending over backwards to avoid anything resembling Marxist thought. Much like Temple's The Little Princess, it's saying there's nothing wrong with the existing social order--rich people simply need to be nicer and more charitable to poor people. But while The Little Princess hinted at the drudgery that is life at the bottom, Just Around the Corner more or less romanticizes it. It says there's honour and happiness to be found working as a doorman or a maid (they are very happy, musical people). I can't honestly say which perspective is preferable, though it bears mentioning that intrinsic to this narrative is the implication that Jeff will get his old job back and won't learn to love being a janitor. So when they talk about accepting and loving your social position, the film is really talking about people other than the protagonists.
Just Around the Corner sees Temple somewhat unofficially entering the realm of screwball comedy. Going down the checklist, we have a plot revolving around mistaken identity, some light slapstick involving the hotel manager getting pushed into a swimming pool, free spirit Penny teaching the prissy Milton to cut loose, and of course a constant ribbing in general of the idle upper class. The genre underpinnings make Just Around the Corner feel meatier, slicker, and more sophisticated than the usual product. Yet the overtly politicized topical content exposes the film's cowardice as sociology. Most bona fide screwball comedies are smart enough to be broad.
Perhaps most significantly, Penny never appears to acknowledge that Milton has a crush on her, much less return his affections. Apparently, the filmmakers don't want to compromise Temple's invulnerability by having her do something like fall in love. The lack of bi-directional synergy leaves Just Around the Corner with a hollow core. It's a transitional piece. Temple's presence in the film suggests that she's ready to do something with a bit more substance but the filmmakers are not.
In 1939's Susannah of the Mounties, Temple finally evolves from passive sexual object to three-dimensional sexual actor. It's her most mature film and, strangely, her dullest. She actually plays somebody other than herself here and is required to do something aside from look cute and keep her chin up. Alas, the results are generic and forgettable. It's not a Shirley Temple film and it's not really anything else, either. I suppose I was hoping for a union between the Temple screen persona and some of the rudimentary human vulnerability we saw in The Little Princess and The Blue Bird. Susannah of the Mounties is progress compared to Captain January and Just Around the Corner, but it can hardly be considered an improvement.
Temple plays Susannah Sheldon, an orphan adopted by Canadian Mounties after her family is killed in an Indian attack. She develops a crush on her guardian, Inspector "Monty" Montague (Randolph Scott), but this time he's the one who's clueless about the crush. Montague is more interested in the superintendent's daughter, Vicky Standing (Margaret Lockwood), and spends much of the film trying to court her. Where previously, Temple would have encouraged the romance, here she is quaking with jealousy.
Meanwhile, Blackfeet Chief Big Eagle (Maurice Moscovitch) meets with the Mounties and agrees to round up the aforementioned attackers and deliver them to the authorities. In a gesture of goodwill, he leaves behind collateral in the form of his son, Little Chief (Martin Good Rider). Little Chief pals around with Susannah, and although they get off on a rocky start (she's frustrated by his non-verbal nature and rude treatment of women), they eventually become good friends and share a peace pipe. When the villainous Wolf Pelt (Victor Jory) creates bad blood among the whites and the Indians by stealing some horses and trying to sell them back, it's up to Susannah and Little Chief and their example of interracial harmony to save the day.
From a modern perspective, the film has a couple moments of unintentional hilarity. I sort of enjoyed the way Victory Jory manages to sound like Tony Curtis and the way Little Chief constantly calls Susannah "squaw."* Such pleasures are fleeting, though. Indeed, throughout most of Susannah of the Mounties, I found myself missing the old Shirley Temple. Undeniably, this is one of Temple's most complex roles. We see in her an emotional vulnerability that was all but absent from her earlier work. To think that she's conscious of being in love and then rejected! The end result, however, is unbearably generic. Without singing, dancing, or fantasy sequences with overgrown infants, the film doesn't have any of the weirdness that made the earlier Temple vehicles borderline interesting. It's Shirley Temple on meds. If Susannah of the Mounties proves anything, it might be that we needed more depth from Shirley Temple the film star, not Shirley Temple the actress.
Captain January's 1.33:1 full-frame transfer is sharp but sadly utilizes a worn source print. Whites, too, betray a bit too much grain. The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound fares much better; dialogue and music are virtually free of distortion or deterioration. The Just Around the Corner disc ranks a notch below that of Captain January: the elements are in worse condition and the transfer lacks luminance. The DD 2.0 audio could use a lot more juice as well. The audio-visual presentation of Susannah of the Mounties is the best of the lot, not to mention the best of any of the "America's Sweetheart Collection" titles I've screened to date. Contrast is excellent--blacks are deep and whites are virginal white--and age-related artifacts are minimal. The accompanying DD 2.0 audio is merely functional, but it sounds clean enough to match the image in quality.
As with the majority of the films in the "America's Sweetheart Collection", all three DVDs come with mono tracks indistinguishable from the stereo defaults in addition to colorized viewing options. I'll begrudgingly admit that the colorization process is mildly successful on Captain January and covers up a lot of the defects in its source print, and even though the process makes Just Around the Corner and Susannah of the Mounties look more dated and garish, it's no hack job. In researching these discs and VCI's release of 1951's A Christmas Carol, I discovered that people are warming up to colorization. Speaking for myself, I'm going to have to hold out and object to the practice on sheer principle. Extras on the set are virtually non-existent: Captain January features a meaningless 40-second Movietone News clip wherein Temple dedicates a stage to Will Rogers; and Susannah of the Mounties has a one-minute clip from "Hollywood Spotlight with Jimmie Fiddler" in which Temple accepts and plays with a pony-driven cart. A trailer for Susannah of the Mounties rounds out each platter. Originally published: February 12, 2008.
*"The Straight Dope"'s Cecil Adams has regrettably confirmed that "squaw" doesn't mean "whore" (having been derived from the French corruption of the Iroquois word "otsiskwa," meaning "vagina"), but more accurately means something akin to "negress" (i.e., an archaic term, now offensive, used to describe an African-American woman). return