Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bright Eyes (Fox Film Corporation, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a movie together for the first time in a week and a half — until then our schedule had been pretty much eaten up by the Winter Olympics and a few other TV shows — and gave a long-delayed envoi to Shirley Temple two weeks after her death with her 1934 film Bright Eyes, her seventh and last movie that year. I had actually recorded Bright Eyes on a TCM tribute to the other child star in the film, Jane Withers, who — ironically enough, given the bitter rivalry between their characters here — was two years older than Temple and has outlived her (as of this writing Withers is still alive). Bright Eyes is one of those crazy portmanteau movies from the 1930’s in which the writers — David Butler (who also directed) and Edwin J. Burke, story; and William Conselman, script — seemed bound and determined to put in just about every element they thought would appeal to someone in the audience in the hope that every moviegoer would find something in the movie they would like. It begins as an aviation drama, with daredevil pilot James “Loop” Merritt (James Dunn, who played Shirley Temple’s father — or, as here, her surrogate father — so often there were probably moviegoers in the 1930’s who thought he really was Temple’s dad) doing a spectacular stunt flight and then getting ready to land. He’s anxious that Shirley Blake (Shirley Temple) be at the airport to greet him when he touches down — she always is — and the first shot we see of Our Shirley in this movie she’s dressed in a miniature version of a flight suit and is hitchhiking down a country road to the airport. She turns down the offer of a truck driver because she says he won’t be able to get her there in time, and then a car pulls up and picks her up.

It belongs to the circle of pilots that fly out of that particular airport and who have essentially adopted Shirley as a mascot. Indeed, one of the hangers-on at the airport sees Shirley looking so butch in her outfit he addresses her as a “little boy,” and of course Shirley fires back, “I’m a little girl.” (Shirley Temple, Transgender heroine.) Shirley’s dad is dead — he was Loop’s best friend until he, you guessed it, was killed in a plane crash — and her mom Mary (Lois Wilson) works as a maid for the wealthy and insufferably stuck-up couple J. Wellington Smythe (Theodore von Eltz) and his wife Anita (Dorothy Christy). We know they’re stuck-up when the Smythe phone rings and Anita gets furious with Mary for not answering it, even though Anita was right next to the phone when it rang and Mary was off across the house. As if this bizarre meeting of an aviation movie and Upstairs/Downstairs wasn’t enough plot for you, Mary has got special dispensation from Anita Smythe to let Shirley live with her at the Smythe mansion, a plot gimmick which according to an imdb.com “trivia” poster came from David Butler’s own childhood: his parents advertised for a live-in maid and the woman they hired was from Scotland, either widowed, divorced or separated from her husband, and insisted that her eight-year-old daughter be allowed to live in the servants’ quarters at the Butler home. Doubtless Mrs. Butler was considerably nicer about it than Mrs. Smythe is in the movie; she goes on and on and on about how much she resents having that cute little maid’s kid around — and her husband’s even worse about it. The only reason they don’t just fire Mary and make her and Shirley leave is that the Smythes’ uncle, Ned Smith (Charles Sellon) — one of the few 1930’s movie characters that actually needs the wheelchair we see him in on screen (usually when you saw a character in a chair back then he was merely faking a disability) — has taken a shine to Shirley, and the Smythes are counting on a major inheritance from their uncle to keep living in the style to which they have become accustomed.

The Smythes also have a daughter of their own, thoroughly spoiled shit-brat Joy (Jane Withers) — and the confrontations between Joy and Shirley are by far the best parts of this movie. Withers plays Joy as if she’d decided she wanted to be Bette Davis when she grew up, and for once the sugary sweetness of Shirley Temple has some salt and vinegar to play against. Withers gave an interview to film historian and critic Marjorie Rosen in the 1970’s in which she recalled that Fox had held an open audition for the part of Joy, and every other girl who tried out had been carefully coached by her parents to act nice, cute and sweet and try to out-Shirley Temple Shirley Temple. Withers’ parents were savvier; they realized that if Fox wanted another girl Shirley Temple’s age for a Temple movie, they were obviously looking for a bad girl to play against Temple’s good girl — so they coached Withers to play bad, and she got the part. One story is that Butler decided to cast her when she did a machine-gun impression as part of her test — and that turned into one of the film’s best scenes, when her exasperated parents offer to give her anything she wants, and she excitedly bellows, “A machine-gun!,” and goes around the room pantomiming shooting everyone with one and making the appropriate noises. Midway through the film Shirley’s mother Mary (once again, in the early days of the Production Code, the studios were sucking up to the Jesuits who enforced it by naming a woman who was the acme of innocence after the Virgin Mother!) gets run over by a car, ironically as she was on her way to the airport to join the aviators for a birthday party they were giving for Shirley, which involved making her the guest of honor inside a plane and taxi it around the runway while she sings the song that became her signature, “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” (Temple didn’t get to record it commercially — Fox was against allowing their stars to make records on the ground that if people could hear their stars’ voices on record, they wouldn’t spend the extra money to see them on screen — but a New World Records compilation of 1930’s pop songs included her version from the film, albeit without the song’s charming verse.)

Naturally Shirley wants to live at the airport with Loop, who now that her mom is dead is about the only adult who genuinely cares for her and loves her enough to be a suitable parent ­— but Loop says she can’t have a decent life living at an airport with a pilot who’s broke all the time. Instead he sends her off to live with the Smythes. Further complicating issues is that Loop’s former girlfriend, a society woman named Adele Martin (Judith Allen) who dated him several years earlier but jilted him when he asked her to marry him, is a house guest at the Smythes’ place — supposedly she’s a relative of the family but it’s not especially clear how — and if that weren’t enough plot for you, Ned Smith decides that he wants custody of Shirley and hires a platoon of lawyers to fight both the Smythes and Loop in court. Desperate for money to hire a lawyer of his own, Loop agrees to fly an important piece of mail to New York City for $1,000 despite the weather conditions being so bad no one else is willing to fly at all — and Shirley stows in the plane, leaving Loop freaked out that he’ll be arrested for kidnapping as soon as he lands. Only that doesn’t happen because Loop spots a gas leak in the plane and he and Shirley bail out, barely stopping their parachute from going over a cliff — according to imdb.com, that last heart-stopping scene wasn’t planned, but happened by accident when someone opened the soundstage door while they were shooting, the wind being generated by the wind machines changed direction and it nearly blew Dunn and Temple off the papier-maché cliff that was supposedly endangering them. They’re rescued, and this sets up a courtroom finale in which the judge awards custody of Shirley to Loop … and Ned … and Adele Martin, who has finally agreed to marry Loop so Shirley will have both a mom and dad at home even though both her biological parents are dead.

What’s most interesting about Bright Eyes is the film’s surprisingly clear-cut class consciousness — it’s relentlessly clear from this film that the bad guys are the ones with money and the good guys are either the ones without it or the ones like Adele and Ned who are able to come down off their high horses and help Shirley — and also the incredible precocity of Temple’s acting. Aided by some strong stiff-upper-lip writing, Temple handles her biggest emotional scene — when she has to react to her mother’s death — with some of the most extraordinarily honed acting of the period; it’s hard to imagine an adult actress of the period (even my all-time fave, Barbara Stanwyck) who could have played it that well. Though the film piles plot device on plot device so relentlessly one wonders what mind-altering substances the writers were on, Bright Eyes works surprisingly well as entertainment, with the fabled Temple cuteness held more or less in check by the melodramatic story aspects and also by Withers’ presence (when her mom finally slaps her on screen at the end, we want to go, “Hallelujah! About time!”). About the only thing I could think of that would have improved it would have been a stronger actor as Loop — and though both conflicting contracts and star standing would have prevented it, I knew exactly whom it should have been: James Cagney. Or maybe Humphrey Bogart: had Fox seen his remarkable performance in John Ford’s 1930 film Up the River and realized what an incredible talent they had in him, his career trajectory would have been quite different, though probably equally illustrious. James Dunn is a perfectly acceptable actor, and he’s O.K. at delivering the main conflict of his character — between his love for Shirley and his acknowledgment that his roughneck lifestyle makes him less than a perfect parent for her — but there were other people in Hollywood then who could have done it better.