Monday, March 10, 2014

The Little Princess (20th Century-Fox, 1939)

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

Last night I turned on TCM for one of the films in their all-day (well, 15 hours, anyway) tribute to the late Shirley Temple: The Little Princess. This much-filmed story began life in 1888 as a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett called Sara Crewe: Or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s. In 1902 she did a stage adaptation called The Little Princess when it debuted in London and A Little Princess when it had its U.S. premiere in New York the following year. In order to flesh out her story as a stage piece she had added new incidents that hadn’t been in her original novel, and playgoers who bought her book afterwards were disappointed that scenes they had remembered from the play weren’t in the novel. So, at the behest of her publisher, she put out a revised version of the book in 1905 called A Little Princess: Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe. The story was first filmed as a silent in 1917, then remade in 1939 as a Temple vehicle (just as she was just about to descend from the heights of superstardom that had made her the number one box-office star four years in a row, 1935 to 1938), done again in 1943 as Principessina, then revived in the 1970’s and 1980’s for TV series by the BBC and finally remade as a feature film, A Little Princess, in 1995 — though the publicity for that version credited Burnett’s novel as the source but left out that it was a remake of a Shirley Temple movie. The Little Princess — the 1939 version — was also the first film Shirley Temple made in color, and indeed was the first Technicolor film ever to star a child, for an interesting technical reason: up until then the Technicolor company had insisted that one thousand foot-candle lights were needed for an adequate exposure on their film. One thousand foot-candle lights were not only incredibly bright (often actors performing under them would wear sunglasses during camera rehearsals and take them off only during actual shooting) but also dangerously hot, and the consensus around the Fox lot was that a child simply couldn’t withstand that punishing heat. So cinematographer Arthur C. Miller rather gingerly approached the tech people at Technicolor and asked for permission to shoot a series of color tests at lower levels of light to prove to them that he could shoot Technicolor with less light and therefore make a color film with Temple without baking her to death. He got results at 400 and 500 foot-candles that Technicolor declared acceptable, and so The Little Princess got green-lighted as a color film.

Ironically, The Little Princess eventually slipped into the public domain when Fox failed to renew the copyright (back when that still could happen), with the result that when video and later DVD came in the market was flooded with cheap copies from worn and faded prints — and for some reason a few Temple fans came to the conclusion that the film had originally been in black-and-white and been crudely colorized along with some of Temple’s previous films (I remember seeing a clip of a colorized Temple movie in the 1980’s and the colorization was so wretched it looked like Temple had jaundice). Someone started a message board to that effect on and got several responses, including a particularly fascinating one from Sybil Jason, a child actor who’d been in the movie and vividly recalled that yes, damnit, it was in color originally! Oddly, the version TCM was showing did not seem to be restored in any way — usually TCM is conscientious about getting the best available print of everything they show, but sometimes they slip — like one of the versions referenced on that message board, it begins with the black-and-white version of the Technicolor logo, and though the film is quite clearly in color, and much of the color has the vividness, vibrancy and brightness we associate with three-strip Technicolor, quite a few scenes look almost black-and-white and others are sepia-toned. I’m not sure whether this was part of the original color design or a happenstance of fading, but I’m inclined to believe the former because the fluctuating color values seem to mirror the story quite closely; objects that are supposed to be neon-bright — like the toucan that figures prominently in a couple of scenes — look right, Temple’s spectacular dream sequence is a riot of beautifully finished pastels, but sets like the Dickensian attic into which she’s confined at Miss Amanda Minchin’s (Mary Nash, in a superb villainess performance rivaling Margaret Hamilton’s in The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms) look like almost pure black-and-white.

The plot of The Little Princess concerns 10-year-old Sara Crewe (Shirley Temple) and her father, Captain Reginald Crewe (Ian Hunter) of the British army, in the year 1899. Sara was born in India and has lived there all her life — until now, when her dad has briefly been recalled to England for redeployment to South Africa to fight the Boers. “Why are they sending so many soldiers, daddy, if it’s only going to be a little war?,” Sara rather sensibly asks her dad as they watch the parade of embarking soldiers together in the opening scene. “To make those stubborn Boers take us seriously this time, my darling,” he replies. “When they realize Her Majesty intends to put a stop to their nonsense, they’ll quiet down.” No doubt these references to soldiers embarking on a supposedly quick war that’s going to turn into a quagmire resonated to audiences, many of whom would have been old enough to remember the similar assurances at the start of World War I and were looking anxiously over their shoulders — this movie was, after all, released less than six months before the start of World War II. Captain Crewe has decided to put Sara in Miss Minchin’s boarding school for the duration of the conflict, and at first the officious Miss Minchin and her more charming and considerably less authoritarian brother Bertie (Arthur Treacher) — who reminds Captain Crewe of a music-hall performer he once saw — turn her down. But when Captain Crewe tells them he owns a fortune in South African diamond mines, they eagerly accept her. At school she gets the full little-princess treatment — getting the coveted position sitting to the right of Miss Minchin in the dining room, and being allowed to keep the personal pony and lavish belongings, including a fancy doll, her dad leaves her — until her dad is reported first missing and then killed at the siege of Mafeking. At the lavish birthday party she’d thrown for Sara in the belief that her dad would send the money to pay for it, Miss Minchin learns not only that Captain Crewe is dead but the Boers confiscated all his South African properties and therefore he died broke. (If he had served so long in India, wouldn’t a lot of his investments have been there, beyond the reach of the Boers?) So she abruptly halts the party, insists that all the gifts (both the ones Sara got for the other students and the ones Sara received herself) be returned and resold, and exiles Sara to that Dickensian attic. At first she’s ready to throw Sara out of school altogether until Bertie (who really was a music-hall performer, which gives Arthur Treacher a chance to do a couple of mini-numbers with Temple) says that would be bad for the school’s image, so Miss Minchin relents but insists that Sara live in the worst room in the place and do chores to earn her education.

The other kids turn against Sara and give her what they consider a well-deserved comeuppance — Lavinia (Marcia Mae Jones), whom Sara aced out of that coveted dining spot next to the headmistress, is particularly brutal towards her (so much so that the real Marcia Mae Jones got threatening letters from Temple fans, essentially saying, “How can you be so mean to Shirley Temple when she was so nice to you in Heidi?”) — and her only remaining friends are Becky (Sybil Jason, in a restrained and quite touching performance that comes close to stealing the movie from Temple — odd from a child actress who three years earlier had been promoted by Warner Bros. as their attempt to create their own Temple!), a lame girl who’s a servant of the Minchins and their even more fearsome kitchen staff (the head cook is even meaner to Sara than Miss Minchin is!); and two of the teachers, riding coach Geoffrey Hamilton (Richard Greene, back when Darryl F. Zanuck was grooming him as a backup to Tyrone Power) and his girlfriend, later his wife, Rose (Anita Louise), who have to sneak around and meet each other clandestinely because Miss Minchin would fire them both summarily if she learned they were dating. Whenever she can get away, Sara visits the local hospital for the wounded war veterans, hoping that her daddy is still alive — and in the end it turns out her daddy is still alive, but delirious, having lost any memory of who he is except that he keeps calling out, “Sara … Sara,” to the utter mystification of the hospital staff, who have no idea who that is. (Wouldn’t someone have made the connection between him calling out “Sara” and the little girl who keeps visiting the hospital? Like the mistaken-identity gimmick in the Astaire-Rogers Top Hat, the misunderstanding would end as soon as anyone involved called anyone else by name.) Sara has one other friend in the dramatis personae: Ram Dass (César Romero), Hindustani manservant of Lord Wickham (Miles Mander), who lives next door to the school; Ram Dass keeps the pet toucan that flies into Sara’s room, giving them a meet-cute, and is astonished that the little white girl speaks his native language. Wickham, who is Geoffrey Hamilton’s grandfather, at first threatens to disown him if he keeps working at the school; then, when Geoffrey quits to join the volunteers preparing to deploy to South Africa to relieve the siege of Mafeking, Wickham relents, reconciles with his son and ends up on Sara’s side.

In a dream sequence that represents the closest thing to a big Shirley Temple Musical Number in the film, the put-upon girl, deliberately deprived of both food and fuel for her room’s teeny fireplace, imagines herself a queen and Miss Minchin as a wicked witch who has unfairly accused Geoffrey of stealing a kiss from Rose; she absolves him, of course, and one Shirley Temple watches from the throne as another Shirley Temple joins a troupe of ballet dancers — and proves that, as precociously talented as the real Temple was, there was something she couldn’t do: the adults in the ballet corps are clearly out-dancing her and the extraordinary agility with which she did pop dancing in her earlier films (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson said she was the best student he ever worked with — he only needed to demonstrate a routine once and she would pick it up immediately — even higher praise when you realize he also taught Sammy Davis, Jr.!) deserts her when she tries ballet. When she wakes up from her dream, with Becky in the room with her, she finds that fine clothes and foods have been laid out for her, there’s a beautiful embroidered cover on her bed, and the fireplace has fuel and a fire going on inside it — all goodies provided by Grandpa Wickham and his servant Ram Dass, but needless to say Miss Minchin insists Sara must have stolen it all, and she flees the school with a police officer (who, luckily, is so inept we might call him the Keystone Bobby) summoned by Miss Minchin pursuing her. The last 20 minutes contain a marvelous suspense sequence, well directed by Walter Lang, as we wonder, “Will Sara reunite with her dad before she’s arrested and/or he’s shipped off to Edinburgh for the super-operation that’s supposed to cure his amnesia?” I had thought it would end with Captain Crewe really being dead (which, according to various posters, is actually how Frances Hodgson Burnett ended the story) and Geoffrey and Rose freeing Sara from Miss Minchin’s clutches by adopting her; but the ending we get is stunning even if it goes so far over-the-top in tear-jerkiness the writers (Ethel Hill and Walter Ferris) literally drag in Queen Victoria herself (played by Beryl Mercer) as a deus ex machina to bring Sara and her dad back together.

What’s most interesting about The Little Princess is the absolute conviction with which this material is played by one and all — writers Hill and Ferris, director Lang and the cast — to the extent that the film is an emotional wrench which moves you to tears (it moves me to tears, anyway) even while you’re aware that the whole point of everyone’s efforts is to move you to tears. Shirley Temple’s acting is at times as rancidly sweet as the collective memory of her — either in her attempts at a young-adult movie career or in her later life, especially in her dips back into the public eye as a Congressional candidate in the 1960’s and a U.S. ambassador in the 1970’s, no one was able to see beyond the cute little girl who sang “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in Bright Eyes and danced on the staircase with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in The Littlest Rebel (yet another bitter fruit of Hollywood’s bizarre infatuation with the South and its perspective on the Civil War!) — while at other times it displays absolute conviction, and this time around her writers write the tug-of-war between her skills as an actress and the tears her audiences wanted to see her shed into the script. At the beginning of the movie we see her dad tell her to be “a good little soldier” and not to cry, no matter how miserable things get for her, and this becomes a running motif throughout the film as Temple fights to hold back the tears until they get the better of her. The Little Princess was also made at an odd juncture in Temple’s career — the beginning of the end of her child superstardom and the dawn of the 1940’s, the most troubled decade in Temple’s life, which began with her losing her 20th Century-Fox contract after the failure of two movies that were supposed to reposition her as the next Judy Garland: an adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s children’s fantasy The Blue Bird that was supposed to compete with The Wizard of Oz, and a film called Young People that was supposed to be Fox’s answer to Babes in Arms and all the other sensational successes Mickey Rooney had had at MGM (and indeed when Temple finally fell off the top of the perch as the film industry’s biggest box office attractions in 1939, it was Rooney who replaced her!).

Indeed, one might almost see The Little Princess as Darryl Zanuck’s pre-emptive strike against The Wizard of Oz, a threat he knew (or should have known) what was coming ever since his deal to loan Temple to MGM for Wizard in exchange for Clark Gable and Jean Harlow for In Old Chicago fell threw after Harlow’s death. Zanuck had gone ahead and made In Old Chicago with his own people — Tyrone Power in Gable’s role and Alice Faye’s in Harlow’s — and had had both a critically acclaimed movie and a blockbuster box-office hit. The problem was that MGM was going ahead with Wizard with its own people, too — and while Wizard, with its enormous production costs and two scrapped, aborted versions (with Richard Thorpe and George Cukor directing) before the final one with Victor Fleming (and an uncredited King Vidor, the film’s fourth director, shooting the Kansas scenes after Fleming was called away to take over from Cukor on Gone With the Wind) was finished and released, didn’t turn a profit until MGM sold TV rights to CBS for the first of 39 annual TV screenings that became a holiday tradition, it did establish Judy Garland (tremulous, emotional, edgy instead of cute and five years older than Temple) as the new female child star in Hollywood. The dream sequence in The Little Princess seems almost to be a template for The Wizard of Oz, what with its royal court, its stylized characters and even the appearance of Temple’s tormentor in the “realistic” part of the film as literally a wicked witch — and of course the bulk of Wizard was written to be Dorothy’s dream (which it was not in L. Frank Baum’s source novel — and, indeed, the marvelous 1985 sequel Return to Oz directly answered generations of audiences’ qualms about that cop-out with that film’s Dorothy, Fairuza Balk, determined to prove to Uncle Henry, Auntie Em and all and sundry that Oz was an actual place and she had really gone there, ultimately finding a key that was a souvenir she brought back from Oz). It’s as if Darryl Zanuck was saying, “Our Shirley can do a dream sequence set in a fantasy kingdom at least as well as that other girl — oh, what’s her name?” — and his desire to keep up with the Garlands went into hyper-drive with The Blue Bird, made shortly after The Little Princess (only one Temple movie, Susannah of the Mounties, intervened), in which Temple started her pilgrimage in search of the Bluebird of Happiness on — you guessed it — a yellow brick road.