Shirley Temple may have been the star of "The Little Colonel," but it was a 57-year-old man who stole Shirley's thunder.
Released in 1935 at the height of Temple's fame, "The Little Colonel" is best remembered today as that one movie where Shirley dances on the steps with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. And for good reason - the dance is one of the finest musical moments in film history. The scene is quite simple, with Robinson tapping his way up and down a staircase, providing his own music by making a trumpet sound with his mouth while his feet keep the time. It's a routine Robinson had perfected on the stage years before, and now he introduces it to movie audiences in grand fashion. After a delightful solo run, Shirley joins in, the six-year-old keeping in perfect rhythm with her elder partner. The joys of the scene are simple, but overwhelming. It is impossible to watch this scene without cracking a smile. You might even whisper a "wow" or two.
It is also a scene that belongs in a better movie. "The Little Colonel" is just fine, some brilliant moments mixed with some average ones, all glued together by typical Shirley-Temple-movie family melodrama (and some embarrassing 1935 racism - more on that later). But Robinson elevates the picture with a grace and wit that reminds us all how much he was wasted throughout his film career, stuck mostly in side roles (here he plays a butler) that would only provide us with a taste of his abilities. Fortunately, Fox knew a good partnership when they saw one, and would later bring Robinson back to accompany Temple in three more movies.
"The Little Colonel" is adapted from the novel of the same name by Anne Fellows Johnston, which I have not read but would assume that it didn't have as much singing and dancing as the movie version. We open in Kentucky, the 1870s, with the bitter Colonel Lloyd (Lionel Barrymore) angered that his daughter Elizabeth (Evelyn Venable) is marrying a Yankee, Jack Sherman (a pre-politics John Lodge), a man who, for all the Colonel knows, might have been the soldier that killed his sons during the Civil War. Skip ahead six years, with Jack and Elizabeth having lived at a military outpost - a place where their daughter, Lloyd (Temple), has won over the hearts of the men, so much that they grant her with an honorary Colonelship. It's an excuse for Temple to go on cutesy overload throughout the picture, bossing around the soldiers, leading other children in a march, feigning an expertise in warfare, etc.
When Jack heads west in search of gold, Elizabeth and Lloyd head back to Kentucky, taking up residence in a cottage nearby the Colonel's estate. What follows, then, is the story of little Lloyd slowly winning over the Colonel's heart in typical Shirley Temple fashion.
Barrymore adds a certain something to the picture that makes this one of the better Shirley Temple films; he is trapped in cheap melodrama, yet he expertly handles the material, finding ways to make it actually work. His delicate performance as the bitter old fool actually works, bringing an emotional depth that doesn't feel as manipulative as it actually is. And Temple matches him note for note in some spots, such as the chess game between the two that turns into an explosion of stubbornness and animosity - and in doing so, provides a heft to the characters that's often missing in these lightweight films.
Some credit belongs to screenwriter William M. Conselman, who cleverly mixes sly comedy with the drama. That chess scene has some wickedly clever dialogue (upon hearing she will play the Yankee side, Lloyd cries: "Oh, goodie! I'm on the winning side already!"), while a running gag involving Lloyd's affinity for color-themed stories (everything in them must be pink, or green, or blue) leads to a few snarky comments from Hattie McDaniel and, later, Barrymore himself, both jokes bound to go over the heads of any young viewers, both jokes being particularly funny. This may be a typical studio programmer, but Conselman infuses enough smart humor into the mix that the film never falls into being just ordinary.
Director David Butler also adds some nice touches. His handling of the dance sequences are noteworthy enough, but he also brings a certain something to the more standard scenes as well. Watch Shirley's introduction: the door opens, a smiling Temple walks out onto the porch, and the camera slowly tracks in on the star as if to say, "sit up, here she is!" Butler obviously understood the popularity of Temple, and with the script not including her in the story until several minutes in, he also understood that her eventual arrival could make for one grand entrance indeed. It's a brilliant shot.
Of course, we cannot discuss this film without discussing its racism. It is admirable that the filmmakers felt it important to allow Temple's character to befriend black children, and to allow her to treat the Robinson and McDaniel characters with a bit of colorblindness. But then we see that one of the black kids is frequently munching on a watermelon (!), and then we get a comic routine where Robinson and McDaniel "humorously" combine poor grammar and poorer spelling ("food" is "F-U-D-E," "poor house" becomes "P-O H-O-S," etc.), and let's not forget the playful bit in which the movie seems to mock in-the-river baptisms, or the scene in which the Colonel yells at the black kids, calling them "pickaninnies." You could argue that the "pickaninny" comment is just a sign of how much of a jackass the Colonel is, and you could argue that the baptism bit is just a sign of three kids clowning around, no harm meant, and you could argue that black servants living in the post-war South probably wouldn't be expert spellers. But still, it's obvious that the played-for-laughs stereotype bits have a bit of unintended cruelty to them that heavily dates the film. (I mean, watermelon? Come on.)
It's just enough to mar the film - although the grace and charm of Robinson on those steps helps counterbalance such prejudices, just as the actor probably hoped it would. "The Little Colonel" is a very good film from a very ignorant era. Dig past the regrettable signs of the time, and you will find a sparkling entertainment.
Fox is releasing "The Little Colonel" as part of its third wave of the "Shirley Temple Movie Collection." It is available by itself or in a box with "The Littlest Rebel" and "Dimples." This marks the first time the film has been available on DVD.
As per usual with Fox's Temple library, little effort (if any at all) has been made in properly restoring the film image. As such, the picture (presented here in its original 1.33:1 format) is soft and grainy throughout. It's quite watchable, bright with very little noticeable edge enhancement, but considering how wonderful other studios have gotten films of similar age to look on DVD, Fox's transfers are nothing but a disappointment.
Once again, Fox offers "The Little Colonel" in a colorized version courtesy of color house Legend Films. It's the usual better-than-we're-used-to-with-colorizing-but-still-highly-unimpressive job Legend always puts out. (While Legend claims to do massive clean-up work on their titles, the color version of this title still looked pretty grainy. Go figure.)
Most curious about this colorizing job is that the original black-and-white film ends with a Technicolor finale, sort of a "now that everybody's happy, life is in color!" capper to the story. Colorizing the entire movie, then, removes the sense of wonder this ending provides. It's kinda like colorizing the Kansas scenes in "The Wizard of Oz." If any title could provide a solid reason why colorizing is useless, "The Little Colonel" is it.
Both the original 1.0 mono and 2.0 stereo soundtracks have been restored quite nicely. There's very little hiss, and both dialogue and music come in with solid clarity. The scratchy, hissy Spanish mono soundtrack, meanwhile, sounds like it hasn't been upgraded since its creation 70 years ago. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Once again, Fox drops the ball, offering next to nothing in the form of bonus material. We get the same trailers for "Heidi" and "Little Miss Broadway" that come with "Dimples" and "The Littlest Rebel." (Again, no trailer for the feature itself? Huh.)
The only other extra is a Fox Movietone newsreel snippet showing footage of Shirley's seventh birthday party.
The disc starts up by playing everyone's least favorite anti-piracy PSA. Because we all know that Shirley Temple fans are the most hardened of criminals, and they constantly need to be reminded of the law.
While it's great to finally get one of the better Shirley Temple movies on DVD, it's disappointing that we don't get either a noteworthy restoration or useful extras to make it worth the wait. Still, the movie itself is (despite its race-related problems) wonderful enough to earn this release a Recommended rating.