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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Littlest Rebel
The Littlest Rebel
Fox // PG // March 21, 2006
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by David Cornelius | posted March 28, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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"The Littlest Rebel" is one of the shorter Shirley Temple features, but it feels like one of the longest. Making one's way though this film can become a real slog, especially when taking into account the story's awkward boy-was-everything-was-OK-in-the-South-before-the-war-screwed-it-all-up themes. There's enough uncomfortable political incorrectness here that not even Shirley's charms or the glorious dancing of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson can save the day.

Shirley plays Virginia "Virgie" Cary, the spoiled daughter of wealthy plantation owners whose birthday party is disrupted by the breakout of the Civil War. Her father (John Boles) heads off to war, leaving the family behind to ward off Yankee oppressors who take over the town. Fortunately, Colonel Morrison (Jack Holt) of the Union Army has a daughter, too, and is so smitten by Virgie that he helps the Carys escape to Richmond. When the plan goes awry (and after Virgie's mother dies of one of those mysterious illnesses that seem to always infect parents in Shirley Temple movies), Col. Cary is arrested by the Yankees for being a Confederate spy. It's then up to Virgie and her slave/companion Uncle Billy (Robinson) to - and I wish I were making this up - convince President Lincoln (Frank McGlynn, Sr.) to issue a pardon.

Unlike some other Shirley Temple films, where the race angle can be played off as an unfortunate but ignorable by product of the time, "The Littlest Rebel" is so disconcerting that it's awfully hard to watch this as the escapist entertainment it was designed to be. We get slaves who are gosh-darn happy to be slaves, an intentional sugarcoating of the South's image, and even a scene in which Shirley herself gets done up in shoe polish blackface, the result being one of the most extraordinarily tasteless images in cinematic history.

There's also an ugly sense of royalty to the early scenes: watch as young slave children come out to wish Virgie happy birthday, but one girl becomes so distraught over the idea of messing up in front of the rich white girl that she begins crying. (Virgie comforts her with a patronizing "good job!" speech.) The movie may let Virgie befriend blacks (and as such, younger viewers might be able to miss the racism), but the script also constantly reminds the viewer that the black characters are servants and slaves, there to fetch Virgie some ice cream or to dance for her delight. It's pretty creepy stuff.

Even without the race problems, it's not that great a tale. The melodrama concerning the death of Virgie's mother never quite works, even in broad Shirley-Temple-movie terms. Neither does dad's wartime scouting subplot - seems he can't go two reels without being captured, or at least found out, and the redundancy grows tiresome too quickly. The cramming of war themes into a kiddie movie feels all too ill-advised, while the Abe Lincoln finale is far too dopey to ever properly click.

Temple knocks out a few songs, which are enjoyable, if not as much as similar scenes in other films. Hearing her do "Polly Wolly Doodle," for example, is cute, but it's nothing too memorable. The only keeper here is a tap dance routine between Temple and Robinson that is intended to recreate the gloriousness of the staircase scene in "The Little Colonel." It's solid stuff - mostly for the always brilliant Robinson - but it's a case of too little, too late; by this time in the film, we're half asleep, and one nice dance bit isn't going to save us.

The DVD

Fox is releasing "The Littlest Rebel" as part of its third wave of the "Shirley Temple Movie Collection." It is available by itself or in a box with "The Little Colonel" and "Dimples." This marks the first time the film has been available on DVD.

Video

The full frame (original 1.33:1 format) presentation matches Fox's other Shirley Temple output, meaning it's a far cry from what these titles deserve. More softness, more film grain. Cleaned up just enough to get by, but not enough to impress. It'll do, but this is DVD, and we deserve better.

Also matching Fox's Temple output is the inclusion of a colorized version of the film, courtesy of Legend Films. You get what you deserve here: a mediocre color rendering that never looks real enough to actually convince anyone why colorizing is a good idea.

Audio

As with the other titles in this collection, the 1.0 mono and 2.0 stereo mixes are both workable enough, free of any hiss or scratchiness. A Spanish mono track is also offered. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are available.

Extras

Once again: not much of anything. The trailers for "Heidi" and "Little Miss Broadway" are carried over from the "Dimples" and "Little Colonel" discs, but as usual, no trailer for the feature presentation itself.

A short Fox Movietone News clip of Shirley's sixth birthday party - held in the Fox studio commissary - is the only other extra. It's a typical scripted publicity bit from the era, used mostly to promote the star's upcoming film, "Our Little Girl."

And yes, Fox makes certain that each disc starts up by playing the infuriating "you wouldn't steal a car…" anti-piracy PSA. Good for you, Fox! Way to alienate your customers right off the bat!

Final Thoughts

With a general uncomfortable feeling resting over the picture thanks to sketchy-at-best handling of race issues (and with no extras that might have saved the day by discussing the film's dated politics), this one's for Shirley Temple completists only. Even without the race card, it's just not that good a movie, and Fox's bare bones treatment only compounds the problems. Skip It.
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