A major hit for silent superstar Baby Peggy in 1924, "Captain January" was sold off to Fox to become a vehicle for the studio's biggest name, Shirley Temple. With songs and dancing added to the story, the remake, released in 1936 at the height of Shirleymania, was more of the same for Temple fans.
This time out, Shirley plays Star, a precocious six-year-old who was rescued from a boat wreck four years earlier by lighthouse keeper Captain January (character actor Guy Kibbee); her parents drowned, and January decided to raise Star himself. And everything's happy for this makeshift family – which also includes good friends Buddy Ebsen and Slim Summerville, who pop by now and then to share a tune or two – until the cranky truant officer (Sara Haden) learns that Star's never been to school, and maybe Star belongs in an orphanage instead of a lighthouse. Will her interference mean Captain's going to lose Star?
There's a lot to love in this Temple outing, even if most of the parts look all too familiar. Shirley's as charming as ever, Kibbee does wonders in the lovable guardian role, and a young Ebsen makes for plenty of fun when he breaks into "At the Codfish Ball." The script, credited to Sam Hellman, Gladys Lehman, and Harry Tugend, is full of gentle smiles, the most fun (outside of the musical numbers) coming when Star gets to upstage a snooty know-it-all at a school examination.
The film only takes one notable misstep, and that's in an off-putting fantasy sequence in which Star imagines January as a gigantic baby. The sight of Kibbee in diapers, bib, and bonnet, sitting atop an enormous high chair, whining for food and crying when force-fed cod liver oil is fairly unsettling stuff. Kids will probably giggle, and hey, at least it's over pretty quickly.
In fact, once that joke's cleared out, "Captain January" really hits its stride, becoming an effective, moving little drama. The usual Shirley Temple plot points are all here – threats come to separate Shirley from the parental figure she loves, with all hope put on a last minute reprieve of some kind – but for once they don't feel tired or obligatory. The script even gets downright heartbreaking at one point, with both Temple and Kibbee showing some unexpectedly serious acting chops. Imagine, if you will, the tearful scene in "The Kid" when Jackie Coogan and Charlie Chaplin get torn apart, only with sound, so we can hear the cries that accompany the image. While not as powerful as Chaplin's masterpiece, it's still some strong stuff.
It's this last chunk of the movie that elevates it to the status of one of the better Temple features. "Captain January" offers plenty of what you've seen before, but it has a heart and a charm to it that allows the well-worn material to be forgivable.
Fox's release of "Captain January" is available separately or as part of "The Shirley Temple Collection: Volume 4," which also includes "Just Around the Corner" and "Susannah of the Mounties."
As usual with the studio's Temple releases, we're offered both the original black-and-white feature and a newly colorized version, courtesy of Legend Films. (Both versions are presented in the movie's original 1.33:1 aspect ratio). Naturally, I prefer the black-and-white, but not only for the obvious reasons; the color version here is soft and a bit grainy. The black-and-white version is also rather soft, but it's much more passable an image.
The original mono soundtrack and a remastered 2.0 stereo track are provided. There's not much noticeable difference between the two, although the mono track seems to be a bit louder. A very lousy Spanish mono track is also included. English and Spanish subtitles are offered.
Once again, Fox goes limp in the bonus features department. All we get is a trailer for "Susannah of the Mounties" and a 40-second excerpt from a MovieTone newsreel in which Shirley attends the dedication of the new Will Rogers soundstage. (There's something off about the narration for this newsreel. It has either been rerecorded or seriously cleaned up; it sounds much cleaner than expected, in an odd way.)
"Captain January" makes for a solid introduction to Temple's work for newcomers, while fans will appreciate seeing another of Shirley's better efforts. Recommended to anyone in the mood for a little song and dance, Temple-style.