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Curly Top

Curly Top
1935 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 75 min. / Street Date August 30, 2005 / 14.98
Starring Shirley Temple, John Boles, Rochelle Hudson, Jane Darwell, Rafaela Ottiano, Esther Dale, Etienne Girardot, Arthur Treacher, Maurice Murphy
Cinematography John F. Seitz
Art Direction Jack Otterson
Film Editor Jack Murray
Original Music R.H. Bassett, Hugo Friedhofer, Arthur Lange
Written by Arthur J. Beckhard, Patterson McNutt, Jean Webster
Produced by Winfield Sheehan
Directed by Irving Cummings

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

She sings, she dances, she's cute as a button. Shirley Temple was America's sweetheart and the biggest star of the middle 1930s, the gold mine that refloated 20th Fox and kept it healthy. Graduating from kiddie short subjects to feature films, Shirley carried her vehicles with a cherubic face and cutesie enthusiasm that America took to heart. No other performer better represented the tone of Depression escapism - who could stay disheartened with this positive-minded pixie around?

Curly Top is one of the child star's biggest shows from her second full year as a full-fledged star -- at age seven.


Little Elizabeth Blair (Shirley Temple) and her older sister Mary (Rochelle Hudson) are the daughters of entertainers killed in a car crash. They live and work in the orphanage of Mrs. Higgins (Rafaela Ottiano), constantly getting into trouble because of their spirit and liking for music. Trustee Edward Morgan (John Boles) thinks they're adorable and wants to adopt one and marry the other, so he tells them that an anonymous millionaire named Hiram Jones wants him to take care of them for the summer. Mary and Elizabeth have a fine time at Morgan's beach house until Morgan realizes he's been too slow - young bachelor Jimmie Rogers (Maurice Murphy) has proposed to Mary first!

I can imagine the story department at Fox figuring out Shirley Temple's next vehicle. First, she's in an orphanage, running around as the 'star attraction' of a bunch of moppets, all kept securely in the background (no competition, please). After she's liberated from the orphanage, the last we'll hear of the place is when Shirley's putting on a charity show as an orphanage benefit. Don't come snooping around Shirley Temple movies looking for anything but fantasy escapism.

The orphanage has a definite Little Orphan Annie association. Not only is Shirley the performing center of attention (she does a lengthy version of Animal Crackers in My Soup while prancing around the lunch room), her exclamation of note is, "Oh my goodness!" repeated in close-up at least six times. Perhaps the musical Annie referenced this movie for that detail.

Give her some cute animals! Shirley's pony figures in an early gag where she sneaks him in out of the rain and beds him down in the next cot over (note to comedy montage memory: Don't forget the shot of Shirley looking seriously at the camera and saying something to the effect of, "I guess you didn't know I slept with a pony." The pony (and a Duck given little to do but be carried off screen by the charming butler, Arthur Treacher) then becomes sort of irrelevant, until Shirley eventually gets a riding cart and puts him to work toting her about.

The orphanage has one stern mistress (Rafaela Ottiano, the severe menace from Tod Browning's Devil Doll) and one plump and sweet one (Jane Darwell, a Fox fixture five years before The Grapes of Wrath). Any tension built up by threatened punishments, etc., dissolves when Shirley's Elizabeth is adopted. Elizabeth never has to answer for her misbehavior and both matrons are unaccountably moved by the moppet's departure.

In this fantasy depression, the orphanage is a large and clean-looking building. All but one trustee are penny-pinching child-haters, and the meanest (Etienne Giradot of Twentieth Century) is a capitalist jerk who wants the house to buy inordinate amounts of his company's cough medicine. But along comes John Boles' Morgan, a dreamy bachelor millionaire (but a hard worker) without a care in the world beyond a desire to adopt Elizabeth. His initial attentions seem almost malign - the first thing he does is ask to be alone with Elizabeth so he can share his 'secret.' Adult-child relationships in movies have changed, to put it mildly. Morgan stares dreamily at paintings in his study, and all become 'living' pictures of Shirley. It's a little confusing, this strange blending of desire for a daughter (Elizabeth) and desire for a wife (Mary) --- at one point Elizabeth asks if they're both going to marry Morgan. Weird.

Rich men always get their way, and both sisters come with Morgan to a summer of play (and great new clothes to wear) with only the vaguest of explanations, that there's an unseen benefactor out there. We can guess easily enough that the ruse is Morgan's way of finding out that Mary and Elizabeth really want him and not his monopoly money, but the film stays away from that thread. Instead, it concentrates on light musical numbers and longing looks exchanged between Mary and Morgan. A dapper male competitor steps into the story to provide something to motivate the ending, but the dramatics never get beyond the "Gee, you're swell!" stage. Don't worry, it all works out --- Elizabeth doesn't find out that it's all been a dream and that she's really back in the orphanage being fed her own pony for supper.

Shirley is cute, and if it's all a 'pinch up your face and smile' act, it's a good one. There are no moments when she's looking off camera or breaking character. No wonder her stage mother refused to let her join the Our Gang comedies without starring billing -- she's twice as talented as that bunch of slackers. True, Temple had to play one character, her cutsie act. She did well as a slightly modified Wee Willie Winkie but thudded like a sack of sugar in the awful The Blue Bird. Playing a character with a problem that a smile couldn't overcome was way, way out of her range.

John Boles is suitably serene, a truly fantastic Depression-era dream beau. The only time he startles us is when he (or his singing double) slams into a gloppy ballad at top volume. If you're starting to doze, he'll wake you up quick. Undeniably beauty Rochelle Hudson didn't get the Hollywood breaks she deserved. She started as a voice in Hugh Harman 'Bosko' cartoons and spent most of her career in lowercase Fox program filler. Later appearances include Rebel without a Cause (as Natalie Wood's Mother) and Strait-Jacket.

Fox's DVD of Curly Top is a good transfer of a slightly grainy film element, with clear sound. There are some light scratches and at least one damage jump in the middle of the famous song number, but otherwise the picture is in fine shape. It's 95% Shirley's show, interrupted by Rochelle Hudson's limpid eyes looking gorgeous in close-up.

The disc has a complete second encoding of a colorized version of the movie. Savant only sampled it and it seems to be one of the later kind with slightly better hue control. At any rate, the rather static camera direction must have made it easy on the technicians. The low-contrast nature of 1935 film stock helps as well. We strongly disapprove of colorization in principle, but it's a curious phenomenon to study.

The disc has extras, which turn out to be trailers for other Fox Shirley Temple movies, oh boy! There's also a Spanish language track (Ricitos de Oro!). The disc starts with the despised anti-piracy warning, letting the grandmothers that want to see Curly Top know that they'd better not be buying a boot from street corner crack dealers.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Curly Top rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 20, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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