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Dimples

Fox // PG // March 21, 2006
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted March 27, 2006 | E-mail the Author
By the time "Dimples" was released in 1936, its star, Shirley Temple, had already starred in seventeen short subjects and seventeen features. She was a box office powerhouse and part of a well-oiled moviemaking machine - "Dimples" would be one of four Temple films released during the year, an average amount of output for the starlet. (The doozy came in 1934, with Shirley managing to appear in nine features and three shorts.)

"Dimples" comes not only at the height of that machine's well-oiledness, but at a time when the "assembly line" method of filmmaking was working for every studio in town. (Director William A. Seiter and credited screenwriters Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman would all mark this as one of the four films on which each would work during that year alone.) As such, this is a film that dares not break from a proven formula: the adorable child looking for a good family, some melodrama and comic relief provided by adult co-stars, and a few songs thrown in for good measure.

Sylvia "Dimples" Appleby (Temple) is the adorable child who sings for her dinner - literally, in this case. It's 1850 in New York City, and Dimples and her ragtag group of street urchins perform in the streets for spare change. Meanwhile, Dimples' grandfather, known to most as "The Professor" (the one-and-only Frank Morgan), works the crowds as a pickpocket. (Naturally, the innocent Dimples is not in on the con and berates her grandfather when she finds out.) Through a series of plot points that only a Shirley Temple movie could ever produce, Dimples winds up not only as the star of a musical production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," but in the care of a saintly dowager. Of course, we want Dimples to be happy, but if it means giving up her family, well, it looks like we'll be rooting for Dimples and the Professor to get back together, just in time for the big number at the end.

As a movie, "Dimples" is light, enjoyable, and immediately forgettable, meaning, of course, that it is a Shirley Temple movie. There are some wonderful moments here - mostly in the manipulative heart-tugging interaction between Temple and Morgan - and the songs are, for the most part, quite delightful. But the film can also be a bit of a bore in all its down time, as if everyone involved knew that it's hard to get excited about a story that's been told and retold by the star dozens of times already. There's just not much thrilling to be had over, say, the thin romantic subplot involving the kindly stage producer, the lady he's supposed to marry, and the actress he truly loves.

However, there are reasons outside of the realm of basic entertainment that make "Dimples" notable. First is the story's setting: the writers get much use out of the depression of the era, finding parallel to 1936 audiences' own plight. It's often said that Shirley Temple was popular because she provided sweet escapist fun for Great Depression crowd, and here we find an example where the viewer of the time could not only escape, but be comforted. The setting (as well as the many remarks made about the depression) seems to tell the audience: "It'll be OK. We got through that depression well enough, we'll sure get past this one, too." Watching "Dimples" is like unearthing a time capsule of cinematic comfort food.

But that time capsule also comes loaded with the racism of its day. Much has been made of the film's problems with race, and rightly so, but I find that the film isn't racist as much as it is passive about attitudes. While it keeps black actors to merely the usual side roles - butlers and mammies, mostly - there's no real animosity toward the characters. Yes, we get Stepin Fitchit in the role of the Professor's servant, and yes, Stepin Fitchit plays exactly the same stammering, lazy idiot he always plays, but I've always felt that Fitchit was up to something subversive in his act, and as such, his appearance here does not seem as degrading and embarrassing today as it probably should.

The real problem is found in the movie's handling of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (and as a feel-good musical at that!). For the finale, we get a parade of white cast members, including Morgan himself, in jaw-droppingly tasteless blackface. We also get Topsy, a dimwitted blackfaced child who clowns around on stage for a minute, getting a big laugh from the theater audience for eating a flower; it's a moment that would even make Buckwheat groan. Cap it off with a rousing sing-along to "Dixie-Anna" that contrasts the sheer innocence of Temple with the vulgarity of a choir of blackfaced men, and you've got the makings of one long talk with your kids.

You can argue that yes, an 1850 performance of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" would in fact star whites in black roles, and you could also argue that yes, filmmakers of 1936 would have no qualms about including a blackface number in their musical. And I'm grateful to Fox for not editing the film or hiding it in a vault out of shame. All that said, "Dimples" still becomes one enormous source of embarrassment, especially when you consider that none of this "passive racism" is necessary to the story at all; substitute another play for "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and you could make the exact same movie, only with different songs and a whole lot less racial ignorance.

The DVD

Fox has reissued "Dimples" 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 "The Littlest Rebel." This reissue is an improvement over the 2001 release, if only a little.

Video

The earlier release received plenty of (deserved) criticism for its scratchy, muddy transfer. This reissue rectifies this problem. Sort of, anyway. The image still shows its age, with plenty of film grain on display, but it's noticeably cleaner, brighter, and far more watchable than the previous disc. Fox's Temple library remains in dire need of full restoration (and a proper collection-worthy transfer for DVD), but as that seems out of the question for now, this slight upgrade will suffice.

As with all of their Shirley Temple titles, Fox also includes a colorized version of the film. The colorizing was done by Legend Films, the company that handles all of Fox's colorizing duties. (Legend claims to do restoration work but not preservation work on the films they colorize, which may explain why I have yet to see a great-looking release come from them.) Legend does an adequate job, I suppose; it looks better than colorizing used to, but it still looks too unearthly to satisfy anyone but the most bizarre colorizing enthusiast. ("Bizarre" being the only word I can think up to describe fans of the process.) I cannot tell if this is an improvement over the color version on the previous DVD release, because they both look pretty garish to me.

Both versions are presented in the film's original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio.

Audio

As with the older disc, the soundtrack is available in both its original mono and a remixed stereo track; the stereo version honestly doesn't sound that much different than the mono, and both are decent enough. Again, the movie shows its age with thin-sounding dialogue, but there's the hiss is kept to a minimum, and the songs all come in nice and sharp.

Added to this release is an alternate Spanish mono track. The optional English and Spanish subtitles are carried over from the earlier release.

Extras

Fox makes up for the previous movie-only release by giving us some extras - but there's so little here that is doesn't seem worth it. We get two Shirley Temple trailers: "Heidi" and "Little Miss Broadway," the latter of which is missing its narration and on-screen text. (No trailer for "Dimples" itself?) These lonely two previews are all that comes listed under something called the "Shirley Temple Theater," which must be a pretty disappointing theater.

Also included is a Movietone News snippet titled "Aloha Shirley." There is no narration or text to explain just what's going on here, but the 41-second clip looks to be a staged publicity bit in which Shirley is named captain of a Honolulu beach or something. The audio is fairly horrible (it took me repeat viewings to understand what's being said), while the image is cluttered with scratches and grain. This is obviously something that was found in a closet somewhere and got slapped on here in an effort to pretend the disc actually has bonus features.

The disc starts up by playing that loud, horrid, accusatory "You wouldn't steal a car" anti-piracy PSA. Because Fox wouldn't be Fox if it wasn't looking at even the most non-threatening Shirley Temple admirer with rabid paranoia.

Final Thoughts

While the film is entertaining, it's not memorable enough to rank among the better Shirley Temple titles. What this disc really needs, then, is a heavy dose of extras, preferably something that honestly discusses the race problems found within, or maybe an interview with the star herself. As the bare-bones edition we get, however, it can't quite raise above a Rent It. Only serious Shirley Temple fans wishing to upgrade to better picture quality (or someone looking to complete a collection) should bother paying full price for this release.
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