Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Film Review: Bright Eyes

"Bright Eyes"  *** (out of ****)

In honor of "the little princess", Shirley Temple, who died Monday night at the age of 85, I have decided to review "Bright Eyes" (1934) as a tribute.

"Bright Eyes" is routinely acknowledge as the first film to take full advantage of Shirley Temple's talent. The movie was built around her.

When I heard of Temple's death, this was the movie which instantly came to mind. It is the movie I most associate with her because it features the song "On the Good Ship Lollipop" which Temple sings and became something of her theme song. My father is a musician and used to play this song for my sister and I when we were younger, around Shirley Temple's age.

"Bright Eyes" is a sentimental weeper. The critic in me says the movie really tries to exploit our feelings and lay on the pathos, going to great lengths to make us care about Shirley Temple and find her cute. However my other half says, so what? The movie does pull at our heartstrings and does present Temple in the most sympathetic light imaginable. But it's not that difficult to do when you've got a face like Shirley Temple. She was about the most adorable thing I have ever seen, with the exception of my niece, of course!

In the movie Temple plays a five year old girl named Shirley who is an orphan. Just like everyone else in the Depression Era audience, little Shirley has hit hard times. Her godfather is Loop (James Dunn). An aviator who was best friends with her father. Loop loves Shirley as if she was his own daughter.

Shirley's mother, Mary (Lois Wilson) was working as a maid for the wealthy Smythe family (Dorothy Christy and Theodore von Eltz). They do not like Shirley. But, Uncle Ned (Charles Sellon) does. And it is because of his money the Smythe's are wealthy. And because they know that, they have allowed Uncle Ned to live with them, in the hopes when he dies he will leave them all his money. So the couple must put up with Shirley as a result.

As I said the movie goes to great lengths to present Shirley in the best light possible and gain the audience's sympathy. One of the most instant ways is be class distinction. The Smythe's are wealthy while Mary and Shirley aren't. But Shirley doesn't care. She is happy and doesn't think of herself as poor. The movie takes places around Christmas time. The Smythe's have their own daughter, who is presented as a spoiled brat. On Christmas Day, the daughter is opening present after present but remains disappointed. This is in contrast to Shirley, who is happy to get a doll. She bellows, in the sweetest, most innocent voice you ever heard, "Oh my goodness" at the sight of it. And has a smile on her face that could melt a stone.

The movie also tries to show Shirley in a cute light by presenting her as an innocent child. We see her eating chocolate cake mix with a giant spoon as the chocolate is all over her face and again she has that million dollar smile on her face. Other scenes show her playing with a dog, pretending to be an aviator like her father and playing mommy to her doll.

In the same vein that Laurel & Hardy entertained depression era audiences, by making them laugh and presenting themselves as being worst off, Shirley Temple entertained audiences and brought them comfortable due to her optimism. Here was a little girl going through tough times, smiling and laughing all the way through it. It warms your heart to see her.

The picture was directed by David Butler. He directed some other Shirley Temple movies; "The Little Colonel" (1935) and "The Littlest Rebel" (1935) but I know him best as a comedy director, directing several Bob Hope comedies such as " Road to Morocco" (1942) and "The Princess and the Pirate" (1944).

Shirley Temple will surely be missed even though her acting days were long behind her. She brought so much joy to people. And her appeal expanding generations. My grandparents watched her movies as did I when I was younger. There was a 50 year difference between us, but, it didn't matter.

Temple wasn't just a popular child star of the 1930s. To think that way would just trivialize what she really was. She was a major Hollywood star. Stories about her popularity are legendary. It was said at the time "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) was going into production, Temple was naturally thought of for the role of Dorothy. However, MGM was going to release that picture and Temple worked at 20th Century Fox. In order to get Temple, Fox wold have to loan her out (as was done in those days. Actors worked for studios) to MGM. Fox refused. To sweeten the deal MGM would offer to "trade" Clark Gable for Temple. Fox refused. They felt Shirley Temple was worth more than Clark Gable! And in a way she was. She was the box-office champion from 1935-1938. Appearing in movies such as "Curly Top" (1935), "Heidi" (1937) and "Poor Little Rich Girl" (1936) with Alice Faye.

As Temple got older though, some say her appeal went away. Audiences wouldn't accept her as an adult. I reviewed some of her movies when she was older; "Since You Went Away" (1944) and "That Hagen Girl" (1947) among them. She was also in "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" (1947) with Cary Grant and "I'll Be Seeing You" (1944) with Ginger Rogers.

"Bright Eyes" is a sweet family picture which really showcases Shirley Temple's talents. It should be enjoyed by many for its good natured, innocent tone.