We pay tribute this week to a bright-eyed moppet with sausage curls and a dimpled smile. When Shirley Temple Black passed away earlier this year, I knew I had to honor her in some way despite never watching her films previously. I have fond memories of watching commercials for the Shirley Temple Collection of films, but there just wasn’t anything that struck the fancy as a small child. Several of these movies are personal favorites of my mom. Today’s starting film, especially, traumatized my mother as a child and I understand why!
Star (Temple) has lived with lighthouse keeper Captain January (Guy Kibbee) ever since he fished her out of the sea. Her mother perished in the ensuing ship wreck. Beloved by everyone, Star’s world is turned upside-down with an uppity truant officer demands Star be removed from January’s care.
Shirley Temple’s become the punching bag for any child too perfect to exist in nature. Where Margaret O’Brien was always overly prim and proper, or Jane Withers wasn’t afraid to get dirty, Shirley was the angelic foundling. Knowing more about her films than her performances in them, I noticed the tropes of the Temple formula right away: Temple plays an orphan generally raised by a man and in conflict with female-based society; or, gender aside, Temple is at odds with the wealthy while enjoying the world of the working class.
Captain January would make an excellent essay to analyze from today’s standpoint. The truant officer uses the motivation of getting Star put into school and properly raised as an impetus to get involved, but is that really the reason she’s so gung-ho about taking Star away from a man she presumes is a miscreant? What about the concept that Cap is a single man raising a child? Or a single man who always hangs out with another captain, Nazro (Slim Summerville) and refuses to marry the local widow (Jane Darwell) who makes no bones about her love for him? I think the officer was concerned about Star living in such an alternative lifestyle. And really it is alternative, my analysis aside. Star isn’t treated like a child by the menfolk of this town (for all the men there’s only three women…I don’t like those odds). When she goes in to town to run errands, Star talks like a sailor in training and gets respect. She’s a tomboy who thinks needlepoint has nothing to do with the call of the sea, and she’s right! Temple is firmly an innocent child whom you laugh at when she declares “tea and Chinamen” come from China – from the mouths of babes – and yet engages in light breakfast conversation about death!
Temple is delightful as Star, even if she acts as a surrogate wife to January. If you think I’m stretching with that, Graham Greene called Temple’s performance “coquettish.” He isn’t far off because Temple, at times, comes off as flirty, especially when she’s in the dress her mother wore. That scene, more than any other, is the weirdest of the bunch because it’s the one moment where Star acts like an adult, moving away from the love of life in the moment she conveys before and after. And it’s a bit odd how she baldly tells Jane Darwell’s Widow Croft that she’s the “lady of the house.” This won’t be caught by small children, but adults might be taken aback by it.
One thing that time can’t change about Temple’s movies are their exuberant optimism. Temple acted as a balm for the harshness of the Great Depression, and what better way to preserver than know a little girl could wake up every morning with a song in her heart. The opening song, “Early Bird” is a sweet introduction to our character, complete with some fun camera trickery of Temple turning a corner and coming out fully dressed. The showstopper that people best remember Captain January for is “At the Codfish Ball” where Temple dances with Buddy Ebsen. Temple was perfect at lock-stepping with the best of them and she effortlessly glides all over the docks with Ebsen, who, at one point, actually starts climbing barrels with her in his arms. I was curious if anyone else noticed Temple’s tendency to glance to the sides during the Ebsen number. Is she looking at a coach or just taking in the spectators?
Guy Kibbee and Temple are a beautiful match with a true tenderness and affection for each other. When Star is ripped from January’s arms, Kibbee’s face is heartbreak personified in a way that Temple’s crying can’t transcend. As January plaintively says “Don’t cry” to Star, it’s as if he’s saying to the audience it’s totally okay for us to wail our eyes out. The studio was in a pickle with the ending since the script originally called for Cap to die, fading out like the lighthouse that now runs on electricity. No way Star would hear about the death of her beloved Cap, so instead practically the entire town ends up working on the yacht of Star’s aunt and uncle. It’s hokey, but at least our two characters are reunited and I was perfectly fine with that.
Captain January is a great introduction to the world of Shirley Temple. It’s a movie that’s aged decently with a legendary musical sequence and some impressive acting from Temple (even though she’s upstaged by Kibbee). If you’re looking to get your kids immersed into Temple’s films this is a great place to start.
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The Shirley Temple Sweetheart Collection
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.