When I spoke to Jane Withers last May she talked quite a bit about filming Bright Eyes and her struggles working with Shirley Temple. I hated to admit to her that I hadn’t seen the finished product, and she, of course, urged me to get to it! I doubt Jane is reading, but if she is, I finally watched Bright Eyes! The first feature written expressly to showcase Temple was not at all what I expected. Outright kooky at times, the script comprises a sweet and sour element, one that includes a rather brutal death and some audacious humor. There’s a messiness to Bright Eyes that Captain January cleaned up and moved away from.
Shirley Blake (Temple) and her Mary (Lois Wilson) live in the home of the wealthy Smythe family where Shirley’s mother is the maid. Terrorized by the Smythe’s daughter, Joy (Withers), the only solace Shirley finds is hanging out with her deceased father’s aviator friends led by her godfather, Loop (James Dunn). When Shirley’s mother dies, a custody battle ensues between Loop and the Smythe’s benefactor, Uncle Ned (Charles Sellon) whose dubbed Shirley “Bright Eyes.”
I defer back to my mother who swore that the scene of Mary Blake being viciously mowed down by a car, the camera panning to the smushed cake she was carrying for Shirley’s birthday was from Curly Top. Hate to break it to ya, ma but this happens in Bright Eyes. Temple’s world of butterflies and rainbows, “where bon-bons play on the sunny beach of Peppermint Bay” comes crashing down around the half-hour mark, but really trouble brews long before Mary’s fatal date with a Buick (or whatever type of car it is). Smythe matriarch, Anita (Dorothy Christy) reprimands Mary for hanging out with aviators and taking too many phone calls. All of this is a smokescreen to fire Mary after the holidays. Like with Captain January, we again have an upwardly mobile woman condemning a lower-class “servant” for their alternative lifestyle. Mary is a single widow who frequently fraternizes with men, taking her daughter in tow.
Director David Butler based the story of Bright Eyes on personal experience, when his parents hired a Scottish woman to work as their maid. The woman would work for them on the condition they let her daughter live there, as well. None of this sounds particularly deal-breaking, but it’s the 1930s. The Smythes, characters so ridiculously pretentious they turn the name “Smith” into something snooty, are prime examples of Depression-era excess. They’re so heartless they can’t take pride in a woman struggling to raise her child alone. And yet, they’re the biggest hypocrites around, stuck at the mercy of Uncle Ned, for whom their way of life wouldn’t exist without his money. The Smythes, for all their nastiness, are certainly colorful and provide much of the film’s humor. Withers, especially, steals all her scenes and it’s easy to see where the rumor was started (although never confirmed) that Temple’s mother wanted Withers’ scenes cut to prevent upstaging Shirley.
Withers’ Joy (irony in hair ribbons) is a sociopath in the making, perfectly suited to play Edward G. Robinson’s daughter in a gangster picture if the fates aligned. This is a little girl who embodies all the things I wish little girls liked – albeit without the fear of being murdered in your sleep. Joy enjoys dolls and playing mommy, but she also wants a machine gun for Christmas and tells Temple she’s going to “kill” a doll before ripping its head off. My personal favorite moment comes on Christmas Day when Joy screams she “wanted a wheelchair!” By the end of the movie the audience probably wishes that on the little girl. Withers actually told me a story about feeling terrible for hurting the doll and wanting to repair it after filming. Only two years older than Temple at the time, Withers looks like a menacing giant when standing next to the little girl, helping the audience sympathize and fear for the curly-headed princess. For all this, though, Withers keeps you watching her more than Temple, maybe because she’s just so foreign compared to everyone else in the movie. Withers never fits in with her upper-crust parents – speaking in slang and refusing to conform to lady-like standards of her class – nor is she as ambitious or endearing as Temple and her gang of misfits. She’s a puzzle piece refusing to fit, but fit she will if she has to stomp on someone to make it so!
As mentioned above, Bright Eyes was the first feature written to promote Temple and even though she gets her landmark song, “The Good Ship Lollipop” to sing here, the ensemble cast around her can’t be ignored, especially Sellon and Withers. Watching Captain January first helped me see this as an early version of what Captain January capitalized on, although that was, itself, a remake of an earlier movie starring Baby Peggy. Both movies feature a young orphan girl, although we see her with a mother for half the film, torn between two different ways of life. And in case you ignored the idea of Temple as surrogate wife in Captain January, it’s very evident here. Loop gives Shirley a ring to wear, and Shirley ends up being wooed by two different men, one offering security (and love), the other offering love and acceptance. Actually, Withers herself did this role in a starring feature of her own!
Temple is darling and she’s a natural when placed against all the other actors. When playing opposite Wilson she’s the perfect daughter, and playing opposite Dunn she’s the perfect god-daughter/housewife. We are privy to a few of Shirley’s flaws, such as not wanting to pray for Joy or laughing when Joy’s heart. These are moments any child’s endured and without them we’d think Temple was a robot. The trio of parents for Temple are pretty bland: Wilson, Dunn, and Judith Allen as Loop’s ex-girlfriend. They’re all just the neutral center by which Temple sings her songs. They’re so humdrum, they let the Smythe’s stick out more because they have unrestrained emotions. Charles Sellon, especially, is hilarious as the angry Uncle Ned. His temper tantrum, complete with knocking items off a table and shaking shrubbery – in an attempt to upset the clean, fake world of his family – is a fantastic bit of physical comedy mixed with the subtle.
Overall, Bright Eyes, is my favorite Temple feature, so far. Temple’s enchanting, as always, but she’s really outdone by the supporting cast.
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion is donated to this site! Thanks!
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.