After the massive success of Bright Eyes, it’s understandable that the studios saw an easy formula they could copy onto future releases, and we’ve already watched it play out in two other features. But, with an easy-to-follow recipe in place, there’s added room for laziness. Curly Top is pure paint-by-numbers, following Bright Eye’s basic premise with the added use of music, turning this into a full-fledged performance showcase for Temple. Unfortunately, lightening doesn’t strike twice with a generic story, uninspired characters, and a third act where both features disappear entirely. No one expects lightening to strike twice, but Curly Top stands up on a chair and demands it like Joy Smythe throwing a temper tantrum.
Elizabeth Blair (Temple) and her sister, Mary (Rochelle Hudson) live in an orphanage where they continually cause trouble, Elizabeth especially. When wealthy millionaire Edward Morgan (John Boles) comes to visit he takes a shine to Elizabeth and decides to adopt her. However, to prevent Elizabeth from feeling indebted to him, he tells her and Mary a mysterious man named Hiram Jones is their benefactor and they’re staying with him for the summer.
This was the first adaptation of a Mary Pickford film Temple would take on, although the marketing at the time never played up the Pickford/Daddy Long Legs connection. Why do I get the suspicion Jane Withers also adapted this later on? Either way, the idea is sound. Edward is a man whose grown complacent and lonely with his money, desperate for a home and family. Why not buy a pre-made one at the orphanage? There are a few throwaway similarities to Annie, the Daddy Warbucks connection notwithstanding. The sequences in the orphanage itself, along with Temple’s performance of “Animal Crackers in My Soup” and the dour Mrs. Higgins (Rafaela Ottiano) will remind you of Ms. Hannigan and the tiny red-headed Annie, albeit without the child abuse.
The difference is Elizabeth is quickly adopted…and the movie slows to a crawl. A script with almost five writers (two credited and three uncredited) leaves plenty of different elements inserted in the hopes conflict will arise from them. Elizabeth’s time in the orphanage could set up high stakes on their own. Are her and Mary going to be thrown out from the only home they’ve ever known? No. Edward arrives and whisks them away, effectively ending said conflict. With Elizabeth and Mary living in the lap of luxury, the script wanders around Elizabeth learning how to be a lady, while Mary enters into a romantic triangle between Edward and a pilot named Jimmie (Maurice Murphy) that’s supposedly to entertain the adults watching. The third act is where the script wakes up…and does a complete 180 into the old “Let’s put on a show” routine with Shirley performing to please the orphans.
This leads me to Curly Top’s central flaw: the lack of sympathy for Shirley’s character. You sympathized with the little girl in Bright Eyes and Captain January because the life she grew up with, the life she was happy with, is threatened. With no imminent threat to her way of life here and the fact she benefits greatly from her new lifestyle, leaves no reason to root for her. It’d be like if Star in Captain January left the Captain and became so happy with her rich aunt and uncle she forgot all about the old man who raised her. Better yet, she goes back to the town and sings a song to Cap about how awesome her new life is! When she puts on the show for the Curly Top’s orphans, it’s like she’s gloating! A simple problem of using the show to save the orphanage or something could have made Shirley come off smelling like a rose, instead of turning her into a poster child for the wealthy.
There’s also little reason, out of all the other girls in the orphanage, Elizabeth’s picked from obscurity. Edward says, “She’ll have all the lovely things in life, because she has a right to them!” So, the does that mean the rest of the little girls don’t? Why does she have the right? Because she’s Shirley Temple, the movie’s star, that’s why! The script isn’t shy about this fact, giving no proper reason for Shirley’s specialness, and returning to the lack of conflict turning Elizabeth into a pint-sized saint. Annie was defiant and had a quest outside of being adopted. Elizabeth’s problems were minor beforehand, and nonexistent after. The rest of those little girls can expect a life of degradation and sadness, but thank goodness the dimpled girl everyone lurves got the golden ticket. Really, is there any reason we all shouldn’t hate her? If this isn’t obvious enough from a script standpoint, director Irving Cummings enjoys putting the camera close on Temple’s face for no reason other than reminding us how cute those darn dimples are!
Temple gives it her all, even if she’s endlessly mugging for the camera. The character of Elizabeth allows her to rest on her laurels, and she does better work in Captain January. Rochelle Hudson, post-Imitation of Life, is enjoyable as Temple’s big sister. Imitation of Life saw Hudson out of her depth, or at least unbelievable opposite such names like Claudette Colbert, but opposite Temple Hudson compliments her, inhabiting both mother and sister. John Boles, who went on to star in at least two more Temple movies, is fun as millionaire father figure Edward. There is the requisite “creepy moment” familiar to all Temple movies (at least the ones I’ve seen), and here it’s when Boles sings as portraits in his house come alive with Temple in them. It’s a moment you expect of a romantic leading man serenading his love, but weirdly enough is just expected of this film.
Curly Top isn’t the worst movie, but it’s Temple’s worst. There’s potential in the narrative, but the inept script isn’t interested in taking it beyond convention. It takes an active character and turns her into a passive angel of perfection which is all well and good, but leads to a rather lackadaisical story.
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The Shirley Temple 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.