Heidi is one of two book adaptations Temple immortalized, although A Little Princess wins out as my favorite adaptation, both book version and film. My only previous experience with author Johanna Spyri’s novel was a 1990s Wonderful World of Disney version that didn’t withstand the test of time. Unfortunately, Temple’s version didn’t pique my interest either. A showcase for Temple is exactly that, but where Curly Top’s story was generic enough in the story so as not to overshadow the star, with an adaptation of a popular novel there’s no room for star thrusting, leaving the narrative and Temple to duke it out for supremacy.
An orphan named Heidi (Temple) is left with her grandfather (Jean Hersholt) in the Swiss Alps. Struggling to melt the old man’s heart, Heidi is torn between the mountains and the glittering world of Frankfurt where she becomes the companion to an invalid child named Klara (Marcia Mae Jones).
I read an abridged version of Spyri’s novel as a child so I can’t comment on the specifics of what was omitted from this version. Suffice it to say, at less than 90-minutes there’s a lot of truncation. There’s two halves to Heidi, part one dealing with Heidi’s time in the Alps and growing to love her grandfather, who in turn grows to love her. The second half starts after Heidi is kidnapped by her aunt (Mady Christians) and taken to Frankfurt. For me, the second story had activity and a set focus compared to the earlier half with her grandfather. Because the movie is forced to tell these two stories in an hour and a half, it almost seems like the first half is rushed in order to get to the second half and payoff. Much of this is due to Heidi coming to the Alps and spending time learning how to live there before quickly – within fifteen minutes or so – acclimating to the environment. The only true high point to it all is when Grandfather reads a story to Heidi, seguing into “In Our Little Wooden Shoes.”
When Temple gets to Frankfurt the movie turns into a “nature girl turns good” story akin to Bright Eyes. The appearance of Marcia Mae Jones as Klara, returning after Princess, strengthens the connection. Unfortunately, the same problems plaguing the first half follow Shirley, but this time they’re masked better. Again, Heidi is taken to a place she doesn’t know, learns to love it, and just as soon as she comes to enjoy her life she’s absconded with again.
The multitude of times Heidi is kidnapped becomes laughable, and the motivations of the “villains” are equally dubious. It’s not enough to make Aunt Dete a villain, a logical point, but they add the villanious Fraulein Rottenmeier (Mary Nash), Klara’s babysitter as a central antagonist for the latter story. As if her name doesn’t speak volumes, her lone characteristic is she’s EVIL. Why is she against Heidi? Especially if it takes Klara off her hands? This need for explanation would bother me so much, but the third-act climax revolves around Rottenmeier kidnapping Heidi – again! – and selling her to the Gypsies. It all comes off as a big F-you to Klara’s family and a weird continuation of the hatred for Heidi.
And who could hate Heidi? Temple’s persona was that of the foundling angel, but here Heidi becomes Heidi Christ, right down to curing Klara’s inability to walk – in the book it was simply a psychosomatic illness, but the script has it come off like a serious disability. Heidi’s ability to master any task set in front of her, playing matchmaker to a couple in the Alps, there’s nothing Heidi can’t do and that puts the audience at a distance from her. The close-up of Heidi at the end, as she prays for everyone she’s met, bluntly reminds the audience this is Temple’s film first, and Heidi’s second. Part of the movie’s slowness must be attributed to how large Temple’s shadow is, and the fact the script never makes Temple into a character. Temple isn’t Heidi, Heidi is Temple.
This could also be the reason Temple is the weak link in the cast. When Heidi is funny with the animals, singing, and generally providing cuteness, Temple soars. Older than when she started acting (she was nine at the time of release), there’s an ease and familiarity to this role. She’s comfortable striding into a room and delivering her brand of merriment. When she’s tasked with conveying sadness or stress, she has a tendency to start yelling her lines – coupled with a script content to overuse cries of “grandfather, grandfather.” Jean Hersholt is amazing as Temple’s grandfather, turning in a robust performance in a role that could be one-note. Marcia Mae Jones, whom Mrs. Temple feared would overshadow Temple like Jane Withers, is also exemplary as the invalid Klara. Klara was a character I never identified with, especially with her demands and belief she deserved everything in the world. Jones picks up where Temple leaves off, creating a character who has flaws and attributes in balance.
Heidi’s appeal is understandable, especially to fans of the original novel. Temple in the role left me cold, with her yelling angelic character feeling empty, too perfect to exist and thus elevated above us for much of the movie. The supporting cast bring Temple down to Earth, but everything about this movie is created to enhance its star. If this wasn’t an A-list picture created solely to please its actress there could be a greater depth. If anything, Temple would be better suited as the spoiled Klara.
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