After her cherubic curls and childhood innocence gave way towards adult maturity Shirley Temple was cast out by the studio that gave her life, and it was a few years before she mustered up the courage to return to movie screens. Gone was the precocious child, bringing light into everyone’s life, and in her place was a hybrid woman hoping to retain the child’s mischievousness while pantomiming the manners of an adult. Many long-time Temple fans aren’t keen on the films she made as she became a teen and that does a disservice to this adorable picture. Kathleen is like The Parent Trap, with one Shirley Temple doing the work of two Hayley Mills. Temple’s awkwardness sticks out, but the strong supporting cast of Herbert Marshall, Laraine Day, and Gail Patrick, turn this into a charmingly darling family comedy.
The wealthy daughter of a successful businessman, Kathleen Davis (Temple) finds loneliness too hard to bear, acting out in order to get her father’s (Marshall) attention. He enlists the help of a kind child psychologist (Day) to help Kathleen fix what’s troubling her, all the while the threat of her father marrying the cold Lorraine Bennett (Patrick) threatens Kathleen’s idea of a new family.
The movie opens unlike any Shirley Temple movie previously: Temple is a brat! Kathleen’s spoiled, rebellious antics play as a cry for help later on, but it’s refreshing watching the angelic picture of perfection cause a ruckus deserving of a good smack. Actually, the movie wants Kathleen’s rebelliousness to be sympathetic, but Temple’s awkward acting gives her plenty of shakeworthy moments. Unfortunately, Temple was in that transitional stage, unsure of what is cute and what is adult, so it helps that she’s guided by more adult actors.
The adults are great, particularly Gail Patrick, the stylish villainess of several films including Stage Door and My Favorite Wife. Here, she’s the evil stepmother prototype countless actresses have hoped to achieve. Patrick’s Lorraine Bennett doesn’t rub her hands together, plotting Kathleen’s excision from her and John’s lives. Instead, she plays up to the girl, batting her eyelashes and treating Kathleen like she’s eight, which actually leads to some rather fun “bonding” moments, including Lorraine’s attempts to get the trio of her, father, and daughter, to do a medley of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Temple’s dry acknowledgement that she knows what a round is because they did it when she was little ends up being far funnier than anticipated.
Regardless, this is meant to be a vehicle for Temple, proof she’s off the “Good Ship Lollipop.” A narrative technique sees the audience go into Kathleen’s daydreams, à la Walter Mitty, as she envisions her reunion with her father and a means of making money to pay off Lorraine. The latter fantasy sequence allows Patrick and Temple to play off each other. Temple’s childish antics and stiff recitation of the adult dialogue makes sense and leads to a fun summoning the ability to haul Patrick off to the clink. On the flip side, said sequence forces the audience to watch an unnecessary musical number with a voice which sounds nothing like Temple. (I was unable to confirm whether Temple was dubbed or not.)
It’s also surprising watching such a strong performance come from Laraine Day, who was only 21 at the time! She’s wise beyond her years as the doctor working to figure out what makes Temple tick. There isn’t any Vivacious Lady-esque catfights between Day’s Dr. Martha Kent (no, not that one!) and Bennett, nor are there grand moments of flirtation between her and Marshall, although it’s safe to assume a romance develops. When Martha finally gets frustrated with John, she goes into an intriguing speech regarding her role as a doctor, not a nursemaid. Of course, she says it out of jealousy, but it still reminds audiences of the different roles for women during WWII.
Much like Margaret O’Brien, Shirley Temple’s fathers always play like romantic leading men opposite her, and this is prominent in the “daddy’s girl scorned” story Kathleen utilizes. Herbert Marshall plays Temple’s apathetic father whom she idolizes to the point of fantasizing about coming down in a flowing gown and noting how “attractive” he is. Marshall is the upper-crust father, sauntering from room to room being the object of affection for the all the women in his life. On a macro level, Kathleen has a love triangle revolving around three women who want Herbert Marshall for themselves!
Temple became the symbol of joy for those struggling through the Great Depression, and although her output during WWII isn’t as memorable, it still delights. Kathleen is a loveable movie and, despite Temple’s struggles to find an appropriate acting method, the role is tailor-made for her success. Marshall, Day, and especially Patrick, lend a hand in propping Temple up, creating a fun family comedy worth checking out.
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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.