Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bright Eyes

Jane Withers (l.) and Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes (1934)

A couple of weeks back, TCM showed Bright Eyes to honor its star, Shirley Temple, after she had recently died. It was already on the TCM schedule for March, though, and that original scheduled airing is coming up tomorrow morning at 10:00 AM. If you didn't get a chance to see it two weeks ago, don't miss it this time.

Five-year-old Shirley Temple plays Shirley Blake, whom we see at the beginning of the movie hitch-hiking her way to the airport, at a time when there was little enough air traffic that the idea of armed goons at an airport claiming to protect "homeland security" would have been considered bizarre nonsense. Never mind the idea of a five-year-old hitch-hiking and not having helicopter parents. Of course, part of the reason little Shirley doesn't have helicopter parents is that her dad's already died, having "cracked up" in a plane crash as Shirley's godfather Loop (James Dunn) tells her. Indeed, it's Loop whom Shirley is going to see at the beginning of the movie; the two love each other like a real father and daughter would, and the other pilots also like little Shirley, considering her a sort of good luck charm.

Of course, life isn't as swell and idyllic as it might seem from that opening description. Shirley's mom Mary (Lois Wilson) is working as a maid for the Smythe family, considing of parents (Theodore von Eltz and Dorothy Christy), a daughter Joy (Jane Withers), and their wheelchair-bound uncle Ned Smith (Charles Sellon). They don't really care for Mary or the fact that she's got a flyboy coming to see her, and they don't particularly care for Shirley, either. In fact, the only thing the Smythes seem to care for is uncle Ned's money that they expect to inherit when he finally dies. They've also got a cousin Adele (Judith Martin) who is coming to visit; complicating matters is that she had a relationship with Loop that broke off. She might be willing to patch it up, but Loop isn't.

Christmas is coming, and Shirley is going to be given a party at the airport by all the pilots. All they're waiting for is for Mary to bring the cake. Unfortunately, as she's trying to cross the street with the cake, she gets run down in a traffic accident and killed. Poor Shirley is now an orphan! Who will ever take care of her? Loop wants to take care of her, but he's a single man constantly away from home on businees, what with being a pilot. He even lives at the airport! That's no place for a little girl. Uncle Ned likes Shirley even though they're not related, so eventually the Smythes try to get custody, if only to humor Uncle Ned until he dies off and leaves them his money, at which point they can just drop Shirley in an orphanage. Adele wants to help Loop, and there's a really obvious solution to all this involving the two of them patching up their relationship. But can Loop put his feelings of pride aside and suck it up for Shirley's sake?

Bright Eyes was one of the first Shirley Temple movies to follow the formula that would become more or less standard for her movies, that of the poor girl with an unstable family situation who finds somebody who could take care of her, but has their own problems that only Little Miss Fix-it Shirley can resolve. Oh, and she can do it with some songs and dances along the way. Temple is pretty good here, although it's tough to judge exactly how good of an actress a five-year-old can be. She's engaging enough, though, and has a real chemistry with Dunn, which is most notable in the scene in which he has to tell her that her Mom has "cracked up" too. Most of the other adult actors are serviceable, with Jane Darwell particularly noticeable as the grandmotherly cook in the Smythe household. The one person who really stands out is Jane Withers as Joy. She's Veda Pierce from Mildred Pierce and little Rhoda from The Bad Seed rolled into one, a spoiled brat who makes life difficult for Shirley. There's a scene in which Shirley finds a doll that Joy threw in the garbage and is willing to take care of the doll, but Joy responds by literally tearing the doll limb from limb! Later on, Joy wants to play "Train Wreck" with Shirley; adults should be able to figure out where that joke is going. She also gets a final line that's both delightful and kind of shocking at the same time.

Bright Eyes has a little of everything. There's a melodrama, a love story, comedy, and music, with Shirley famously singing "On the Good Ship Lollipop". Little girls will probably enjoy it more than little boys, but it's the sort of movie that adults of all ages can enjoy. It's easy to see why Shirley Temple was such a hit with audiences of all ages in the 1930s.

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