The Little Princess (1939)

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  • directed by Walter Lang
  • starring Shirley Temple, Richard Greene, Anita Louise, Ian Hunter, Cesar Romero, Mary Nash, Sybil Jason
  • When her father goes off to fight in the Boer War, young Sara Crewe is placed into the care of Amanda Minchin, the head of an exclusive private school for girls.

“You mustn’t cry. We must be good soldiers, you know.”

This was Shirley Temple’s first Technicolor feature and came at a make or break time when her popularity with critics and audiences had plateaued. The Little Princess was a major success for the star and it featured her most sophisticated and wide-ranging acting work, but it was also her final hit and though she attempted to translate it into a recharged second phase of career, it acted more as the exclamation point for an actress whose path took her through dozens of roles over just seven years.

The script, loosely based on a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, is studded with very dark situations that amazingly come across as sweet as sugar. I don’t yet understand how a scene of Sara strolling among the wounded at a military hospital desperately looking for her dead or missing father elicits hopeful and positive feelings instead of tragic ones, yet it does. Or why when Sara is expelled from her lavish bedroom to the dingy and cold attic to sleep, she doesn’t complain or display any sense of suffering appropriate to her conditions, she instead uses her imagination to provide comfort. In any other film, it would at least be a little annoying to me that such a thick candy coating was applied to the concepts of death, war, and child abuse that were brought up as the film rolled along. Any sense of dishonesty, though, was overshadowed by Temple’s performance, which remarkably remained steady through a major shift in stature halfway through as she goes from a privileged Daddy’s girl to an outcast orphan. For any of the weaknesses that the film had, Temple came to the rescue time and again. This formula worked like a charm in regards to all of the film’s missteps before coming to a screeching halt in the final moments–an on the nose and over the top conclusion. It was like a tide of cheese had been building for the entire running time, tastefully kept out of view, before finally finding a crack in the dam right before “The End.”

It crossed my mind as Becky, Sara’s servant friend played by Sybil Jason, was speaking that Eliza Doolittle had to have been all over the casting notes. Jason was funny, charming, perfectly cockneyed, and unsurprisingly she had Wendy Hiller to thank for coaching her through the ins and outs of such a trademark accent. All of the adult performances worked well, especially during the nicely developed side plot concerning Rose and Geoffrey, but the headline obviously belongs to Temple who carried heavy weight, looked at the adults eye to eye, bore ultimate responsibilities, yet never forgot to stop being a vulnerable child.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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