In the much-needed remake of this film, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger bets that the black people won't be taking any lip from no pint-sized wiggas.
Col. Lloyd: Let's get back to this game. These men are yours. Now,
I'll be the Confederacy, and you'll be the Union.
It has a pink keepcase…Am I gonna like this?
Facts of the Case
Miss Lloyd Sherman (Shirley Temple, The Story of Seabiscuit) is the stubborn, precocious daughter of Jack Sherman (John Lodge, ) and Elizabeth Lloyd Sherman (Evelyn Venable, Pinocchio, Alice Adams). They're seeking their fortune in the West. When circumstances force Lloyd and her mother to return to the grand Old South, Lloyd learns where her name originates: the crusty, cantankerous Col. Lloyd (Lionel Barrymore, Key Largo). She also learns that her grandfather and mother are not on good terms, and that gramps needs a particularly strong dose of healing by cuteness.
It has been 25 years since I've seen Shirley Temple in action, so I had no pre-formed opinion going into The Little Colonel. Based on her reputation, I expected something so saccharine that my teeth would be hurting within minutes, my overloaded tolerance for cuteness crashing my central nervous system into a twitching pile of nervous limbs. After all, two minutes of Barney has such an effect, and Shirley harks from those days when the Legion of Decency had not yet scrubbed all traces of fun out of our media. Surely, my modern sensibility would have me buckling under the glare of her sunny countenance and dimpled cheeks!
Furthermore, I'd been primed to detest The Little Colonel. Even the scantest research on the title reveals its black, racist heart. Black people in this film were going to be mindless stooges with placid smiles plastered on their faces. And everyone knows that the only good thing in The Little Colonel is Bill Robinson's stairway tap dance. All else is filler.
The reality is, thankfully, much more enjoyable and complex. 1935 isn't fresh in anyone's mind; The Little Colonel gains interest value through its historical texture alone. Set during the reconstruction, The Little Colonel reveals political and cultural attitudes about the North and South that were rawer that we're used to today. Yet these same attitudes still color today's culture and political climate. Seeing a glimpse of the Old South—even such a fabricated, exaggerated one—helps me understand my own Southern culture better.
Even more interesting (as my wife pointed out while we watched) is the wish fulfillment inherent in the story. The film opened to an audience in the grip of the Great Depression. The Little Colonel embraces the idea that you can be swindled, sick, and on the brink of losing your shirt and reputation but be saved at the zero hour by the Railway Company. No matter how bad things get, you can emerge on the other side a rich, respected man with a beautiful wife and a dimpled daughter.
These historical nuances aside, The Little Colonel is as billed. There is a broad racist bent to the film, but it isn't outright. If you put on your P.C. filter, you might even enjoy the warm banter between Lloyd and the black servants in the manor. There's no doubt that broad caricature rules the story, but the actors imbue their roles with enough character to compensate. This is particularly true of Bill Robinson, whose star quality cannot be contained even by the most subjugating script. You basically have two choices: ignore the racism and enjoy the picture in spite of it, or spend the eighty minutes in an apoplectic fit of seething rage.
Shirley Temple does her damnedest to erase option two. Yes, she's overly cute, and yes, the producers and director miss no opportunity to shoehorn her into gaudy clothes and amusing situations. Yet Temple is a bona fide child star, a capable little half-pint who dominates the screen like the best stars do. Even when the sugar is poured on thick, Temple never approaches the sickeningly sweet heights that make some children's programming so objectionable. Long after Barney would have me clawing my own ears off, Temple retains her charm.
Surprisingly enough, other actors inhabit The Little Colonel, too. Evelyn Venable, voice of the Blue Fairy, is nondescript as far as leading ladies go. Nonetheless, I was charmed by Elizabeth's harp solo and intrigued by the way she handled her personal problems. John Lodge is equally nondescript-yet-serviceable, playing the heroic father figure with enough grace to keep us rooting for him (even if he does look like a clown in the heavy lipstick and rouge). The Best Actor Not Named Bill Robinson Playing a Stereotypical Role award goes to Lionel Barrymore, who actually gives the grumpy "bad" guy some depth.
Though the script is straightforward to the point of dullness, it has moments I wasn't expecting from a 1930's kid's movie. First, there's the murder in cold blood that almost happens in the opening scenes. This establishes the depths of Col. Lloyd's contempt for the North, and also his ability to be a jackass to his own family. The little Colonel's penchant for color-themed stories leads to a couple of potent zingers about "blue stories" and Ma Beck's black husband. Then there's the pretend baptism, the beatings, and the coldness that Col. Lloyd shows towards his daughter. Adults will find plenty to occupy their minds in the hour or so leading up to Robinson's stairway dance.
If you've seen it, you'll know why it gets so much hype. I swore there was a band playing along. But no, it was just Robinson's feet and his trumpet-like lips at work. He is innately graceful and bursting with musical energy. His feet fly up and down the stairs and he is light as air. When you can entertain decades worth of filmgoers with just yourself and a staircase, you have serious talent.
The film even has a striking finale, when the heretofore black and white erupts into glorious colorization. It must have been an expensive cap to a story already crammed full of lavish costumes and sets. We may have marginalized Shirley Temple films over the years, but Fox threw a lot of money at them.
Too bad the same doesn't hold true today. I can't tell whether heavy-but-crude digital noise reduction or strong grain is the culprit, but the image is riddled with swarming pixels that cause solid objects to seem ethereal. This is definitely an old print, so it may have been heavily damaged, but other films from that era on DVD look much better. The same print flaws manifest in the colorized version; I'm not sure what to make of that. One thing I'll say for the colorized version: It may give people's eyes a demonic inner light, but it sure makes daddy's clown lips look better.
The DVD sounds decent given the vintage. There are pops and other flaws, but none of them are unbearable or intrusive. Fox has provided a couple of Shirley Temple trailers and a Movietone News reel. Unlike the movie, her cuteness in this reel brought a hint of bile to my throat. Oh, yeah, there's also a colorized version of the main feature and a pink keepcase.
It may not be cool to admit it, but The Little Colonel provided me a decent night's entertainment.
On the charge of war crimes, The Little Colonel is found innocent.
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