Shirley Temple fans should heed Judge Bill Treadway's warnings about this less-than-adorable boxed set.
Easily the most famous child star of all time.
When I was a young boy, I found myself mesmerized by Shirley Temple's work. There is something about a child performing on screen that can attract a young mind. Watching some of Temple's work almost twenty years later, however, I came to the realization that while Temple is still cute, she no longer captivates me as she once did. I think a great deal of that has to do with the fact that most of the films featured in this collection aren't well made. Many of them were slapdash productions that were thrown together for the sake of making money, and Temple's natural charisma and charm aren't enough to carry these dreadful films. It would take a genius such as Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck to tap into Temple's genuine screen presence and talent by surrounding her with topnotch production values and personnel.
It is with a heavy heart that I announce that Passport Video's The Shirley Temple Collection is heavy on the slapdash and light on the topnotch material. There is some material worth seeing, but overall this set will be a disappointment to all but the most devoted Temple fans.
Facts of the Case
This five-disc retrospective boxed set The Shirley Temple Collection showcases eleven short subjects Temple made early in her career as well as one of her feature films, The Little Princess. I have rated them on a scale of zero to four stars.
• Glad Rags to Riches (1932)
• War Babies (1932)
• Pie-Covered Wagon (1932)
• Dora's Dunking Doughnuts (1933)
• Polly Tix in Washington (1932)
• Kiddin' Hollywood (1932)
• Kid in Africa (1932)
• Managed Money (1934)
• Pardon My Pups (1934)
• Merrily Yours (1932)
• What's to Do? (1932)
• The Little Princess (1939)
For casual fans of Shirley Temple, Passport Video's five-disc set will be a sore disappointment. Those expecting an entire set of feature films will be crushed to discover that only The Little Princess made the cut. Of course, that is the sole Fox-made Temple film that is in the public domain. Instead, this set is devoted mainly to a series of shorts Temple made in the years 1932 to 1934 for Educational Pictures, a small independent studio (which was sold to the Fox Film Corporation in 1934). Temple made her start in a series of short subjects titled Baby Burlesque. Intended as a ripoff of the Our Gang series, these zero-budget shorts featured toddlers clad in diapers performing actions that adults would find embarrassing. After the Baby Burlesque series ran its course, Temple began a series of shorts titled The Mary Lou Shorts. These two-reelers featured Temple as a precocious toddler named Mary Lou who was always driving older brother Sonny crazy. During the middle of the Mary Lou run, Educational Pictures was bought out by the fledgling Fox Film Corporation. Shortly after, the studio would merge with 20th Century Studios to form 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. It was at Fox that Temple would become the next big child superstar with a series of feature films.
Now that we have concluded the history lesson, let us discuss Passport Video's release. This was a set that had me salivating with the prospect of viewing vintage classic Temple. While this set did resurrect some of my childhood joys, the bad taste of Temple's pre-Fox films lingered like bad lasagna. For starters, those Baby Burlesque shorts gave me the creeps. Seeing those toddlers wearing diapers and nothing else gave me that uneasy feeling that I was watching home movies from Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch. They lack the heart and innocence that made the Our Gang shorts so memorable and funny. The direction and writing are so incompetent that they defeat any chance of these shorts had in the first place. It is disarming to see Temple reciting dialogue that she was far too young to understand, particularly the line in which she says that as a Washington prostitute she isn't "cheap" but an expensive girl! What were her parents thinking when they signed the contract? Watching these shorts made me feel so dirty that I took a shower immediately afterward.
With the later Mary Lou Rogers shorts, things improved considerably. Temple was surrounded with first-rate talent for the first time in her then fledgling career. The shorts allowed her to be her cute little self rather than planting her in roles she didn't comprehend. They also allowed the comedy to flow from the situations and characters rather than employing forced, cheesy dialogue and staging. The production values are much improved, with good direction, scriptwriting, and acting all the way.
The Little Princess was a defining moment in Temple's career. For the first time, she was given a meatier, more serious role. After she was prevented from even auditioning for MGM's big Technicolor musical extravaganza The Wizard of Oz, Fox commissioned this splashy Technicolor musical drama. While it is not the timeless classic Oz is, this film is plenty good on its own terms. Temple is luminous and heartbreaking as Sara Crewe—one of her finest performances at this point in her career. Studio veteran Walter Lang directed the film, and his gift for eliciting solid performances from a game cast is in full evidence here.
As is to be expected with a public-domain release, the quality of the individual prints featured in The Shirley Temple Collection is a mixed bag. The Baby Burlesque shorts look horrible, with tons of imperfections such as scratches and specks. Grain is also as thick as fog in these shorts. Pie-Covered Wagon in particular suffers from poor contrast between whites, resulting in a ghostly image. The best-looking of the transfers belongs to The Little Princess, which has a clean, vibrant-looking transfer. The lush Technicolor hues are retained quite wonderfully. Imperfections appear, but other than some scratches and specks, they aren't much of a bother. I am being fairly lenient because this set is a public domain release, but I fear many will be disgusted with the overall poor quality.
Audio is this set's Achilles' heel. The sound is absolutely atrocious, with imperfections and damage that will make even the most forgiving viewers blanch with terror. In addition to the pops, hiss, and crackling sounds that mar most of the earliest shorts, there are missing music and dialogue cues, incessant buzzing on the soundtrack, and even echoing such as that heard throughout The Little Princess. It's enough to make anyone cringe or pray that these films were silent.
Although not listed as such, there is a fifth disc with features that should be considered as bonus material.
• "Shirley Temple Rarities"—This is a half-hour compilation of various footage from different points of Shirley's career. There are vintage theatrical trailers for most of her adult acting career, exclusive footage of her wedding to B-movie legend John Agar, scenes from her early-'60s variety program, and other unique snippets. This is definitely worth watching.
• Kid Stuff: Inside Hollywood's Child Stars—This is the same awful pastiche that was included in Passport's sister release, The Little Rascals Collection. This pathetic excuse for a documentary lacks the depth and clarity that are necessary for such a program. It also rushes actors through as if they were stray cattle. Temple's story barely occupies three minutes of screen time. Skip this worthless documentary at all costs.
Shirley Temple fans will definitely pick this set up, despite my serious reservations. However, even die-hard fans will find it difficult to sit through all of the material offered in this set. Much of this material is offered cheaper and in better condition elsewhere. My advice to the potential viewer is to shop around and find one of those other collections. Passport's is not the one to purchase.
A pox on anyone who finds it cute to see children too old for diapers forced to wear them.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Passport Video
• "Shirley Temple Rarities" Featurette
• IMDb: Glad Rags to Riches
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