Written by Ruth at Silver Screenings
In 1939, Shirley Temple was 11 years old and Past Her Prime as a box office sensation.
She had been in the movies since the age of three and, from 1935 until 1938, there was almost no greater bit of movie business than Shirley Temple. In 1938 she was voted #1 box office actress; in 1939 she would slide to #5 – due, in part, to her making fewer movies that year.
But in 1939, before it was evident her best movie-making days were Over, Shirley starred in The Little Princess, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This film had a lavish $1.5M budget – her most expensive film to date – and it was her first feature in Technicolor.
The Little Princess is the story of a rich girl sent to a London boarding school while her father goes to battle in the Second Boer War. Life in the school is, at first, pleasant, with parties, swirly dresses, and a pony (!). However, it’s obvious the shifty headmistress prefers Shirley’s money to her company.
Shirley’s character is generous and unspoiled, as per usual, and she makes friends with people who are Kind and Decent, e.g. the school’s scullery maid and the butler who lives next door.
Alas! On Shirley’s birthday, on that very day, comes news of her father’s demise in the war. Not only is Shirley an orphan, it also appears she’s Flat Broke. Turns out her father was bankrupt, and her extravagant lifestyle has left her indebted to the school.
The headmistress seizes Shirley’s possessions in order to recoup some of this debt, and Shirley herself is forced to work as a servant to her former classmates, wearing the one dress that has been donated to her.
Shirley Temple movies have common themes, including a sharply-divided world where those who admire her are Good, and those who don’t are Bad.
There’s usually an absent mother and/or parents, a young couple-in-love who become surrogate guardians, and an older man with whom she can dance. In her films, Shirley is the star and adults are the accessories.
Her movies are sometimes criticized for being unrealistic and gooey, but we don’t think The Little Princess is sickly sweet. In fact, there are some dark undercurrents here.
To read the rest of Ruth's review, click here!