The name Shirley Temple is about as iconic as it gets when it comes to film history, and despite how many films I’ve seen in my lifetime, I had somehow managed to never see a film with Shirley Temple in it. When I volunteered to check out this film, I honestly thought it was going to be the 1980 version of the film that had Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews, simply because I didn’t realize that there were at least three versions of the film that were made. Despite the mixup, I was happy to get a chance to see the film and find out for myself what made Shirley Temple such a cinematic darling on the screen and made her memorable enough to even have a drink named after her. Personally, I’m not sure if this is the best example of her work, but it is certainly a product of its time.
“Sorrowful” Jones (Adolphe Menjou) is a bookie who has seen it all and has heard every excuse in the book from those looking to make a quick buck at the horse races. The Great Depression is still going on, and people are desperate, and the mob is doing fine taking advantage of all the gamblers. Plenty of gamblers are coming in to place bets with IOUs, and many of these bets Jones has to reject. Things get interesting when a gambler comes through with an IOU and leaves his spunky daughter behind as collateral. That daughter turns out to be Marthy “Marky” Jane (Shirley Temple). As luck would (not) have it, the father loses the bet, and he never returns, which leaves Marky in the care of Jones. We later discover that her father has committed suicide, and Jones just doesn’t have it in him to turn over the girl. Bear in mind that this version of the film isn’t rated, and though there is plenty of dark material, this is still treated as though it is a lighthearted comedy. Then there is “Big” Steve (Charles Bickford) who is the big kingpin who runs the races and his girlfriend who is also a lounge singer, Bangles Carson (Dorothy Dell) who is easily charmed by Marky and becomes somewhat of a matriarch figure for her.
It’s weird; while watching this, it is almost like watching two separate films that somehow got smashed together. We have this storyline about horse racing and wanting to “juice” a horse so it can win a race and make all these gangsters and gamblers money, and then we have these shady characters just over the moon with trying to please this little girl. The conflicting tones of the film just made it hard for me to really get into this one despite how good the performances are with everyone. I feel like the biggest tone shift that just kind of blindsided me is in the final act where all the jokes and lighthearted nature just vanish and things suddenly get bleak.
The film is very much a product of its time. On the technical side this really doesn’t do much with the cinematography; it is very generic with the shot setups, though there is one brief moment where the film does a split-screen for a horse race. Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten used to films with great technical tricks with the camera that this basically just bored me, but I understand that they did the best with the technology they had to work with at the time. Then there is the issue of content. Again I can appreciate the time that this was made, but I was shocked while watching the commentary that certain things weren’t pointed out that just wouldn’t fly today. There is a sequence where Bangles is performing on a moveable stage and she has what looks like a pair of African American kids who can’t be older than eight pulling her stage around. There is definitely an undercurrent theme going on with race and how they were employed back in this time, and it can be a bit jarring when you see it.
At the end of the day, I’m glad I got to see this film for its historical context, but I’d rather see what others did with this story in the more recent adaptations of the film. I can understand how this is the film that broke Temple out and helped make her a star, mostly because of her young age, but I’m still not convinced I understand why she went on to become an icon. If you love films from the early days of Hollywood, this is worth checking out, but in my opinion this wasn’t the gem I had hoped it would be.