Bright Eyes (1934)

Storyline

When a maid is accidentally hit by a car and killed, her young orphaned daughter is forced to live with the snooty couple she used to work for. A custody battle soon ensues between an aviator who adores the little girl and the couple’s crotchety Uncle Ned.

BRIGHT EYES (Fox, 1934), directed by David Butler, stars child actress Shirley Temple in the last of her many 1934 movie releases, and the first to be categorized as a formula “Shirley Temple film,” though her earlier LITTLE MISS MARKER over at Paramount comes close to that format. Whether playing an orphan or a child with a living parent, in BRIGHT EYES, Shirley has a mother whose aviator father “cracked up” some time ago. She is loved and admired by everyone except her mother’s employers. This also marks a rare case in which Shirley is pitted against another little girl, a complete opposite to her angelic character, as well as the introduction to Temple’s signature song, “On the Good Ship Lollipop” by Richard Whiting and Sidney Clare, singing it to the fellow aviators on an airplane as it taxis on the runway, and her catch phrase of “Oh, my goodness!”

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The story, set during the Christmas season in California, revolves around Shirley Blake (Shirley Temple), a charming 5-year-old living in a mansion with her widowed mother, Mary (Lois Wilson), employed as a maid for the snobbish and selfish Smythe family: Anita (Dorothy Christy), J. Wellington (Theodore Von Eltz) and their unruly daughter, Joy (Jane Withers). Also under their wing is the cranky Uncle Ned Smith (Charles Sellon), a wheel-chair bound old man, and Mr. and Mrs. Higgins (Brandon Hurst and Jane Darwell), a middle-aged couple working as butler and cook, who all have a soft spot for little Shirley.

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One of Shirley’s greatest pleasures is heading over to the American Airlines Airport where she spends time with her godfather, James “Loop” Merrill (James Dunn), a pilot whose best friend was Shirley’s deceased father. When Shirley’s mother is struck by a passing vehicle on her way to attend her a Christmas party at the airport, the child, now an orphan, becomes a charity case for the Smyths, who in reality take her in and her dog, Rags, too, only to please their Uncle Ned. Because Loop is a bachelor, he’s unable to take in Shirley. He even refuses the help of Adele Martin (Judith Allen), a society girl staying with her cousin Anita’s home for Christmas, because he refuses to forgive her for jilting him at the altar years ago.

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When it’s learned that Uncle Ned intends on adopting “Bright Eyes,” this not only finds the Smythe family in fear of losing their inheritance after he dies, but Loop to risk his life flying his airplane in uncertain weather to obtain enough money for an attorney to fight for the custody of Shirley against the old man in court.

BRIGHT EYES is one of the few Temple movies where she’s nearly overshadowed by her co-stars, namely Charles Sellon and Jane Withers. Sellon’s performance predates that of Lionel Barrymore years before cranky old men in wheelchairs became fashionable. Aside from coming down the stairs in his wheelchair, Sellon’s Uncle Ned has some truly funny lines as well as a great moral message about selfishness and love. Withers, in the first important screen role, plays a spoiled brat to perfection. She not only has tantrums, rips apart dolls, and wanting to play train wreck with Shirley, but is the only little girl in history to want a wheelchair as a Christmas present.

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Fortunately her unlikable performance didn’t put an end to her career. In fact, it started a whole new cycle of Jane Withers movies. While Temple remains the most famous child star in history, Withers, whose career at 20th-Fox lasted longer than Temple’s, is virtually forgotten, and due to her only association with Temple, BRIGHT EYES would become the only Withers film from the 1930s in circulation today.

Great moments of BRIGHT EYES include Shirley’s mother telling her a Christmas story with chorus singing “Silent Night” in the background, and a tender loving scene where Dunn’s character, in a choked-up manner, having to tell Shirley that her mother has gone to Heaven.

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Shirley’s response, “You mean, my mother cracked up, too?” This alone is classic Temple, with Dunn constantly asking her throughout the story, “How much do you love me?” He even gives her his “magic ring” to send to him whenever she’s in trouble. All this sounds corny in print, but actually plays better on the screen.

Formerly available on video cassette and currently on DVD either in black and white and colorized process, BRIGHT EYES has played on numerous cable TV stations throughout the years: The Disney Channel (1980s), American Movie Classics (1996-2001), Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: September 6, 1998) and even The Fox Movie Channel. In spite of its age, BRIGHT EYES is sure to delight adults, children and optometrists alike. Be sure not to miss the good ship lollipop. (***1/2)

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Critical reception

Andre Sennwald in his December 21, 1934  New York Times  review praised Dunn, Wilson, and Withers. Sellon was singled out for his “great humorous skill” in portraying crotchety Uncle Ned. Sennwald thought the film was at its best during Temple’s delivery of the Lollipop song and at its worst in the scenes involving the villainous Smythes, who, for him, were so over-the-top as to be unrecognizable as human beings. He decided the film was composed of “old standbys of the hearts-and-flowers drama”, and noted that, “Shirley romps through all her assignments with such persuasive charm and enkindling naturalness that she succeeds in being refreshing even in her most painfully arranged scenes.”

Film commentator Hal Erickson writes the film is “arguably the best of Shirley Temple’s 1930s vehicles”, and thinks Jane Withers “terrific” as the film’s villainess. He notes that some critics believed Withers stole the show, and it was this “as much as anything else, that earned Withers her own starring series at 20th Century-Fox”.

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Shirley Temple‘s mother Gertrude Temple worried that Jane Withers would steal the spotlight from her daughter in this movie, and she tried to convince director David Butler to minimize Withers’s role. Butler refused, saying that Withers’s bratty, spoiled character would increase audience sympathy for Shirley.

Director David Butler wrote the story based on an incident that happened in his childhood. His parents had advertised for a live-in maid, and a woman answered the ad who had just arrived from Scotland. She had a little girl and was separated from her husband – an unusual circumstance at the time – and said she wouldn’t take the job unless her daughter was allowed to live in the house with her, also an unusual circumstance at the time. Butler’s parents agreed, and the woman and her daughter moved in with the family.
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