WEE WILLIE WINKIE reminded me I must read more Kipling. I doubt his original story has much in common with this John Ford movie, but this John Ford movie has a fair bit in common with his others. FORT APACHE, for instance. In both films, Shirley Temple arrives at a fort surrounded by hostile Indians, meets Victor McLaglan, there’s a blonde who’s forbidden to see a young officer by the commanding officer who is her relative. But in the more innocent, less martial world of wee Shirley, everything does not have to end in bloodshed.
There’s some very cute stuff — Fiona pronounced Private Winkie’s kilt and uniform “adorable” and we actually laughed at McLaglan’s antics. The American cinema’s premier silverback mountain gorilla, he overplays everything but his build is so large the grandiose gestures and mugging seem perversely delicate.
THE COMPANY: C. Aubrey Smith’s crusty colonel is maybe a bit too appealing from the start — he could do with having been gruffer, since he’s all we have as an antagonist for most of the film. You would never know June Lang was a gangster’s moll in real life, she seems so demure. Cesar Romero may be an unlikely Pathan but Willie Fung is preposterous. He was preposterous even when playing Chinese, which is what he actually was, so I suppose one shouldn’t expect anything else. He’s very much in the vein of African-American comedy relief figure Snowflake — but please let’s not call him “the yellow Snowflake.” At any rate, his appearance is enough to make Woody Strode’s performance as a Chinese warrior in SEVEN WOMEN seem a model of sensitive and convincing ethnic casting.
Some of the time, though amusing, the film seems a touch impersonal for Ford — it’s nicely shot, and amusing, but there’s not much meat to it. But Shirley’s rendition of Old Lang Syne is a high point of Fordian sentiment, beautifully lit and staged, with erstwhile broad comedy characters deftly about-turned for emotional effect (including Clyde Cook, one of very few actual Scots in the film — still, that’s a few more than there are actual Indians).
NB — written Saturday night, after which I read Kipling’s Mrs Bathurst, one of the first works of literature to feature the cinematograph, and a dazzling modernist work which I must write about.