The Shirley Temple of Doom

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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.

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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.

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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.

18 Responses to “The Shirley Temple of Doom”

  1. As Woody Strode is playing Mongol in Seven Women (a film I adore for multifarious and complex reasons) his casting is far more a propos than Mike Mazurki’s in the same film. Likewise Butch as a Pathan has a kind of Hollywood logic to it.

  2. Yes, once you start down that route, there’s no logic in stopping. Willie Fung sadly is playing a subnormal subcontinental with the same toolkit he used for playing grotesque comedy “Chinamen” — even his death is played for laughs, which is a blot on a film which tries, perhaps a little halfheartedly, to give both sides a point of view.

  3. Woody is great in Seven Women, a film that deserves far more attention (with DVD release plus extra footage shot for the TV version) than it has. He reworks Stone Calf from TWO RODE TOGETHER and is a symbolic avatar in both films.

  4. Strode really fits the definition of icon a lot better than most stars the word is applied to. So many movies use him more an an image than as an actor, as with the haunting shot of him in Stagecoach, a face that has seen suffering staring out at us, attracting far more curiosity that the plot requires.

  5. David, Are you not confusing him with Chief Big Tree in STAGECOACH?

  6. No, Strode appears briefly in the saloon with Tom Tyler near the end. Blink and you miss him, don’t blink and you can’t forget him.

  7. Are you sure that’s Strode. Yes, there is an African-American who responds to “Mis hermanos” but he is much older than Strodw would have been at the time. I’ll have to check reference material on this.

  8. P.S. The Imdb lists him in STAGECOACH but others have him debuting in a 1941 film SUNDOWN.

  9. I’ve been wrong before — but that looks exactly like him, and who looks like Strode? And the fact that it’s a Ford film makes it likelier.

  10. We have to consult the reference books and I’m ordering Strode’s autobiography from interlibrary loans but I thought Ford first cast him in the post-war period to play Sergeant Rutledge. Anyway, you could be right and if so provide a really interesting link to the community element I’ve been emphasizing in my current John Ford class. A Mainland Chinese student who does not like films has really been amazed by black and white PILGRIMAGE and STAGECOACH and very impressed with his artistry. I’m going to cite Glenn’s comment on FORT APACHE tomorrow night.

  11. I don’t think this is Woody like Mr. Williams said he looks too old if this is the person you think is Woody. /Users/jamesmcandrews/Desktop/Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 8.24.24 AM.png

  12. Link doesn’t work!

  13. Trying to figure out how to post a pic on here.

  14. All right here it is:

  15. Still can’t see it! I think if I friended you I could, but I don’t know which James McAndrews on Facebook you are. If you’re able to locate me, I will certainly accept an invite.

  16. i’m the James McAndrews of Modesto California and I have a most disdainful looking of profile pics. I hope that helps.

  17. A face that says “That’s never a 25-year-old Woody Strode!” I think you might be right (just ran the DVD, with essay by me). Was there a Mr Strode Snr?

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