Bright Eyes [50 Films Older Than Me #32]

A while ago (indeed, almost a whole year ago), it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #32.

Spoilers ahead.  

Bright Eyes

Directed by David Butler

Release Year:  1934 (36 years before I was born).

What it is about:  Precocious young Shirley Blake is orphaned when her mother, alive-in maid to a snobbish Smythe family, is killed in a road accident. A battle ensues for how she will be cared for, with her godfather “Loop” on one side and the Smythe family on the other, because of the influence of their crotchety Uncle Ned who has taken a shine to Shirley.

Starring Shirley Temple as Shirley Blake, James Dunn as Loop, Judith Allen as the Smythe’s sister Adele, who was once engaged to Loop, Charles Sellon as Uncle Ned, Lois Wilson as Shirley’s mother Mary, Theodore von Eltz & Dorothy Christy as the Smythe’s, and Jane Withers as the Smythe’s spoiled daughter Joy. Terry (the dog) makes her debut in this movie as Rags (the dog)–Terry is best known as the dog that performed Toto in The Wizard of Oz sometime later, which probably makes her the second most famous performer in this movie.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I’ve never seen a Shirley Temple movie before, but of course I’m familiar with her as the beloved child-star of the 1930’s. This movie has her song On the Good Ship Lollipop in it, which naturally I’ve heard of as well.

Reality: One of the funny side effects of these movie-watching projects that I’ve been doing for the last couple of years is how I occasionally run into surprising connections between the films that my whims have chosen to watch. Just recently I watched and wrote about a silent movie called Little Annie Rooney, who is a character who appeared after a fashion in two other movies in the 1930s and 1940s, being played in one by Jane Withers and in the other by Shirley Temple–both of whom got their starts in Bright Eyes. In a manner of speaking, anyway–it was Jane Withers’ first film and Shirley Temple’s first starring vehicle.

As I said it’s my first exposure to Temple and it’s immediately obvious why the girl was such a star. She not yet seven years old when the movie was released and yet is incredibly articulate, expressive and charming. And of course, she’s super-cute…like a Disney-animated puppy. 

But she’s not only cute—she’s a talented singer and actor, delivering a fairly well-developed performance for a child actor. She makes Shirley Blake into more than just smiles and curly hairs, but a cheerful young girl who is staying positive while dealing with some pretty difficulty life experiences.

Most notably, Shirley must contend with the shocking death of her mother. Actually, this is another connection the film has with Little Annie Rooney–a light-hearted comedy suddenly turns tragic when the main character’s only parent dies in a violent twist. Mary Blake’s death is pretty heart-breaking, with its fast-paced editing and evocative image the smashed cake (which Mary was bringing for her daughter) on the ground. The fact that the sequence of Shirley enjoying her special day out just continues for quite a while without her discovering the truth makes it especially emotional. (Although I have to question Loop’s wisdom in waiting to tell her until the two of them were alone up in the air in an airplane that he had to maintain control of while the poor girl sobbed her eyes out!)

Shirley Temple’s child actress co-star, Jane Withers, also makes a great first impression.  Her character, Joy Smythe, is just terrible–a nightmare of a brat with her screaming, threatening and pounding on the piano.  But she’s so funny, and of course a great contrast to Shirley Temple.

The other brilliantly funny character is the outrageous Uncle Ned, played by Charles Sellon. He enters the story by impatiently clunking his wheelchair down a staircase in a visual bit that has to be seen to be believed.  Uncle Ned is incredibly ornery and cantankerous, but as he’s mostly up against the unpleasant Smythe’s, he comes across as pretty sympathetic.

Some of best scenes of the movie are between these three, with the camera and dialogue helping to highlight humor inherent in their relationships.  I love it as Uncle Ned chases Joy back out of the yard in his wheelchair, or as Joy suggests to Shirley that they operate on her doll.

Less successful is the romance between Loop and Adele. It’s obvious that these two are going to get (back) together eventually, and it’s obvious that if they do it will provide the answers for all of Shirley’s problems (even before Adele herself points this out). But the movie spends its entire runtime hinting about their prior relationship and the way Adele walked out on him, with Loop so obviously bitter about the experience, that it’s hugely disappointing to have the issue resolved without ever actually taking us through their story.

We never find out exactly what happened before, and Loop goes from scowling at her to smiling at the bright days they have ahead without any motivation at all. I did like both characters, but they were missing a bit of key meaningful interaction which would have helped the film feel more complete.

The big action climax of Bright Eyes involves Loop deciding to fly a plane in a storm to make enough money to try to adopt Shirley, and Shirley deciding to stow away with him instead of returning to the hated Smythe’s.

This sets up Loop to be accused of kidnapping, and eventually leads to both characters nearly dying when they have to abandon the airplane and float down to earth in a single parachute. The whole sequence is of course complete fluff and nonsense, and is a bit jarring with the rest of the movie. Even though the whole thing is whimsical, this is the only part which is just blatantly implausible (although maybe the start would also qualify, where young Shirley is introduced as she hitchhikes down the road so she can get to the airport to hang out with all her aviator friends. Can you imagine a scene like that today? I felt like I was having a minor heart attack watching it!)

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? In spite of some obvious missteps, the movie succeeds thanks to a lot of funny storytelling, and the emotional weight given to the relationship between Shirley and Loop. There is something kind of admirable about the way Shirley Blake responds to her troubles with optimism–with “bright eyes,” as it were. And with a nice singing voice, too.

See here for the Master List.


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