10 December 2008 | lugonian
The Lloyds' of Kentucky
THE LITTLE COLONEL (Fox, 1935), directed by David Butler, stars Shirley Temple in one of her more famous movie roles during her early years as a young performer. Aside from her initial teaming with legendary dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (4th billed during opening credits, bottom billed in the closing), with whom she does a memorable "stair" dance, it places her against odds with the crusty Lionel Barrymore, on loan out assignment from MGM, sporting white hair, bushy eyebrows and droopy mustache in the old Southerner/ or Claude Gillingwater Sr. tradition, and what a pair they make.
Based on a story by Annie Fellows Johnston, the plot opens with a prologue set in 1870s Kentucky on a Southern plantation where Colonel Lloyd (Lionel Barrymore) disowns his beloved daughter, Elizabeth (Evelyn Venable) for eloping with a "Yankee", Jack Sherman (John Lodge). During their six years in Philadelphia, Jack and Elizabeth have been blessed with a child, Lloyd (Shirley Temple), whom they witness being commissioned as a "little colonel" by soldiers on a western outpost. With John remaining at the post, Elizabeth returns to Kentucky where she and Lloyd settle in an old cottage left to her by her late mother that happens to be next door to her father. After meeting his granddaughter with an introduction of getting mud thrown on him, he finds her to be just as stubborn and quick tempered as he. In spite of their rugged start and similar personality traits, Grandpa eventually warms up to Lloyd, though his stubbornness keeps him from having anything to do with his daughter, even when learning of swindlers Swazey (Sidney Blackmer) and Hull (Aden Chase) in their home threatening the ailing Jack and Elizabeth to turn over the deed to worthless property they sold him that has been proved valuable.
THE LITTLE COLONEL, a leisurely paced story with familiar theme, relies mostly on the strength of its leading players, Temple and Barrymore. It's also one of the better films in which Temple does not typically play an orphan. Evelyn Venable, whose career failed to take off after a promising start opposite Fredric March in DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (Paramount, 1934), provides the opening playing the harp and singing "Love's Young Dream" to her guests. The song is later reprized by Temple serenading to her grandfather as he envisions his daughter at the harp. John Lodge, virtually forgotten but better known for his performance as Count Alexi in THE SCARLET EMPRESS (Paramount, 1934) starring Marlene Dietrich, has little to do until the final half of the story. Hattie McDaniel, four years away her Academy Award winning performance in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), supports as the Sherman maid, Mom Beck. Dressed in "Aunt Jemima" attire, she shares amusing moments with Colonel Lloyd's butler (Robinson), sharing time together with the "little colonel" at a spiritual gathering witnessing a woman getting dunked in the river where she's having her sins washed away as Negroes sing "The Sun Shines Brighter." Aside from the aforementioned "stair dance," Temple and Robinson do an encore tap dancing to Stephen Foster's "Oh, Susannah" in the stable to harmonica playing by May Lily (Avonne Johnson). Johnson, along with Nyamza Potts as her little brother, Henry Clay, support as Temple's playmates. As in many Temple films, there's a pet dog, this time a pooch named Fritzi. Others in the cast include William Burress (Doctor Scott); Geneva Williams (Maria); and Robert Warwick (Colonel Gray).
Priot to 1985, THE LITTLE COLONEL played frequently on commercial television with the closing segment, filmed in Technicolor, usually absent, with story coming to an abrupt conclusion either after Barrymore's closing line or next scene of McDaniel successfully breaking down the door after being locked in by one of Sherman's "guests." When distributed on video in 1988, the closing Technicolor segment was restored, and shown intact at 82 minutes on cable TV broadcasts on the Disney Channel (early 1990s), American Movie Classics (1996-2001) and finally the Fox Movie Channel. THE LITTLE COLONEL is currently available on DVD in black and white or colorized versions.
The success of THE LITTLE COLONEL brought forth a similar theme and title of THE LITTLEST REBEL (1935), reuniting Temple with Bill Robinson once again, with plot set during the Civll War instead of after-wards. Both classic films with Temple (and Robinson) at the peak of their careers. (***1/2)