30 November 2008 | lugonian
A Child of War
THE LITTLEST REBEL (20th Century-Fox, 1935), directed by David Butler, another agreeable and rewarding motion picture featuring child star, Shirley Temple, teams her once again opposite 1935 co-stars John Boles (CURLY TOP) and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (THE LITTLE COLONEL). Capitalizing on the success of THE LITTLE COLONEL, set after the Civil War, THE LITTLEST REBEL, taking place during the war between the states, finds Temple as a little girl winning the hearts of those around her, especially a tough Yankee soldier (Jack Holt) and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (Frank McGlynn Sr.), with whom she shares his apple. An old chestnut by Edward Peple that was first staged and later filmed during the silent era in 1914, this edition, Temple's last for 1935, further demonstrates her as a fine child actress who equally handles her lighter and dramatic scenes with conviction and sincerity.
The story is set on a Southern plantation where Herbert Cary (John Boles) and his wife, Helen (Karen Morley) honor their child, Virginia, better known as Virgie (Shirley Temple), with a birthday party where she and her little guests are gathered together with ice cream and cake along with tap dancing entertainment by Cary's slave/ butler, Uncle Willie (Bill Robinson). Shortly afterwards, the party is disrupted by startling news that war has been declared between the states. Enlisting in the Army, Cary leaves his wife and child under the care of Uncle Willie. With Yankee scouts invading their property, Virgie, while playing soldier, sling shots Colonel Morrison (Jack Holt), addressing herself as a "confederate." In spite of their differences, Morrison, a father himself, takes an immediate liking to Virgie, later rescuing her from the threat of the villainous Sergeant Dudley (Guinn Williams) for not revealing the whereabouts of her "daddy." After the Cary estate is burned to the ground, causing Mrs. Carey to fall ill and die within three weeks time, Cary leaves his post to take Virgie over to Richmond where she's to be placed in the care of her Aunt Caroline. Complications arise when Carey is recognized and captured, separated from his daughter, imprisoned along with Morrison for helping him, each charged with treason and sentences to be executed.
With 20th-Fox specializing in Southern stories set during, before or after the Civil War, THE LITTLEST REBEL is a fine example capturing Southern hospitality and flavor with the reconstruction of plantations and notable songs from that era including "Swanee River" (by Stephen Foster) sung during opening credits; "Turkey in the Straw" (tap dance by Bill Robinson); "Those Endearing Young Charms" (sung by Shirley Temple); "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" (by Thomas Moore and Matthew Locke); "Polly-Wolly Doodle" and "Polly-Wolly-Doodle" (sung by Temple and reprized during closing titles).
Of its cast members, Bill Robinson and Willie Best provide lighter moments to their traditional servant roles. Best's performance as a shiftless and comical slave gives the impression that his role as James Henry was actually intended for Stepin Fetchit. While Best doesn't imitate Fetchit's comical methods to the extreme, he works well alongside Robinson as his comic foil doing a brief takeoff in the popular "Amos and Andy" radio show tradition in the question and answer session where Best asks Robinson: "Why is a shoe called a shoe?" Although portraying their roles through stereotypes, Robinson comes through as an intelligent, caring and sensible slave with a talent for dancing. He's very convincing and sincere through his interacting with Temple, which is why they work so well together. John Boles satisfies as the easy-going father turned soldier and accused spy while Karen Morley, despite of her screen limitations, makes due with her role.
Due to controversy in how the black performers are portrayed, cable television revivals of THE LITTLEST REBEL in recent years have been limited, though shown frequently at some point on American Movie Classics (1996-1999), the Fox Movie Channel, and availability since the 1980s on home video and afterwards DVD either in black and white or colorized formats. In May 2006, THE LITTLEST REBEL was one of the films chosen as part of its subject matter of "Black Images on Film" theme co-hosted by author Donald Bogle, where he and host Bob Osborne discussed the film, performances of Robinson and Best, as well as a scene where Temple gets herself corked up to avoid Yankee soldiers.
THE LITTLEST REBEL, along with THE LITTLE COLONEL, were intended as screen entertainment with no intention to offend, yet something to consider as a reflection of the times, and how a Civil War story such as this is seen through the eyes of Virgie Carey, the littlest rebel. (***)