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The Little Princess

The Little Princess(1939)

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teaser The Little Princess (1939)

By 1938, at age 10, Shirley Temple had been a star for half her life. She was still talented, popular, and generally carefree, but she was growing up. And as she recalls in her autobiography, Child Star, Temple was becoming more perceptive about the behavior of adults around her, and more aware of her own sometimes troubling emotions. This charged atmosphere was what she would remember best about working on The Little Princess (1939).

Based on the Victorian-era novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Little Princess is the story of pampered Sara Crewe, whose widowed father leaves her in a luxurious boarding school while he goes off to fight the Boer War. When he's reported missing, and the money stops flowing in, the cruel headmistress banishes the girl into a garret and turns her into a servant. 20th Century Fox spared no expense on The Little Princess, which was Temple's first Technicolor film, and boasted a strong supporting cast that was perhaps a bit too talented for Shirley's liking.

Playing a cockney maid who becomes Sara's friend was a charming scene-stealer named Sybil Jason. A South African girl a year younger than Temple, Jason had appeared in British films and had been brought to the U.S. by Warner Brothers as a potential rival for Temple. Observing the crew's delighted reaction to Jason's cockney accent when the two girls filmed a scene together, the normally confident Temple felt pangs of jealousy. She recalled that she took out her feelings on another actress, Marcia Mae Jones, who played a schoolgirl who snubs Sara. In a scene where Sara dumps coal ashes on her rival, Temple did so a bit too enthusiastically, then asked director Walter Lang if she could do it again. Lang demurred, and as a repentant Temple shared her treats with Jones, she was disconcerted to learn that Jones envied her because she seemed so happy all the time.

Temple had never had any difficulty crying for a scene, and she had a particularly difficult one coming up, in which she had to make an entrance crying violently. Thinking about Jones' comment as she prepared for her entrance, Temple found she couldn't cry at all. She recalled someone's suggestion that the way to do so was to laugh and cry at the same time, and managed to work herself up into a hysterical fit, which she couldn't stop once the scene was over. Temple's mother had to take her into her dressing room to calm her down.

During the making of The Little Princess, Temple also remembered becoming more aware of pettiness by adults. James Roosevelt, the son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, visited the set with his wife. When co-star Arthur Treacher made a lighthearted remark that Shirley could be president if she set her mind to it, Temple found the remark insulting to the president, and resented it. And there were other things that bothered her during production; a pet monkey on the set bit her. Temple's own pony, which the studio had hired for a scene, performed badly. All these incidents, while trivial, were humiliating for Temple. Childish self-confidence was being replaced by adolescent self-consciousness, and the sunny little girl adored by millions would soon disappear forever.

The Little Princess was a success; as it turned out, the movie would be Shirley Temple's last successful feature as a child star. The Blue Bird, a very expensive and much-anticipated fantasy adventure made the following year (1940), proved to be a box office bomb. Although Temple continued to make films until 1949, she never equaled the success she enjoyed as a child star. She retired from the screen, and later had a successful career as a politician and diplomat.

Director: Walter Lang
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: Ethel Hill, Walter Ferris, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Editor: Louis Loeffler
Cinematography: Arthur Miller, William Skall
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Hans Peters
Music: Walter Bullock, Samuel Pokrass
Cast: Shirley Temple (Sara Crewe), Richard Greene (Geoffrey Hamilton), Anita Louise (Rose), Ian Hunter (Captain Crewe), Cesar Romero (Ram Dass), Arthur Treacher (Bertie Minchin), Mary Nash (Amanda Minchin), Sybil Jason (Becky), Marcia Mae Jones (Lavinia).

by Margarita Landazuri

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