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The troubled film studio Fox trembled on the brink of financial disaster in 1934 - they needed a hit film quickly in order to survive . . . and their savior arrived in the form of a six year-old girl. Bright Eyes, a vehicle custom-crafted for Shirley Temple, catapulted the young tot into stardom and Fox back in the black. As in most Temple flicks, she's an orphan; in Bright Eyes, this is due to her mother (a working class maid) dying in an automobile accident, resulting in three people jockeying to adopt her. Her old co-star, James Dunn, appeared alongside her once again, for the fourth time that year; the other films were Baby, Take a Bow, Change of Heart, and Stand Up and Cheer!. The frenetic pace was seemingly effortless for the tyke - Temple would complete nine feature films and three shorts in 1934. For her efforts, Temple was awarded a special kid-sized Oscar that year for "outstanding contribution to screen entertainment."
Director David Butler also played a hand in penning the script. Pressed by a time crunch, the studio wanted a showcase piece for Temple with a Christmas time release; Butler drew upon his own childhood recollections for inspiration. He explained in an interview, "I was living with my mother and father here in Los Angeles, and we advertised for a maid in the paper. A lady came to the door - Annie, with a Scottish accent. She said, "I'd like to come work for you. I just got over here from Scotland. I'm a plain cook. There's only one thing. I've got a little girl. I've separated from my husband and I want to have my little girl with me." My mother, who was a very kindly woman, said that would be all right, and that's how it started. That's really the plot of Bright Eyes." Butler would direct Temple four more times, in Captain January, The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel (all 1935), and as a teen in The Story of Seabiscuit (1949).
As the dashing ace flier, Dunn once again demonstrated his onscreen chemistry with Temple, who had a secret crush on the actor. In her autobiography, Child Star, Temple recalls resenting any competition from her female co-stars: "Occasionally someone else tried to butt into what I considered my romantic monopoly. One day actress Alice Faye swooped past me without a nod, her blond hair blindingly pale in the glare of Kleig lights. An eye-catching woman in an elegant velvet costume, she dropped herself into Dunn's lap, where she remained, giggling, fluffing at his hair, and playfully chucking his chin. I was annoyed, considering Dunn to be my special property, at least for a while. When Faye finished and departed, I had no time to lose. Into Dunn's vacant lap I climbed, and slipped both arms around his neck. Time for my trump card. Ill marry you, Jimmy," I said, moving my head so as to shake its curls, the only feminine thing I had to shake. When he told me it was a deal, I knew those curls were an asset."
Alice Faye wasn't the only competition Temple would face: cast in the contrasting role of mean, rich girl was Jane Withers, an inexperienced but talented young actress who earned fine notices for her performance in Bright Eyes. During filming both girls received prop dolls, a fancy one for Jane's snooty character, and a humble version for Shirley. Temple recalls Withers categorically denying her access to the doll and behaving arrogantly (she even sneered at the existence of Santa Claus!), but Withers remembers things differently: "Naturally Shirley was the star of the picture, but we were the only two children in the film. When the shooting ended, they had a little party. I wasn't even invited to it. When Lois Wilson [Temple's mother in the film] finished her part in the film, she brought this beautiful doll to Shirley. . . I'm sure she didn't even realize what it would do to another child but we were both there, you know." Withers may have been disappointed with her treatment during filming, but Bright Eyes launched her career as well; she would go on to star in many popular children's flicks, and gain commercial notoriety as Josephine the Plumber in the Comet cleanser advertising campaign.
When Bright Eyes was released, it proved to be an instant hit. According to Temple in her autobiography, the film also "worked a medical miracle. A young girl from Romford, England, named Kathleen Robinson, congenitally mute for twelve years, became so excited watching the film that her ability to speak was suddenly restored." The most memorable sequence of Bright Eyes is Temple's performance of "On the Good Ship Lollipop," a sequence that most people, unfamiliar with the film, erroneously attribute to a sea-sailing vessel . . . it is, in fact, in reference to an airplane. The set used during filming was a mocked-up DC-2 aircraft--and the onlookers in the scene? They were actually football players, hastily recruited from the nearby University of Southern California. And although Fox refused to loan Temple out to MGM for The Wizard of Oz (1939) a few years later, one alumna from Bright Eyes made it: Terry III, better known as Toto. Bright Eyes was the Cairn Terrier's film debut. Hey, you gotta start somewhere, right?
Producer: Sol M. Wurtzel
Director: David Butler
Screenplay: William M. Conselman, story by David Butler and Edwin J. Burke
Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
Art Direction: Duncan Cramer
Music: David Buttolph
Costume Design: Royer
Cast: Shirley Temple (Shirley Blake), James Dunn (James 'Loop' Merritt), Jane Darwell (Mrs. Elizabeth Higgins), Judith Allen (Adele Martin), Jane Withers (Joy Smythe), Lois Wilson (Mary Blake), Walter Johnson (Thomas).
by Eleanor Quin