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By the time she appeared in Captain January (1936), seven year old Shirley Temple was the number one box office star in nation. Signed by Fox in 1934 at the age of five, she made eight films that year, and skyrocketed to fame. By the following year, Fox, which had been on the brink of bankruptcy, was turning a profit. Temple topped the box office from 1935 thru 1938, and during those years her popularity was unparalleled.
Based on an 1891 children's book by Laura E. Richard, Captain January, the story of a foundling raised by a Maine lighthouse keeper, had been a winning vehicle for an earlier child star, Baby Peggy, in 1924. Fox dusted it off for Temple and gave her several impressive and complex musical numbers that showed off her acting, singing and dancing skills. In one number, Temple dances down a 45-foot long spiral staircase while reciting the multiplication tables. In her autobiography, Child Star, she recalled that it was fiendishly difficult. "There were three things to do at once: the taps, move down the spiral staircase a step at a time, and synchronize the multiplication tables with both taps and movements."
In her book, Temple captions a photo of her dancing with Buddy Ebsen in Captain January "The best dancing partner." It was Ebsen's second film. The vaudeville and Broadway hoofer was brought to Hollywood by MGM in 1935, and made his film debut that year in Broadway Melody of 1936. In their Captain January duet, "At the Codfish Ball," small, round Shirley and lanky, loose-limbed Ebsen make an incongruous, but delightful dancing duo. "Up and down stairs we went, threading our way among bushel baskets of lobsters, leaping up and down an old rain barrel," Temple wrote. "That barrel was a problem. I couldn't jump that high. Ebsen solved it by holding me cheek to cheek with my legs dangling, and then vaulting up himself. As he later jokingly told me, he had fallen arches and was wearing steel supports in his shoes. My weight fastened at his neck must have been all he could handle."
Those lobsters also worried Shirley. To keep them from getting out of their baskets, they were boiled, then painted black to return them to their natural color. As soon as the number was finished shooting, the crew cracked them open and ate them. Lobsters weren't the only dangerous wildlife on the set. In another scene, Temple played opposite a four-foot tall crane, and was dismayed when it snapped at her. A prop man solved that problem by hammering nails into the crane's webbed feet to keep it in place. The prop man assured Shirley that the crane didn't feel a thing.
As if all these shenanigans weren't enough, Temple even sings the sextet from the opera Lucia di Lamermoor, reduced to a trio, with Guy Kibbee and Slim Summerville. That was the final straw for New York Times critic Frank Nugent, who harrumphed, "Mistress Temple skips the high notes, but makes up for it by tap dancing the multiplication table...All this must sound fairly encouraging to the Temple enthusiast, indicating still greater wonders of the cinema's wonder-child, but we fearfully suspect that not even these glories can atone for Captain January's moss-covered script."
British novelist and critic Graham Greene's review was more provocative. He called Captain January "a little depraved, with an appeal interestingly decadent," and wrote of Temple, "some of her popularity seems to rest on a coquetry quite as mature as Miss Colbert's, and on an oddly precocious body, as voluptuous in grey flannel trousers as Miss Dietrich's." When Greene wrote an even more sexualized review of Temple's Wee Willie Winkie (1937) the following year, Temple's parents and Fox had enough. They sued Greene and his publisher for libel and won.
As usual, Temple fans adored Captain January and ignored the critics' complaints. The film broke box office records in Milwaukee, Portland, Maine, Dayton, Richmond, Cincinnati, Boston, and Baltimore, according to Time magazine. It was another success everywhere for Temple, and her string of hits continued until she entered adolescence. She left Fox in 1940, and although she continued to act for another decade, she never achieved the success as an adult actress that she had as a child.
Director: David Butler
Producer: B.G. DeSylva
Screenplay: Sam Hellman, Gladys Lehman, Harry Tugend, based on the novel by Laura E. Richard
Cinematography: John Seitz
Editor: Irene Morra
Costume Design: Gwen Wakeling
Art Direction: William S. Darling
Music: Songs by Lew Pollack, Sidney D. Mitchell, and Jack Yellen
Principal Cast: Shirley Temple (Star), Guy Kibbee (Captain January), Slim Summerville (Captain Nazro), Buddy Ebsen (Paul Roberts), Sara Haden (Agatha Morgan), Jane Darwell (Eliza Croft), June Lang (Mary Marshall), Jerry Tucker (Cyril Morgan), Nella Walker (Mrs. Mason), George Irving (John Mason).
by Margarita Landazuri