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The first Shirley Temple movie to be released after the merger of Fox Film with Twentieth Century Pictures, Curly Top (1935) was given special attention by Vice President of Production Darryl F. Zanuck. Temple had become a star for Fox Film the previous year after the release of Stand Up and Cheer!, and Zanuck recognized her importance to building a prosperous future for the new studio. Throughout the Depression Zanuck would continue to cultivate the careers of two female stars who had originally signed with Fox--Temple and Alice Faye.
Curly Top followed the template already established for Shirley's movies during her tenure at Fox Film. Temple typically played an orphan or the daughter of a single parent who inspired others as they were enduring emotional and financial hardships. In her films, she befriended those outside the status quo, including servants, African Americans, orphans, and animals, bonding with them via song and dance. Each film introduced at least one song destined to become a beloved pop culture standard.
In Curly Top, Temple stars as Elizabeth Blair, the orphaned daughter of vaudeville performers. She and her adult sister Mary, played by Rochelle Hudson, live at a privately run foundlings' home where Mary toils in the kitchen and Elizabeth--nicknamed Curly--entertains her fellow orphans. Zanuck was careful not to make Temple's star image too precious; if she were too good, audiences could not relate. Though never malicious or badly behaved, Shirley's characters tended to get into trouble for not following the rules or understanding the social graces. In Curly Top, she brings her pony inside the orphanage during a rainstorm, sings to the other children without permission, and imitates a pompous board member who is reluctant to allow the orphanage more funds for better heating. Temple's first song in Curly Top is "Animal Crackers in My Soup", which was written by Irving Caesar, Ted Koehler, and Ray Henderson. "Animal Crackers" quickly made the Hit Parade, though it was not as successful as "On the Good Ship Lollipop."
Curly's fortunes change when new board member Edward Morgan, played by debonair John Boles, visits the orphanage. He encounters Curly and is immediately taken with her optimism and spunkiness. He maneuvers to adopt her by creating a secret identity for himself as Hiram Jones, whom he describes as a wealthy man constantly traveling for business. Morgan is then free to be himself around Curly and Mary, who might feel too beholden to him if they knew the truth. Curly charms the household staff at the Morgan summer estate in Southampton and kindles a desire for a family in the workaholic Edward, who begins to fall in love with Mary. Edward's secret role as the girls' guardian is reminiscent of the storyline in Daddy Long Legs, a comparison that contemporary reviewers were quick to make. At the time, 20th Century-Fox owned the rights to Daddy Long Legs.
Scholars and historians often connect Temple and her enormous popularity to the public's need to survive the Depression. Cheerful and hopeful in the face of trouble, her characters had a transformative influence on the adults in her movies, inspiring them to re-engage with life, do the right thing, or overcome bitterness. Off screen, that star image translated into a symbol of American optimism with the potential to galvanize people to withstand the hardships of the Depression.
Thus, while Curly Top may seem like little more than nostalgia to contemporary audiences, the themes, events, and imagery were meaningful and relevant to Depression-era movie-goers. The orphanage where Curly and Mary live depended on the generosity of a board of wealthy benefactors, who were generally tight-fisted and suspicious that money was being wasted. The old geezer who thought it acceptable for the orphans to sleep in a drafty room, and who offered to sell the institution's director his company's cough syrup should the girls get sick, is a character in keeping with the public perception of the wealthy during the Depression. Newspapers and magazines were filled with articles exposing the stinginess of America's wealthiest families. When income statistics were publicly available for the first time, a 1933 article in The Nation reported on the dismal contributions by the wealthy to charities, revealing that the figures "destroy completely the myth of the generosity of America's millionaires." The article goes on to note that the wealthy donated just enough to charities to lower their taxes and nothing more. Other articles exposed corporations' propaganda to guilt members of the middle class into giving to the poor, shifting the burden of charitable donations to others. As a newspaper in Philadelphia noted, the poor seemed to be the only people taking care of the poor. In that spirit, once Curly is adopted, she organizes a variety show to raise money for her friends back at the orphanage.
Generous Edward Morgan, who plucks Curly and her sister from their life of poverty, represents the fantasy of Depression-era movie-goers suffering from financial devastation. In an extensive sequence that does little to advance the plot but serves as wish fulfillment for the audience, Edward showers Curly and Mary with fashionable clothes and jewelry, buys Curly an extravagant cart for her pony, takes the girls water-skiing, and sends Mary to music school.
To strengthen the Temple vehicles, Zanuck marshaled the studio's best talent around her. Irving Cummings, who would direct the films of Fox's major female stars, including Betty Grable and Alice Faye, was responsible for Curly Top. The great cinematographer John Seitz lensed most of Temple's movies, including this one, before moving on to Preston Sturges's comedies and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) in the 1940s. Some of the studio's most recognizable character actors appeared in secondary roles. Jane Darwell, who became a favorite of John Ford's, costars as Mrs. Henrietta Denham, the kindly matron at the orphanage, while Rafaela Ottiano, so memorable in The Devil-Doll (1936), played the strict director. Arthur Treacher, a former song-and-dance man from the English music hall, perfected his persona as the perfect butler in the early 1930s, including his role as Reynolds in Curly Top. The following year, he would star as the ultimate butler in Thank You, Jeeves. His music hall background served him well in a scene in which he sings and dances to "When I Grow Up" alongside Billy Gilbert, who plays the cook. A running joke in the film is Treacher's very British exclamation "my word" whenever he is surprised by Curly's behavior, while she repeatedly remarks, "Oh, my goodness." In the last line of the film, she combines the two phrases to cap off the joke, "Oh, my word."
Under the supervision of Darryl F. Zanuck, little Shirley Temple became Hollywood's top box office star from 1935 through 1938 and, according to Variety, she was given more space in the fanzines in 1935 than any other female star.
Producer: Winfield R. Sheehan
Director: Irving Cummings
Screenplay: Patterson McNutt, Arthur Beckhard
Cinematography: John Seitz
Editor: Jack Murray
Art Director: Jack Otterson
Costume Design: Rene Hubert
Cast: Elizabeth Blair (Shirley Temple), Edward Morgan (John Boles), Mary Blair (Rochelle Hudson), Mrs. Henrietta Denham (Jane Darwell), Mrs. Higgins (Rafaela Ottiano), Reynolds (Arthur Treacher), Jimmie Rogers (Maurice Murphy), Aunt Genevieve Graham (Esther Dale), Cook (Billy Gilbert), Mr. Wyckoff (Etienne Girardot).
by Susan Doll