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Wee Willie Winkie

Wee Willie Winkie(1937)

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teaser Wee Willie Winkie (1937)

At the time, it must have sounded like one of the weirdest pairings of star and director ever conceived by a studio; even today, it seems a little odd. But John Ford was probably exactly the director child superstar Shirley Temple needed in 1937, when the two joined forces to make Wee Willie Winkie, a loose retelling of Rudyard Kipling's 1888 short story. At that point, Temple was Twentieth Century-Fox's most valuable asset, but studio head Darryl F. Zanuck must have known that he had only a few more years to bank on the star's childlike cuteness. (She was eight at the time.) Ford, a prolific journeyman director who'd made his first short westerns in 1917, had just had his own breakthrough: He'd recently won Best Director for The Informer (1935); the picture had won four Oscars altogether. Who knows how Ford really responded when Zanuck called to propose that the no-nonsense director ought to work with Temple? Ford himself told two versions of the story, according to Ford biographer Joseph McBride. In one version, Zanuck called Ford and said, "I'm going to give you something to scream about. I'm going to put you together with Shirley Temple." Ford's unruffled response: "Great, and we just went out and made the picture." He added, "The picture made a lot of money - and she adored me."

But according to another Ford biographer, Scott Eyman, Ford said, "My face fell atop the floor" when Zanuck proposed the idea. In the end, what probably matters most is that this ostensibly strange pairing ended up being beneficial for both star and director, and both knew it. Wee Willie Winkie is set in late-19th-century India, where a Highland regiment is holding steady against a group of insurgents. Temple's Priscilla Williams has just come to India from the States with her widowed mother (June Lang). At first, the mite's cantankerous granddad Colonel Williams (C. Aubrey Smith) wants little to do with her. But - this is Shirley Temple, after all - she eventually wears him down, and also becomes close with one of the officers under her grandfather's command, Sergeant MacDuff (Victor McLaglen, who had starred in The Informer). In the end, Temple's charm calms, at least temporarily, hundreds of years of complex religious and geopolitical conflict: Her Priscilla even manages to win over the rebel Khoda Khan (a sultry Cesar Romero), thus helping to avert revolution and bloodshed.

You could say that Wee Willie Winkie is the Shirley Temple movie for people who hate Shirley Temple: It's beautifully directed by Ford, and though he can't (or wouldn't have wanted to) completely tame Temple's total adorableness, he did temper some facets of her eager-to-please demeanor. That, it seems, was the goal all along. At a 1936 story conference, Zanuck had said, "My idea about doing this picture is to forget that it is a Shirley Temple picture....All the hokum must be thrown out. The characters must be made real, human, believable....And it must be told from the child's viewpoint, through her eyes."

Zanuck knew what he was doing, and Ford also knew how to get along with Zanuck: In addition to the sizable budget he was given ($1 million), he was able to negotiate small story changes that made the picture much better than it might have otherwise been. For example, McLaglen's character dies about two-thirds of the way through the film. Zanuck, recognizing how wonderful McLaglen's performance was, suggested changing the story so that his character would not be killed off - a change Ford knew would make nonsense of the story. Together, they worked out a compromise, giving McLaglen's character a regal - and moving -- military funeral, complete with bagpipes. Ford knew how to orchestrate that kind of pageantry, and he knew when to rein actors in, too: The scene preceding the burial, in which Priscilla visits her friend on his deathbed, bringing him a handful of posies stolen from a curmudgeonly neighbor's garden, is beautifully restrained. Ford paced the scene perfectly. Temple would later write, "When the cameras had stopped, McLaglen raised on his elbow and placed one massive hand over mine: 'If I wasn't already dead,' he said, 'I'd be crying too.'"

Ford may have originally had misgivings about working with Temple, and she with him, but by the end of the film, the two had become allies. According to Temple, Ford was wary of her at first: He trusted his other actors, giving them general guidelines on the set, but was very specific with Temple, clearly thinking that he dare not leave her to her own devices. But Ford came to realize that Temple was as consummate a pro as he was: She didn't blanch when a horse reared too close, and rejected the idea of using a double for a scene in which she climbs onto an island of rocks to evade a group of stampeding horses. Romero, too, praised Temple's professionalism: "She wasn't a spoiled brat at all. She was also very smart, always knew her lines and yours too. If you blew a line, she'd tell you what it was!"

Temple has cited Wee Willie Winkie as the favorite of all her films: "I marched, drilled, did the manual of arms, and had a wooden rifle. It was wonderful." Ford, in his businesslike way, returned the affection, ultimately accepting Temple as a colleague and friend. Their kinship, apparently, was lasting: According to Eyman, Ford became godfather to Temple's first child, in 1948.

Wee Willie Winkie is notable for another reason: In a review in the London magazine Night and Day, novelist and critic Graham Greene wrote of Temple that "infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult." He referenced the coquetry of some of her earlier films, and noted, "Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy."

Earlier, in another publication, Greene had expressed similar misgivings about Temple in Captain January (1936), perhaps priming Twentieth Century-Fox for a fight. After the Wee Willie Winkie review appeared, both Temple and the studio sued Greene for libel. The satirical nature of Greene's viewpoint, obviously lost on Twentieth Century-Fox, was also apparently lost on the judges: Temple was awarded 2,000 pounds, plus costs, and the New York and Great Britain branches of Twentieth Century-Fox were granted 1,500 pounds between them. (Night and Day folded shortly thereafter.) Greene wasn't the first, or the only, critic to point out the vaguely disturbing sexual nature of Temple's appeal. But he was surely the one who paid most dearly for it. Even at the height of her fame, Temple was not an easy performer to parse -- there's complexity there, and some danger, too. But that's also the reason there is no other child star quite like her. She knew how to win an audience over, and she could win over a tough director, too.

By Stephanie Zacharek

SOURCES:

IMDb
Scott Eyman, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, Simon & Schuster, 1999
Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford, St. Martin's Press, 2001
Anne Edwards, Shirely Temple: American Princess William Morrow & Co, 1988

Producers: Gene Markey, Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Ernest Pascal, Julien Josephson; based on the story by Rudyard Kipling
Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: Walter Thompson
Cast: Shirley Temple (Priscilla Williams), Victor McLaglen (Sergeant MacDuff), C. Aubrey Smith (Colonel Williams), June Lang (Joyce Williams), Michael Whalen (Coppy/Lieutenant Brandes), Cesar Romero (Khoda Khan), Constance Collier (Mrs. Allardyce)
[black-and-white, 100 minutes]

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