The Littlest Rebel
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Reprinted by permission of Donald Bogle from his film reference work, Blacks in American Films & Television: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Simon & Schuster)
Sheer, dopey entertainment for those who can enjoy a film while refusing to seriously think about it.
This is a Shirley Temple vehicle, the story of a pint-sized Southern belle during the days of the Civil War. When Shirley's father (a Confederate officer) is captured and taken to a Yankee prison camp and her mother dies, little Miss Mop Top finds herself adrift on the family's big plantation. Of course, who comes to her rescue but the faithful servant, Uncle Bill, played by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. He's around to comfort little Shirley, to play and dance with her. And during one sequence when Yankees show up at the Temple mansion, Uncle Bill and the corps of slaves help hide the girl, who goes in blackface, hoping to pass for one of the darkies. The scene has to be seen to be believed. The film reaches a heady climax when Robinson and Temple work their way up North where Shirley eventually meets President Lincoln. He's so charmed by the girl that he pardons her father - and the audience can breathe a sign of relief, knowning that Shirley and Uncle Billy are now free to go off into the sunset together.
This is ersatz Americana steeped in the romantic mythology of the Old South then (and perhaps even now) so popular with audiences. You never know there is really a Civil War going on. And as the critic for Variety wrote: "All bitterness and cruelty has been righteously cut out and the Civil War emerges as a misunderstanding among kindly gentlemen with eminently happy slaves and a cute little girl who sings and dances through the story."
Strangely enough, Temple and Robinson are an ideal couple: her grit and spunk are well matched by his high spirits, his calm, and common sense. One knows, however, that no matter how convincingly Robinson plays his role, his character couldn't possibly have but so much common sense because, after all, he remains on the plantation once the Yankees have come presumably to free him. When the two dance together, they are a (psychologically dislocating) marvel: it's all still corny but retains a zip and an effervescent breeziness. In The New York Herald Tribune, Richard Watts, Jr., wrote: "The child star is as good a partner for the great Bill Robinson as Miss Rogers is for Mr. Astaire."
Also appearing in the cast is Willie Best as a lazy, dim-witted coon servant, who oddly enough, to contemporary audiences, is a welcome contrast to Robinson's perpetual sobriety.
Producer: Buddy DeSylva
Director: David Butler
Screenplay: Edwin J. Burke, Harry Tugend, Edward Peple (play)
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Film Editing: Irene Morra
Art Direction: William S. Darling
Music: Sidney Clare, Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Shirley Temple (Virginia Cary), John Boles (Capt. Herbert Cary), Jack Holt (Col. Morrison), Karen Morley (Mrs. Cary), Bill Robinson (Uncle Billy), Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams (Sgt. Dudley).