The first thing to know about Wee Willie Winkie is that it isn’t a Shirley Temple movie that happened to be directed by John Ford; it’s a John Ford movie that happened to star Shirley Temple. What makes it such a good film is that Ford doesn’t condescend to the material or the star. He shot it with the same loving attention to detail and deep, beautiful precision that would characterize Stagecoach two years later. And the themes that Ford, via Kipling, brings to bear-–the civilizing influence of women and children, sacrifice, courage, respect between enemies—-are also familiar from countless other Ford films.
To the uninitiated the name Shirley Temple tends to evoke one of two things: a ringleted, short-skirted, tap-dancing relic, or Graham Greene’s celebrated charge that there was something less than wholesome in her audience’s adoration. Temple was, in fact, a phenomenally gifted child performer, with charisma that leaps at you even today. She wasn’t the kind of transparently emotional actress that Judy Garland was, for example, and the Siren’s as grateful as everyone else that 20th Century Fox wouldn’t lend Temple for The Wizard of Oz. But Temple was frequently excellent and surprisingly subtle.
Temple has always said Winkie is her favorite of her films, and she got along well with Ford, who seems to have brought out the very best in her acting. You can see a few things that slipped through, though. Here’s a tip from the Siren, a Shirley Temple fan since early childhood: No good ever comes of a Temple line that begins with “why?”, and there’s a “why?” line in every movie. “Why is Mommy crying?” “Why does Daddy have to go away?” “Why can’t the President stop people fighting?” “Why does this stage have a treadmill and state-of-the-art thunderstorm effects?”
Once you get around the “why?” questions Temple’s good films shine and even the lesser ones are often enjoyable. Her saccharine image belies her actual characters in the movies, usually spirited, naughty girls who only have to be told “stay right there” in order to go off exploring dangerous places, and who never, but never wait to speak until spoke to. (Why else do you think the Siren grew to love this child? That, and the tap-dancing.)
The Siren hadn’t seen this movie since childhood and viewing it again gave her a chance to enjoy all the cinematic things that flew over her head in elementary school. The opening, for example, on a train rattling through Northern India, and the way it echoed so much else in Ford with low-angle shots and dreamy close-ups of Priscilla (Temple) and her mother (June Lang) talking about the military outpost where they are headed. (The cinematographer was Arthur C. Miller, the genius who worked with Ford later on Young Mr. Lincoln and How Green Was My Valley, and also did a number of other Temple films.) They alight into the hurly-burly of an Indian marketplace, where they’re greeted by Sergeant McDuff (Victor McLaglen), who clearly hasn’t been around a gently bred Englishwoman in many a day, let alone one with a small girl, and at first the sergeant treats them rather like officers in skirts. Priscilla is told to stay put and of course, she doesn’t. Instead she climbs out of the carriage and runs smack into the arrest of Cesar Romero, a fairly credible-looking Indian revolutionary named Khoda Khan, who at first isn’t so much charmed as he is nonplussed by this moppet’s intrusion. Temple is at her best when she’s allowed to play the normal inconvenient behavior of children, picking up an amulet and attempting to give it back to Khan even as he’s being marched away at gunpoint.
Then it’s off to the outpost, to meet Mother’s handsome-but-dull love interest. The treatment of this romance reminded the Siren a bit of the lovers in The Informer; their presence kept at a minimum, the surroundings and shots particularly gorgeous, as though to distract from their lack of fire. The lovers become interesting only in a party scene. Dances are frequently a wistful affair in a Ford movie, some old tune (in this movie, “Comin’ Through the Rye”) sounding plaintively on a fiddle while the couple seem set apart from the revels even if they’re waltzing. The mother and her lover tryst in the garden and the partygoers are glimpsed as a swirl of skirts through a terrace door; the version the Siren saw also had the blue tint restored from the first release, and it adds to the melancholy. But parties, too, are almost always interrupted in Ford, and this one eventually is, by a native attack aimed at releasing Khan from the stockade.
Priscilla and her mother are on this army base to live with the requisite Formidably Stuffy Old Grandpa, played by C. Aubrey Smith, one of the most dependable stuffy old coots in the business. Temple-film protocol requires that this coot must be charmed by Priscilla and, to a lesser extent, her mother, but Smith is far from the primary focus of Wee Willie Winkie.
The strongest argument against Greene’s interpretation of Winkie is the very thing he uses to back it up: Priscilla’s relationship with Sergeant McDuff. From the start you see him trying to tone down his roughness when confronted with Temple and her mother, and gradually the mere attempt to behave like a gentleman becomes a visible sense of what he has missed all these years in the British Army–love, home, tenderness. It’s in keeping with characters throughout Ford, from Wyatt Earp to Ethan Edwards, moving through the cavalry trilogy as well. There really isn’t anything sexual about it. McLaglen’s character no more leers at or simpers over Temple than does Ford’s camera. Priscilla becomes determined to train like a soldier, and McDuff goes along with the game, barking at her with only the merest shade less of a voice than he might use with a recruit. It makes his love for the child more apparent, because he respects her fire and sincerity; if he fawned over her the whole thing would seem false. There’s no one scene where Priscilla suddenly plays to McDuff as a father figure. It’s just a growing sense of affection from them both, building to his inevitable death.
Ford complained to Peter Bogdanovich that it was bad drama to have a highly sympathetic character die halfway through a movie. The compensation is that the Sergeant’s death is one of the most poignant scenes in all of Ford. McDuff has been severely wounded in a skirmish and the doctors have allowed Priscilla to visit, for what she doesn’t realize will be the last time. McDuff knows he’s dying, but in one last protective gesture he doesn’t want her to know. Instead he lies and listens to her chatter, delivered with unaffected simplicity and innocence by Temple, until finally she starts to sing “Auld Lang Syne” for him, while (as filmmaker Michael G. Smith put it at Glenn’s place) “an exquisite camera movement slowly eliminates him from the frame.”
McDuff’s death is more like two-thirds of the way through Wee Willie Winkie, but Ford was right that some of the drama that follows seems wan without him. But the immediate aftermath is almost as stunning as McDuff’s deathbed. The Siren was thunderstruck by one shot of the Union Jack being lowered to half-mast against a heavy sky. Now why, she asked herself, should this touch her so intensely? The Siren is, as was Ford, an American of Irish descent, not a background to make one get all misty over the trappings of the British Empire. It’s partly the sheer symmetrical perfection of the shot. But it’s also drawing on what Ford has established before: the things large and small that are sacrficed by soldiers, the end of a surrogate father’s presence, the intrusion of war into a child’s life. When you hear the bagpipes and see the flag go down, it’s an act curtain drawn across the stage, and it foreshadows the closing door in The Searchers, and it is, in short, Ford’s genius. The Siren thought to the flag that closes Saving Private Ryan, after three hours of often brilliantly shot combat and sacrifice–and those three hours still couldn’t build to a place where that flag shot felt climactic. In this Shirley Temple movie, John Ford makes the flag as purely and wholely fitting as the final chord in a symphony. The flag’s lowering is followed by a funeral procession of soldiers, often discussed in Ford literature for its elegance. But the Siren was even more enamored with the sight of Priscilla entering the men’s barracks while they’re marching, the empty cots with their rolled-up mattresses a spooky vision of coffins that echo the child’s grief.
Later scenes involve Priscilla mediating Khan’s uprising, complete with faux-Raj dialogue that has an admittedly high cringe factor, as with Smith: “Up in those hills are thousands of savages, waiting to sweep down and ravage India.” Those nasty natives and their harebrained pursuit of self-rule, egad. Smith delivers the line with brio, as it was the sort of thing he said in every movie. Temple does her best to carry her own political freight, as when she tells Khan with shining conviction that “Queen Victoria wants to protect all her people and make them happy and rich.” Khan’s response, a guffaw, may have played as sinister during the movie’s first run (or was it Ford’s little Irish dig?), but these days he’s just echoing the audience.
Still, Ford’s camera treats Smith, Temple and Romero with sensitivity and respect as they hold hands and advance up the long steps to Khan’s mountain lair, and the Siren saw an echo of Temple holding Bill Robinson’s hand in The Littlest Rebel, a moment that put some Southern censors in traction just two years before. And there is a beautiful shot of Priscilla asleep on a pile of cushions, net curtains drawn around her and the mountains visible in the distance. Smith and Romero, British and Indian, Christian and Muslim, work out a peace agreement during the child’s nap. It may be Ford’s Kipling fantasy–there is neither East nor West, border, nor breed, nor birth–but it is possibly even more appealing today than it was in 1937.
For more information on The Siren, visit Self Styled Siren.