Normally I like to use this space to provide some historical context to the film whose disc I’m reviewing, but I depart from that approach with this release of three Shirley Temple films of the 1930s because of the wretched overall quality of these discs. If you’re reading this review, I imagine it’s because you have a fondness for Shirley Temple that perhaps derives from seeing her films on television when you were a child. Now that Fox has finally released three titles on DVD, you’re probably savouring the possibility of seeing Shirley in all her glory in nicely cleaned-up transfers. Unfortunately, you’re going to be very disappointed. This three-DVD effort from Fox constitutes the poorest quality release that I have seen from a major studio in the history of DVD to date.
Bright Eyes — Shirley’s mother works for the Smythes who are impatiently waiting for their uncle to die and leave them well-fixed financially. Shirley spends much of her time at the nearby airfield where she has been unofficially adopted by the flyers, all of whom were friends of her father, a pilot who was killed in a crash. When Shirley’s mother is killed in a car accident, a mad scramble ensues to see who will become Shirley’s guardian — Loop Merritt who was her father’s best friend or the Smythes’ rich uncle who has taken a shine to her.
Dimples — In New York of the 1850s, Shirley lives with her grandfather, Professor Appleby. They survive by having Shirley sing and dance with her friends on the streets or at parties while the Professor lifts valuables from the onlookers. After one such performance at the home of Mrs. Caroline Drew, the young Allen Drew breaks away from his rich mother in order to finance a stage play. He employs Shirley for one of the main parts in his production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The Professor manages to wangle a job as the producer’s assistant and is given responsibility for many of the production details. When he manages to lose the money he has been entrusted with, the Professor comes up with a solution, but it may mean that Shirley must face being adopted by someone else and her grandfather being sent to jail.
Heidi — The previously orphaned Shirley is taken by her aunt to live with her grandfather, a reclusive old man living high in the Alps. Shirley’s good nature soon wins him over and the two are living happily when her aunt returns and kidnaps her, taking her to live in Frankfurt where Shirley is to be a companion to Elsa, the daughter of Herr Sesemann. Elsa has been confined to a wheelchair since having a bad fall. Elsa’s governess, Fraulein Rottenmeier, hopes to make Elsa completely dependent on her and so win the affections of Herr Sesemann. Shirley soon makes friends with Elsa and secretly helps her to learn to walk once more. Thus thwarted in her efforts by Shirley, Fraulein Rottenmeier tries to take Shirley away one night, but she crosses paths with Shirley’s grandfather who has arrived in Frankfurt looking for her.
By 1934 when Bright Eyes was made, Shirley Temple was six years old and already a veteran movie actor. Since her debut in 1932 in a series of shorts parodying full-length features of the day, she had made well over a dozen short films and six features, the most important of which was 1934’s Little Miss Marker (Paramount). It was her success in the latter which led to Fox signing her to a long-term contract — a prudent decision on Fox’s part because the success of Shirley’s films over the succeeding four or five years was probably the key economic factor that kept the newly reorganized company afloat while it developed new stars such as Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power and expanded the range and quality of its productions.
Bright Eyes is the second best of the three Shirley Temple films that Fox has just released on DVD. The story is a typical Temple vehicle with Shirley missing part of her family (in this case her father was a pilot killed in a plane crash), her mother working as a servant in the home of a well-off couple, a curmudgeonly fellow who becomes a benefactor, and a group of men who adopt Shirley as a sort of mascot. The movie benefits from a fine performance by Shirley including her trademark “On the Good Ship Lollipop” song, and strong support from plenty of familiar Hollywood character actors including James Dunn, Jane Darwell, and Theodore Von Eltz. Jane Withers does a superbly annoying job of playing a brat of a child.
Dimples, released in 1936, is one of the lesser Shirley Temple films and certainly the poorest of the three under consideration here. Again, we have the incomplete family, as Shirley is being raised by her grandfather, the Professor. This part is played by Frank Morgan (probably most memorable for his work in the title role of The Wizard of Oz), an actor who made his living playing larcenous but harmless bluffers and someone whom I think you either love or hate. Personally, I can only take so much of him, which is one reason that I think Dimples suffers. For contemporary audiences, little of the film is politically correct for there is a large emphasis on the use of blackface and we have to put up with Stepin Fetchit playing Cicero, the Professor and Shirley’s shufflin’ and generally inane black servant. Throw in a dramatization of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and it all gets a bit difficult to swallow, even allowing for what was commonly acceptable at the time the film was made. That aside, there is once again a fine cross section of Hollywood character actor talent including Helen Westley, Berton Churchill, and John Carradine in a minor role. Shirley exhibits some fine tap dancing talent ability showcased by the staging of legendary tap dancer Bill Robinson.
Heidi, released in 1937, is one of the most-remembered and well-liked Shirley Temple films. It’s certainly the best version of the 1880 Johanna Spyri tale available on film. Once more, Shirley is family-challenged as here she’s an orphan living with an aunt who then leaves her with her reclusive grandfather who lives in the Swiss Alps. The story is well suited to Shirley’s talents and offers a good showcase for both her song and dance capabilities as well as her acting. In addition to Shirley, the cast is probably the strongest of those for the three films currently being released on DVD. Jean Hersholt does fine work as the Grandfather and Arthur Treacher, as always, is a pleasure as the butler, Andrews. Mary Nash provides a delightfully wicked portrayal of Fraulein Rottenmeier and shorter but equally effective turns are provided by Sidney Blackmer as Herr Sesemann and Sig Rumann as the police captain. Direction was by veteran Allan Dwan who moves the story along briskly. Although obviously studio-bound, the movie nicely evokes wintertime in Frankfurt and in the countryside.
Although Shirley Temple had two more years of great success at Fox before her advancing age and changing public taste brought an end to her incredible run in 1939, the years 1934-1937 saw Shirley’s films swell Fox’s coffers by millions of dollars (ultimately over $30 million by the end of the decade). It’s probably safe to say that the studio might not have survived those early years after the old Fox studio merged with Twentieth Century Pictures had not Shirley Temple’s films provided the cushion they did. Any studio that at all appreciates its history would want to recognize that sort of important contribution appropriately. What better way than to release the films on DVD in new, restored transfers with supplements that acknowledge the films’ historical importance?
Alas, despite Fox’s recent reputation for quality DVD releases, it has completely fumbled the ball on this one. All the DVDs present the black and white films in their original 1.37:1 aspect ratios, but the quality of the image transfers that Fox has provided ranges from marginally acceptable to abominably bad. Fox appears to have taken the old transfers made for the VHS releases (which themselves were characterized by terrible edge enhancement) and simply slapped them on DVD, except that they seem to have enhanced the worst aspects of the old transfers even more. Bright Eyes is the best of a bad lot. The picture is watchable although there are considerable scratches and speckling, a fair amount of grain, and a noticeable amount of edge enhancement (or whatever Fox may prefer to call it). Dimples compounds this with a transfer that is so dark that any shadow detail is completely lost and even more noticeable edge enhancement. The darkness accentuates the grain problems substantially also. Heidi is easily the worst of the lot. The edge enhancement is so pronounced that often the image looks like a 3D film viewed without the proper glasses. Maybe the folks at Fox got this film mixed up with a ghost picture and decided that every character should have its own ghostly alter ego attached to it. I did a side-by-side comparison with the studio’s VHS version of the film and although the latter’s pretty poor, it’s actually preferable to the DVD. And oh, if you aren’t unhappy enough with what you see of these black and white films, Fox also provides pallid colourized versions to make you even more angry.
All three films offer both Dolby Digital 1.0 mono and 2.0 stereo tracks. None of these are anything to write home about. Age-related hiss and crackling is quite common on the mono tracks, but at least they have a bit of life to them. The stereo tracks are tinny-sounding and completely lacking in depth. Once again, Heidi sounds the roughest of the lot. English and Spanish subtitles are included. Why is there no French?
On a total of three DVDs, we get a total supplementary content of one theatrical trailer, for Heidi. Yep, Fox really went all out on this one! Not even a measly historical essay to explain how important these films were in the 1930s.
To say that I am shocked at Fox’s treatment of these films is an understatement. I’m not a super Shirley Temple fan and certainly none of the films will ever be on a top 100 list, but I would have thought that the importance of them to Fox’s history would have moved the company to at least provide them with fresh transfers if not from completely restored source material. This release should be an embarrassment to Fox and if it had any regard for consumers, it would move to immediately recall these DVDs and provide refunds to all purchasers who have come to expect better from the company.