Thursday, December 22, 2011
During the 1930’s in Hollywood, the top brass at 20th Century-Fox knew a good thing when they saw it and they saw it in a little tyke named Shirley Temple. Depression weary audiences flocked to the movies of the grammer school cupie-doll in droves, allowing her to single-handedly save her home studio from bankruptcy. Already the top box office draw in America for two years running, Temple was starting to age by 1937 (she was all of 9 years-old) and Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck handed over the newest Temple vehicle, Heidi, to director Allan Dwan to see what he could do with it. It would be the first of three film collaborations for Dwan and Temple and the most successful, being a perfect vehicle for the star and keeping her at the top of the box office for a third year in a row.
Based on the classic children’s story by Joanna Spyri, Heidi is a little orphan girl, thrust upon her brusque and bitter grandfather by a mercenary and unloving aunt in the Swiss Alps. Cold and indifferent at first, the Grandfather (Jean Hersholt) warms quickly to the natural and loving child and the two become very attached. Enter evil aunt Dete again, whisking Heidi away to sell her into servitude to a wealthy aristocrat. While the Grandfather searches high and low for his beloved grandchild, Heidi begs to be taken back to her Alpine haven, only to be told she must stay in the opulent household to entertain a sad crippled girl named Klara (Marcia Mae Jones). All this is overseen by Klara’s sinister governess Fraulein Rottenmeier (Mary Nash).
Temple could have easily taken this to the saccharine, and some may say she did, but her natural charm and good humor shines through and makes for a highly entertaining family film. The fake snow proved a problem though when little Shirley accidentally swallowed some and had to be off the set for a day or two to recuperate. But if the snow was phony the settings are authentic in look and feel and that is mostly attributed to the fact that much of the outdoors was shot at Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino County, California.
A musical number, “In Our Little Wooden Shoes” was inserted in the middle of the picture, much influenced by the miniature star herself. As a personal observation, the scene seems tacked on. It’s actually a dream sequence but lends nothing at all to the story. However, it is a cute way to interject Shirley in a few ornate costumes.
Heidi is a favorite around the holiday season. The snow, the classic story for children, the curmudgeonly Santa look-alike in the Grandfather all come together to give a Christmas aura (plus, the film climaxes on Christmas Eve). I know I first saw it as a kid on Christmas break from school. It was actually the first Shirley Temple movie I ever saw and for anyone who hasn’t seen one and wonders what she’s all about, it is a good film to get started.