Sunday, December 28, 2014

The First Ride on the Good Ship Lollipop

Shirley Blake (Shirley Temple): My daddy could fly better than anyone in the whole world, couldn't he?

James "Loop" Merritt (James Dunn): That's right, better than anyone in the whole world. You know, your daddy and I were pals ever since we were about as big as you are. That's why I'm your godfather.

Shirley Blake: And then one day he cracked up and went away to Heaven, didn't he?

James "Loop" Merritt: That's right.

Shirley Blake: I'll bet when I'm a pilot, I won't crack up.

James "Loop" Merritt: When you're ready to be a pilot, we'll get you a big non–crackable ship.

Shirley Temple was 6 years old when "Bright Eyes" premiered on this day in 1934. She had already made more than two dozen movies, many of them one– and two–reelers, but 1934 was her breakthrough year as a featured performer.

"Bright Eyes" wasn't her breakthrough movie — that was "Stand Up and Cheer!" which made its debut nearly eight months earlier — but it did introduce the public to the song with which Temple was most closely associated, "On the Good Ship Lollipop."

The movie began with Shirley and her movie mom (Lois Wilson) living in an affluent household. Shirley's mom wasn't a member of the family. She was a maid, widow of an airplane pilot who "cracked up." Most of the family members were insufferable snobs — except for wheelchair–bound Uncle Ned (Charles Sellon), the wealthy patriarch.

Shirley and her mom were still close to the other pilots, especially Loop (James Dunn), who was Shirley's godfather, and it was while riding in an airplane with those pilots that Shirley first sang "On the Good Ship Lollipop."

The story took place around Christmas. Shirley went off with her pilot friends; the plan was for her mother to join them later, but she was hit by a car while crossing a street and died. Loop took Shirley up in an airplane and broke the news to her in the clouds.

I haven't seen all of Temple's movies. But I gather it was a rather familiar formula that may well have been introduced for the first time in "Bright Eyes." Temple was cute and endearing while the other children around her were, well, less so.

There was only one other child in "Bright Eyes," a bratty little girl named Joy.

She was played by an actress named Jane Withers, who went on to a pretty lucrative adult career as Josephine the Plumber pitching Comet cleanser on TV in the 1960s and 1970s.

As I understand it, Withers was quite popular as a child star, too. She had bit parts in about half a dozen movies in the early 1930s, then she landed a part in "Bright Eyes."

My understanding is that she was reluctant to take the part because she had to be so hateful to Temple's character. It was her big break, though; she went on to make more than two dozen movies in the 1930s and another 16 in the 1940s, usually playing characters that were friendier and more innocent than the one she played in "Bright Eyes."

Sounds like a real Hollywood success story, doesn't it? Well, don't make the mistake of thinking that Withers has led a completely charmed life. She has had her difficult days, too. She lost her husband in a plane crash and her son to cancer.

She and Temple were not exactly friends when they made "Bright Eyes," but they did become friends later and remained friends throughout their adult lives.

When Temple died in February, Withers told The Hollywood Reporter that "[i]f it hadn't been for Shirley Temple being the cutest, most adorable little girl in the world, and they needed an opposite — and, boy, I sure was it — in Bright Eyes, I might've ended up selling hats in Atlanta, Georgia, my hometown, or something else. ... I can't say enough good things about her."