Curly Top (film)
Film poster by Joseph A. Maturo
|Directed by||Irving Cummings|
|Produced by||Winfield R. Sheehan|
|Written by||Patterson McNutt
Arthur J. Beckhard
|Music by||Ray Henderson|
|Cinematography||John F. Seitz|
|Edited by||Jack Murray|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
Curly Top (1935) is an American musical film directed by Irving Cummings. The screenplay by Patterson McNutt and Arthur J. Beckhard focuses on the adoption of a young orphan (Shirley Temple) by a wealthy bachelor (John Boles) and his romantic attraction to her older sister (Rochelle Hudson).
Together with The Littlest Rebel, another Temple vehicle, the film was listed as one of the top box office draws of 1935 by Variety. The film’s musical numbers include "Animal Crackers in My Soup" and "When I Grow Up".
Young Elizabeth Blair lives at the Lakeside Orphanage, a dreary, regimented place supervised by two decent but dour women. Her older sister Mary works in the kitchen, laundry, and dormitory. Elizabeth is a sweet child but her high spirits often lead her into trouble with the superintendent.
When the trustees descend on the orphanage for a tour of inspection, Elizabeth is caught playfully mimicking the head trustee and is threatened with being sent to a public institution. Young, rich, handsome trustee Edward Morgan intervenes. He takes a liking to Elizabeth and, in a private interview with the child, learns that most of her life has been spent obsequiously expressing her gratitude for every mouthful that has fallen her way. He adopts her but, not wanting to curb Elizabeth’s spirit by making her feel slavishly obligated to him for every kindness, he tells her a fictitious “Hiram Jones” is her benefactor and he is simply acting on Jones’s behalf as his lawyer. He nicknames her "Curly Top." Meanwhile, he has met and fallen in love with Elizabeth’s sister Mary but will not admit it.
Elizabeth and Mary leave the orphanage and take up residence in Morgan's luxurious Southampton beach house. His kindly aunt, Genevieve Graham, and his very proper butler Reynolds are charmed by the two. Elizabeth has everything a child could want including a pony cart and silk pajamas.
Mary secretly loves Morgan but, believing he has no romantic interest in her, she accepts an offer of marriage from young navy pilot Jimmie Rogers. Morgan is taken aback but offers his congratulations. Hours later, Mary ends the engagement when she realizes she doesn't truly love Jimmie. Morgan then declares his love, reveals he is the fictitious “Hiram Jones,” and plans marriage and a long honeymoon in Europe with Mary.
- Shirley Temple as Elizabeth Blair
- John Boles as Edward Morgan
- Rochelle Hudson as Mary Blair, Elizabeth’s sister
- Esther Dale as Genevieve Graham, Morgan’s aunt
- Arthur Treacher as Reynolds, Morgan’s English butler
- Jane Darwell as Mrs. Henrietta Denham, a heavy-set, elderly matron at the Lakeside Orphanage
- Rafaela Ottiano as Mrs. Higgins, the severe, thin-lipped superintendent of the Lakeside Orphanage
- Etienne Girardot as James Wyckoff, a stern, elderly, penny-pinching trustee of the Lakeside Orphanage and the manufacturer of Wyckoff’s Cough Mixture
- Maurice Murphy as Jimmie Rogers
Temple’s mother coached her daughter on the set and at home. Director Cummings noted that Temple’s mother was thorough, teaching her daughter her dialogue and how to say her lines, what facial expressions to use, and how to walk, sit, stand, and run. According to Cummings, Mrs. Temple was “much more Shirley’s director than I am,” and that there was very little left for him to do when Temple arrived on the set.
In the scene where Boles is singing "It's All So New to Me," Temple appeared as a naked cupid painted from head to toe in gilt paint. The scene had to be completed rapidly however before the paint clogged the pores of her skin.
As a souvenir, Temple received the film's doll house with hooked rugs on its parquet floors, chintz curtains at its windows, crisp sheets on its beds, fake food in its refrigerator, bric-a-brac on its tiny tabletops, books on its shelves, and its toilet with a working lid. Every drawer and every door in the doll house opened. It was kept in Temple's cottage bedroom on her parents' estate and displayed for child visitors.
Ray Henderson composed the five songs for Curly Top. Johnny Mercer wanted to write the lyrics but the job went to Ted Koehler, a former partner of Harold Arlen. Edward Heyman and Irving Caesar also wrote lyrics for the film.
With the exception of “When I Grow Up,” the film’s songs are introduced in the film through the device of having characters Mary Blair and Edward Morgan sideline as composers. In an early scene in the orphanage dining room, for example, Mary tells Morgan she composed "Animal Crackers in My Soup," and in another scene, Morgan composes and sings "It's All So New to Me" at his piano. At the Gala, Mary sings “The Simple Things in Life”, a tune presumably composed by Morgan as he mentioned at one early point in the film that he would likely do so. At the end of the film, he sings his newly composed “Curly Top” to Elizabeth as she sits, then tap dances, atop his grand piano.
“Animal Crackers in My Soup” and “When I Grow Up” became hits in their own right, selling thousands of sheet music copies and placing Shirley on the charts in the company of musical superstars Bing Crosby, Nelson Eddy, and Alice Faye.
Andre Sennwald of The New York Times said of the film, "So shameless is it in its optimism, so grimly determined to be cheerful, that it ought to cause an epidemic of axe murders and grandmother beatings […] Shirley herself, far from showing signs of deterioration or overwork in Curly Top, actually hints in her work at an increased maturity of technique. Her remarkable sense of timing has never been revealed more plainly than in the song and dance scenes in her new film, and she plays her straightforward dramatic scenes with the assurance and precision of a veteran actress. With all this, she has lost none of her native freshness and charm." He thought the film “completely bearable“ with “all that studious devotion to the banal which assures it of an enthusiastic reception with the family trade." 
The film was greeted with a “tidal wave” of popularity upon release, and its banal plot was nothing more than a tribute to the conspicuous consumption practiced by the few remaining rich of the Great Depression. The film opens with an almost minute-long closeup of Temple, and, in doing so, "all pretense that Shirley Temple movies were about anything, or indeed anything more than a vehicle for her adorableness was abandoned.
Curly Top was banned in Denmark for "unspecified corruption", but in China, Madame Chiang Kai-shek requested repeat private screenings. The film was one of the last Fox films released before the studio became 20th Century Fox.
- Shirley Temple filmography
- Other versions of the Jean Webster novel:
- Works cited
- Balio, Tino (1995) , Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-20334-8
- Dubas, Rita (2006), Shirley Temple: A Pictorial History of the World’s Greatest Child Star, New York: Applause Theater and Cinema Books (Hal Leonard Corporation, Inc.), ISBN 978-1-55783-672-4
- Furia, Philip (2003), Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer, New York: St. Martin’s Press, ISBN 0-312-28720-8
- Windeler, Robert (1992) , The Films of Shirley Temple, New York: Carol Publishing Group, ISBN 0-8065-0725-X
- Basinger, Jeanine (1993), A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960, Middleton: Wesleyan University Press The author comments on the father figure in Temple films.
- Thomson, Rosemarie Garland (ed.) (1996), Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, New York: New York University Press, pp. 185–203, ISBN 0-8147-8217-5 In her essay “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple“, Lori Merish examines 'the cult of cuteness' in America.