The Acting Business: John Ford’s Star Comedies

Here’s the second part of my piece on John Ford’s early comedy films, concerned with his use of star actors. Part 1 – Just Like the Old Country: John Ford’s Silent Comedies is here.

“Leave the acting business to them that can act. All I know how to do is to throw a lariat and crack jokes.”
Will Rogers[1]

In the 1930s, John Ford was assigned to work with two of the most popular actors in America: Will Rogers and Shirley Temple.[2] Both were already well established as stars by the time Ford came to work with them, and they brought with them a certain amount of baggage in the form of audience expectation about the kind of characters they would inhabit. By examining the appeal of these stars, and the nature of the vehicles built around them, we can begin to understand the extent to which Ford utilised or modified these existing templates when directing them. This enables us to identify the ‘Fordian’ elements of these films and further illuminate his directorial style and thematic preoccupations.

At the same time, the relatively high-profile status of these films helps us understand Ford’s standing in the industry at the time of making them, and the supporting casts that he built around the stars in these films also afford us an opportunity to look at the way Ford utilised stock actors in his comedy films.

Will Rogers

Between 1933 and 1935 Ford made three pictures with Will Rogers, one of which, Doctor Bull, is most comfortably classed as a drama, and two of which, Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend, are decidedly comic in tone.

Will Rogers was a comic actor and satirist who had worked his way up in the business through appearances in Wild West shows and Broadway engagements such as the Ziegfeld Follies. Though a master of the lariat, it was his astute social commentary in between tricks that would bring him to fame. With his folksy but incisive witticisms, Rogers became a spokesperson for the common man, dismantling the absurdities of government with an intelligence disarmed by his half-mumbled delivery. His newspaper columns were the height of topicality, printed on the front page underneath the very headlines they made fun of, so that what “Will Rogers says” was as much a part of the news as the news itself.[3]

It is significant, then, that in his films for John Ford, Rogers was cast as a symbol of a bygone age. As Andrew Sarris notes, films such as Frank Borzage’s They Had to See Paris (1929) and Young as You Feel (1931) “elicit the richest feelings from Rogers as a creature of the here and now”.[4] Surely such a creature of modernity, a restless reporter who flew all over the world in an age when plane travel was still viewed with suspicion, had no place in Ford’s vision of a gentle, idyllic past?

To understand this we first have to take into account the nation’s state of mind following the economic crash of 1929. The 1930s saw a populus disillusioned with capitalism, with the “fat cats” in Washington who had failed them and with the American dream, and they yearned for more traditional values.[5] Their disillusionment with contemporary society was encapsulated by the films of Frank Capra, which portrayed the struggle of the ‘little man’ against the large institution, but there was also a strain of rural fiction and “back to the land” literature which attempted to find a set of cultural values alternative to those which had gone sour at the end of the 1920s.[6]

Although Rogers was able to voice the frustration of the working man in his tirades against fat cats, and his pleas for a redistribution of wealth in his radio appearances and newspaper columns, his critique of the current system of government also suggested that the reform process was not something that was going to come easily or quickly.[7] It was rather through his films that he was able to offer reassurance, by playing small town characters who appealed to basic human values, and enjoyed a simpler, more relaxed style of life away from the troubles of modernity.

The two comedies he made with Ford are set in rural America in the late nineteenth century – an environment in which the placid, carefree style of life which befitted Rogers’ easygoing persona actually seemed credible (significantly, the book on which Steamboat Round the Bend is based is set in present day).[8] By placing his character in a bygone age that spoke of simpler times, Rogers’ appeal achieved more emotional resonance. Freed from an obligation to comment on current events he could turn his focus to more universal and timeless problems of the human condition. Rather than addressing specific issues such as Hoover’s reform policies, he could apply himself to broader issues of social injustice, and in doing so could attempt to heal the fissures that ran through contemporary mindsets.

It was the change in setting that enabled this transformation, his soapbox being transplanted from the muddled and perplexing environment of a daily newspaper into the altogether more comforting surroundings of a taffy-pulling contest, or a Mississippi steamboat. The setting of these films in a society whose flaws and prejudices might seem archaic to a contemporary audience also meant that Rogers pleas for tolerance and reform would not seem excessively radical.

The transposition of the Rogers persona into cinematic terms also had to deal with the demands of conventional film narrative. As Gerald Weales says, “although Will Rogers was a political commentator, he was never allowed to be simply an observer in the films. Convention demanded he be a problem solver.”[9] Whereas in his public life Rogers simply provided a vocal link between government and the people, in his films he saw fit to intervene – often healing social injustice, rescuing wrongly convicted criminals, or playing matchmaker to young lovers. In Judge Priest it is Billy Priest’s attempts to unite his young nephew with an orphan girl who lives next door that holds the meandering storyline together. As she is an orphan of a poor upbringing, and he a young lawyer from a well respected family, the match is resisted by the boy’s mother and becomes a setting for the kind of class conflict which Rogers so often sought to resolve. It also provided an opportunity for Rogers to pontificate on the nature and foibles of love.

As Rogers was an older man, it was almost inconceivable at the time for him to be the focus of a romantic plot. Consequently, he was often depicted as being either a husband or a contented bachelor and Ford is possibly the only director who allowed him to have a love interest, in Doctor Bull. But Ford also employed the matchmaker storyline in all three of his films with Rogers. This is a trait which can be traced through Ford’s work independently of Rogers; Riley the Cop, for instance, allows Officer Riley to have a romance of his own, while also acting as a father figure to two young lovers. In this respect, Ford’s characters were able to fulfil the role of mediator, and also provide an opportunity to compare and contrast young and adult love. In his 1952 war comedy, What Price Glory?, a young soldier visits Captain Flagg to request permission to marry a French girl he has known for two days. Though embroiled in a bitter contest with another man to win the heart of a French bar singer, Captain Flagg acts wisely and considerately in counselling the young couple and giving them his blessing.

The contrasting of the childish squabbles of the older lovers with the more sincere emotions of the younger couple thus becomes a wry comment on relationships. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), John Wayne’s Captain Nathan Brittles encounters a young couple attempting to leave the fort who have been stopped by a jealous suitor. He questions them as to their purpose, and on hearing their response incredulously repeats it: “Picnicking? Picnicking Miss Dandridge?”. His mock seriousness belies the humour he finds in watching the young love triangle play itself out, and he eventually decides to detain the girl whilst letting the soldier go picnicking by himself. The joke here is on the world-weary attitude that the older generation has to the follies of young love, rather than the naivety of the faith that young people have in it.

This faith is vindicated in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon when Brittles realises the purity of the love between the girl and the other suitor and ends up becoming a father figure to the young couple. Similarly, Billy Priest finds amusement in playing tricks on the other young people attempting to win the affections of his nephew and the girl she loves, but only does so in the name of the true feelings he recognises between the two of them. Throughout all of Ford’s work there is never any indication that he views these young romances with anything other than warmth and admiration.

As Rogers’ performance is the raison d’être of Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend, Ford offers little in the way of stylistic embellishment, preferring to give the performance space to breathe. Most of Rogers’ scenes are shot in long shot, and often feature him interacting with other performers with little or no cutting. Other Rogers films such as In Old Kentucky (1935) and Doubting Thomas (1935), are more prone to traditional shot/reverse shot editing, and often cut in for close-up reaction shots of Rogers. Ford’s more relaxed shooting style allows for a great deal more spontaneity, and both Rogers and Stepin Fetchit were encouraged to improvise, giving their performances a rough but natural feel to them.[10]

Judge Priest (1934)

Judge Priest (1934)

Visual interest is sustained in straightforward dialogue scenes through the arrangement of figures in height, breadth and depth, and the porch scenes in Judge Priest are a perfect example of how this style of composition can be used to define character and relationships. In one, the slouched posture of Billy Priest is juxtaposed with the rigid figure of his uptight sister-in-law in the frame next to him. In another, the three figures of Priest, his nephew, and the girl next door are arranged sequentially in depth to imply a hierarchy of thought in which his nephew is unable to stop thinking about the girl, and Priest is pondering how to bring the two of them together. In both of these shots, Priest’s relaxed form is stretched across the width of the screen, gently asserting his control of the situation.

Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)

Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)

The looseness of the compositions means that these shots never feel cramped or imposing. Whereas Ford films of the same years, The Lost Patrol (1934) and The Informer (1935), use patterns of light and shade to establish the confines of the characters physical or mental situations, Ford creates far more open atmospheres in the Rogers films by deepening the frames and populating the backgrounds with scenes of people and livestock. In the more eventful scenes of these films, the taffy-pull in Judge Priest, the race in Steamboat Round the Bend, the background is bustling with the activity of townsfolk, and in contrast to The Informer, where much of the gloomy mise-en-scène can be understood as an externalisation of Gypo’s guilt,[11] it always feels like Rogers is a product of this environment and not the other way around.

As with The Shamrock Handicap, a sense of community is essential to Ford’s films with Rogers. However, whereas the Irish community of The Shamrock Handicap seemed essentially to be a harmonious extended family, the communities of the Rogers films are a site for class and moral conflicts between rival factions. This approach to social commentary would be later epitomized in Stagecoach (1939), where Ford created a microcosm of America inside a 5-foot cube, and in Doctor Bull it is a post office and telephone exchange which serves as the heart of the community, the place where gossip and rumour are cultivated and propagated.

Doctor Bull offers a few points of comparison with Judge Priest. In both films his character is removed from a position of status, due to prejudices about his personal life, and in both films his actions ultimately demonstrate him to be more virtuous than the people who had him removed. The comedy in these films comes from the conflict between young or progressive characters with the archaic social manners of the more conservative townsfolk, and lampoon the rigidity and uselessness of the social conventions which they hold dear. Whereas in Doctor Bull his ultimate confrontation with the townsfolk takes place at a packed village meeting, in Judge Priest it is his own courtroom that becomes the site in which he is forced to prove his character to the community.

Similar courtroom sequences feature in many Ford films. They are seldom used for getting to the facts of the matter, but more as a way of proving the worth of the characters in front of the community. In Three Godfathers (1948), John Wayne’s character has been arrested for armed robbery, but this charge is irrelevant to him, as his real concern is whether or not he will get custody of the baby he saved in the desert. On discovering that his desire to look after the child is sincere, the judge promptly awards him the minimum sentence possible, ignoring his obvious guilt in the face of his righteous character.

In the court scene in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), the mother of the two young boys is asked to identify which one is the murderer, and therefore which one will be hanged. Coming to her defence, Lincoln demonstrates that her character as a mother is such that this request is impossible, rendering the law powerless in the face of such an elementary truth of character. Even in The Informer, Gypo is redeemed not because he is innocent, but because the people are asked to sympathise with his essential weakness of character rather than his actions (he “didn’t know what he was doing”). This is what makes the court scene in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) so powerful, as each prisoner is brought in wearing a mask over his head they are denied the recourse to pleas of character that is so essential to Ford’s other defendants.

In Judge Priest it is Bob Gillis whose essential goodness must be demonstrated to the community, and this is achieved through the use of a character witness who details his heroic exploits in the civil war. As he speaks his words are backed up by Stepin Fetchit playing Dixie on his harmonica outside the courthouse, an act of theatricality which would have no place in an actual court of law, but is used here as an underhand way of revealing essential truths. In Young Mr. Lincoln, inexperienced lawyer Lincoln uses similar methods to get his point across, casually interrupting the prosecutor, telling jokes, and even prefiguring Columbo with a “just one more little thing” routine as the murderer thinks he has got away. These methods are portrayed as appropriate, as they are in the course of justice.

The humour Lincoln employs also serves to undermine the arrogant prosecutor, in the same way that Berton Churchill’s pompous oratories in Judge Priest are continually interrupted by the ringing sound of Francis Ford scoring bulls-eyes in the spittoon. Once Gillis’ good character has been demonstrated by Priest, the entire courtroom promptly joins the parade outside. In westerns such as Three Godfathers and The Iron Horse, Ford liked to stage his trials in courtroom-cum-bars, and once the case is dismissed in these films, an alcohol soaked celebration ensues, implying that the trial is less about ensuring justice is done than it is about removing whatever obstacle is in the way of the community having a grand old party.

Ford’s vision of the law is therefore one in which compassion is the most important quality, and protocol or formality should be valued less than human kindness and community spirit. This is summed up in the figure of the kindly, jolly judge embodied by Billy Priest in both Judge Priest and his later remake, The Sun Shines Bright, and by the judges in The Iron Horse, Young Mr. Lincoln and Three Godfathers also. The use of jokes and theatrics in the courtroom, and the frequent booze up that follows in the same venue, is a statement of what Ford views as really being important.

There is no trial scene in Steamboat Round the Bend, despite a story which finds Dr John’s (Will Rogers) nephew being unjustly found guilty of murder. In this case, we do not see the trial, but simply witness Dr John and Fleetybell’s (Anne Shirley) glum expressions afterwards. The reason for this may be simple economy of storytelling, or may be that a court scene in the vein of those in Ford’s other films, in which true character is revealed, and the record set straight, would not work in the world of Steamboat Round the Bend. In this film, a man’s character is self-evident, but irrelevant when it comes to questions of duty and the law. The officials are aware of Duke’s character, and know that he could not have killed a man in cold blood, but act as if his conviction is the only thing that matters. Duke, in turn, calmly accepts his fate and bears no malice towards the sheriff, at one point refusing to escape so as not to get him in trouble.

In this construction of characters, there is, as Tag Gallagher puts it:

“[a] mania for superficial definitions… that specify function rather than essence, or, rather, that assume that function is essence… In this world, names, appearances, myths, symbols, and conventions are reality.”[12]

Ford uses this approach to show us that institutions and personal identities are entirely constructed phenomena. Some of the characters of Steamboat Round the Bend are aware of this, and this enables them to pick and choose which illusions they wish to believe in. After vowing to give up the “demon rum”, Francis Ford’s character Efe instead begins drinking Dr John’s Pocahontas remedy – a relabelled bottle of rum. Undoubtedly aware of this, he chooses to believe the label rather than the contents, or to use Tag Gallagher’s terms, to believe the function rather than the essence.

This willingness to accept apparent contradiction echoes the attitude of Driscoll in The Long Voyage Home, who sees the senselessness of the fight going on around him, but chooses to join in regardless. Many of Ford’s comic characters display this ability to choose whichever level of truth is convenient to them, as epitomized by newspaper editor Dutton Peabody’s famous line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), where he chooses to “print the legend” over the truth.

In Steamboat, Dr John is able to master the art of apparently changing the essence of something, when he is in fact simply relabelling it. In one of the most lauded scenes in Steamboat Round the Bend, he refits a waxwork museum featuring figures such as King George and Ulysses S. Grant so that they become Southern icons such as George Washington and Robert E. Lee. The ease with which these icons are transformed, and the intense patriotic feeling they subsequently engender in a group of southern hicks previously intent on burning the museum, is both a tribute to, and lampoon of, Southern pride, and the idea of patriotism in general. This attitude is also particularly evident in the final scenes of Judge Priest, in which a character witness tells tales of civil war heroism while Stepin Fetchit and a band accompany with Dixie outside – culminating with Francis Ford leaping to his feet and cheering “Hooray for Jeff Davis, the Southern Confederacy and Bob Gillis”.

A number of well-known character actors and members of the “John Ford stock company” (Stepin Fetchit, Berton Churchill, Eugene Pallette, Irvin Cobbs, Francis Ford) were brought together to add humour to the film, and to give Rogers people to bounce off. This also lends credibility to an unrealistic story, as an audience, bringing with them pre-conceptions of the type of characters these actors typically played, have less difficulty suspending disbelief in their behaviour, and therefore the world of the film, however off-beat. The shallowness of comic characterization is seen to great effect with Eugene Pallete’s flat portrayal of a sheriff seemingly incapable of tact, and much of the humour comes from the incongruity of his cheerful bluster with the grimness of the situations, and the ensuing awkwardness that arises. The New York Times singled his performance out for praise, writing that:

“Mr. Pallette’s bloodcurdling indifference to the plight of the condemned youth makes his performance as the Sheriff a thing of joy.”[13]

The total unawareness that the sheriff displays of the social implications of his behaviour is a classic comic characteristic, and relates to Andrew Stott’s idea that:

“Many comic characters might be said to play on our fears of being incomplete humans through their failures of self-awareness or inability to reflect on the nature of experience. Comic characters are traditionally one-dimensional in the sense that they are apparently unable to learn and change.”[14]

The unchanging nature of character is also seen in other supporting players. Francis Ford’s drunk appears to have given up the demon rum, but has in fact just switched labels. Prophet the New Moses gives up his preaching to help Dr John win the race and save Duke from a hanging. Here we watch him adapt his religious fervour to this new cause as he casts fuel into the fiery furnace while shouting “Glory be!” and “Hallelujah!”, and we get the impression that his preaching is not so much about the sentiments as it is the opportunity to hear the sound of his own magnificent voice – a frequent characteristic of Churchill’s characters. This predictable use of familiar character actors therefore strengthens the idea that the essence of the characters is unalterable.

The film also plays with the public perceptions of Rogers and Cobbs – pitching these two public personalities (well known to be friends) as enemies means there is a certain frisson, and the audience has a feeling of being in a higher position of knowledge, also gained from being able to pick up on the boat names as corresponding to the men’s hometowns.[15] Twice in the film, Rogers’ character is depicted as lassooing objects from a moving boat, a skill which need not be explained as most of the public would be familiar with Rogers’ impressive lariat skills.[16]

Rogers’ character in the film is a skilled trickster, and many of his ruses – lassooing another boat so that they pull his, using waxworks to pose as real people, and fuelling the boat with alcohol seem to be descended from silent comedy tradition, displaying a level of inventiveness comparable to some of Buster Keaton’s work. Frequently this invention involves breaking rules, and falls under the definition of the ‘trickster’ character outlined by Geoff King:

“The trickster is a practical joker, a witty and irreverent being who violates the most sacred of prohibitions. The trickster is not confined by boundaries, conceptual, social, or physical, and can cross lines that are impermeable to normal individuals… [the trickster] provides an integral check on beliefs to prevent them from becoming too secure in themselves.”[17]

Rogers’ skill in transcending rules is another comment on the ease with which seemingly concrete boundaries or rules can be bent or transformed when necessary, and is a perfect complement to his witty insights into useless societal conventions. As Joseph McBride writes of the waxworks scene:

“By improvising more popular new personalities for their pantheon of figures, Dr John and Jonah farcically mock the schisms in the national character and demonstrate the resilience of a heterogeneous country whose motto is ‘E Pluribus Unum’.”[18]

This undermining of supposedly deep-rooted tradition is comparable to one of the most famous Rogers witticisms that “my ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower – they met the boat,”[19] and it is arguable that this gently sardonic verbal take on American cultural values reaches its perfect cinematic expression in the visual invention of Steamboat Round the Bend.

Steamboat Round the Bend was one of the biggest hits of 1935, no doubt in part because of Rogers’ tragic death just a few weeks before its release. Fox had been suffering financial difficulties in the early 30s, and later in the decade they would be kept alive almost single-handedly by a star even more popular than Rogers – the young Shirley Temple.[20]

Shirley Temple

Another important factor in the revival of Fox’s fortunes, however, was its new chief of production, Darryl F. Zanuck. During the production of Steamboat Round the Bend his studio Twentieth Century Pictures had merged with Fox to create Twentieth Century-Fox, and over the next few years he would manage to transform the company into one of the major players once more.

Ford and Zanuck’s early relationship was a little tense, with Ford claiming that Zanuck had cut “all the comedy” out of Steamboat after he had taken over, and further conflicts arising on the set of The Prisoner of Shark Island in 1936. At some point over the next few years however, the two began to respect each other and would go on to sing each other’s praises in later life. Zanuck gave Ford the freedom to make films off the lot at RKO during this time, and in return Ford accepted the assignments he was given and succeeded in creating both critical and commercial successes.[21]

Zanuck’s appreciation of Ford’s talent led him to give Ford what has become one of his most notorious, and unlikely, assignments, but would prove to be a testament to Zanuck’s commercial nous. In 1937 Zanuck assigned Ford the job of directing Shirley Temple in Wee Willie Winkie. This seemed a peculiar match at the time. Ford had just come off a run of well regarded prestige pictures including The Informer, Mary of Scotland and The Prisoner of Shark Island which had impressed critics, and by contrast Shirley Temple had starred in a run of low-budgeted, formulaic, light-comedy crowd-pleasers.

The Shirley Temple phenomenon began to take off in 1934 when she was first identified as a performing prodigy, a child of seemingly unending charm who was also a talented dancer and capable singer. With her relentless cheeriness she provided escape during the dark years of the depression, and seemed to be loved by almost anyone who saw or worked with her.[22] Often she played an orphan, or child of a single parent, and the films typically revolved around her looking for some kind of parental figure. Her association with social outcasts and servants, provided a link to the common man during the depression, and her innocence and naivety gifted her characters with a skill for diplomacy that meant even the essentially complex problems of the adult world became inordinately simplistic and solvable in her hands. She was thus able to provide solutions to problems that adults were unable to, her furrowed brow and perplexed pouts becoming almost as effective as Will Roger’s mumbled witticisms at dismantling the complexities of modern problems.

Temple’s films were cheap to make and churned out at an alarming rate. Consequently they tended to lack any real identity other than as a vehicle for her charm. As Charles Eckerts writes:

“The films [Fox] produced obliterate all traces of their craft. They are consummate examples of minimal direction, invisible editing, unobtrusive camerawork and musical scoring, and characterless dialogue. Every burr or edge has been honed away, and the whole buffed to a high finish.”[23]

By 1936 her films were still as popular as ever, but many critics were starting to note the lack of story variation, and low production values. One critic wrote that:

“The time has come for Darryl Zanuck to realise that Shirley Temple cannot be expected to carry a poor story all by herself… for two years she has been doing the same thing. Even fanatics are indignant over the implausible stories used to present her as a show off… Give her more intelligent stories Mr Zanuck, and better actors in supporting casts.”[24]

Zanuck was a shrewd producer and understood the need for making prestige films that could enhance the image of the studio, or their stars. Although Shirley’s films were low cost and brought in massive profits,[25] he realised that he would need to provide Shirley with a higher class of product or face losing the public’s patience. It was at this point that he brought in Ford – Academy Award winning Best Director winner of 1935 and one of the more critically acclaimed directors working at Fox. Zanuck appreciated that the prestige attached with Ford’s name would allow him to approach the next Shirley Temple picture from a fresh angle. During pre-production Zanuck stated that:

“My idea about doing this picture is to forget that it is a Shirley Temple picture. That is, not to forget that she is the star, but to write this story as if it were a Little Women or a David Copperfield… All the hokum must be thrown out. The characters must be made real, human, believable… And it must be told from the child’s viewpoint, through her eyes.”[26]

Wee Willie Winkie, then, was a film which sought to capitalise on the success of Shirley Temple as a star, but to package itself as a prestige picture. ‘Prestige’ pictures had become increasingly popular during the 1930s, making up the bulk of the films that appeared in Film Daily and Variety‘s best picture lists in the latter part of the decade. These films were often marketed as ‘event’ pictures, and were frequently linked to a well known literary source so that the film became a ‘pre-sold’ property.[27]

Wee Willie Winkie was based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling, about a young boy at a British army post in India who becomes an unlikely hero when he rescues a stranded lady from Indians.[28] (The fact that the title was also based on a well-known nursery rhyme would not hurt its recognisability factor either.) The key point here is that the story was used as a way of selling the film more than anything else, and the film is only loosely based on the story. The character of Wee Willie Winkie naturally becomes a girl, and also incorporates other motifs from Shirley Temple pictures. After the film proved to be a commercial and critical hit, the studio followed a similar approach to subsequent Temple vehicles, basing them on popular stories such as Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, although with production values brought down slightly again.

One of the difficult tasks facing Ford and Zanuck was to make a Shirley Temple film that didn’t feel like a Shirley Temple film, and any formulaic elements had to be restated in seemingly fresh ways. Thus, Temple is not an orphan in the film, but has a single mother and a gruff grandfather. This distances her character from the somewhat more melodramatic roles in which her parents would be killed off horribly in the first reel, but also allows the traditional Temple storyline of the search for a father figure (or, as in The Littlest Rebel, for multiple father figures) to take a secondary role in the story. Although the film is set in 1897, there are also veiled allusions to depression-era problems: at one point Priscilla asks her mother if moving to India really means they won’t have to worry about the butcher’s bills any more.

The original story is somewhat slight, mainly focusing on descriptions of the titular character, and only involving one real event. For the film adaptation, everything but the characters and the setting were jettisoned, and a story was created around Temple’s talent for innocent diplomacy, in which her character, Priscilla, is able to resolve the conflict between the British forces and the surrounding Indian hostiles, a plot also allowing for a great deal of action and spectacle not present in the story. Priscilla also develops a friendship with a Sergeant MacDuff (Victor McLaglen), and manages to melt the hearts of a lieutenant, her gruff grandfather, and the rebel Khoda Khan.

By the time the film was completed, Kipling’s original character had been almost completely reconstituted as a Shirley Temple role, with only a few characteristics (such as her propensity to create nicknames for people) remaining, and other undesirable qualities (such as the original character’s pomposity) being conveniently farmed off on a young boy character who would serve as a foil to Temple.

Wee Willie Winkie (1937)

Wee Willie Winkie (1937)

Although the film is often described as being told from a child’s point of view,[29] this is not particularly accurate. Not only are there several scenes in which Priscilla does not appear, but we are rarely invited to share her perspective. Ford portrays her as someone different and special to us, demonstrated by the reactions of the surrounding adults as we witness their bewilderment or amusement in her behaviour. Often she is presented as being quite small in the frame, as a child in an adult world, this frequent use of long shot also precluding a unique identification with her character.

Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol provides a useful model for a film that is genuinely shown from a child’s point of view. Shots of the young protagonist, Phillipe, are usually close-ups as we see his reactions to events occurring around him and are able to identify with him. Frequently things happen just on the edge of the frame that he does not notice, or pay attention to, and though present in the shot, they are understated so that we are able to both recognise them as significant, and also understand their insignificance in Phillipe’s limited comprehension. In this way we are able to gain a dual understanding of the narrative, as the child sees it, and as it actually is.

Wee Willie Winkie (1937)

Wee Willie Winkie (1937)

The only comparable scene in Wee Willie Winkie is MacDuff’s death scene. MacDuff’s position on the bed means that the shot can be framed at Priscilla’s height whilst keeping him in view, and as she walks away the camera stays tight on her, so that we are able to share her naïve understanding of what is happening. However, we also notice MacDuff’s hands dropping at the edge of the frame, and see his teary friend sitting behind Priscilla, giving us the same dual-understanding of the scene as we have in The Fallen Idol. Perhaps because of this device, the scene is one of the most emotionally affecting in the film.

Despite this dramatic storyline, Wee Willie Winkie consists largely of comedy set pieces. Much of the comedy is fairly broad, and comes from McLaglen’s performance as the fight-loving, sentimental Sergeant who is Scottish in accent only, and is essentially the same Irish rogue that he would play in Ford’s cavalry movies. McLaglen’s bluff demeanour forms an amusing contrast with Temple’s dainty precocity, and the way that she manages to soften his big heart (at one point reducing him to tears of joy when she complements a picture of him as a boy) is a refreshing parody of the kind of fawning mawkishness which unfortunately characterised many of the father figures in other Temple films. Ford also takes advantage of McLaglen’s renown as a boxer to stage some slapstick fight scenes, with a predictable routine in which he purports to train someone while actually beating him up, and some ludicrously over-emphasised stunt falls.

In another scene McLaglen and his cronies are seen apparently bullying the young boy by shrinking his uniform in the wash, an act which seems unnecessarily cruel until we discover that he was shrinking it for Priscilla. It is tempting to view this as an extension of Ford himself, as the cruel barbs he frequently doled out to actors on his set have been claimed by some to be an over-compensation for a sensitive heart, and a means of drawing stronger performances out of his actors. On the set of Wee Willie Winkie, Ford acted indifferently towards Temple for much of the production, meaning that she went out of her way to earn his respect, which (whether intentionally or not) forms an apt metaphor for Priscilla’s relationship with the army in the film.

The central joke of the film is the contrast between Temple’s friendly demeanour and the stiffness and pomp of the military. Just as the children of Officer Riley’s neighbourhood marched after the police to mock their stance, the sight of Shirley Temple in full army regalia doing marching drill effectively punctures the pomposity of military discipline, implying that there is an element of childish play to it. The rigidity of the social structure at the army camp is similar to the orphanage in which she lives at the beginning of Curly Top. However in this case she manages to effect change rather than simply escape.

The social structure at the camp can also be compared to those of the cavalry films Ford made a decade later, and indeed Shirley Temple reprises her role as a naïve newcomer in Fort Apache (1948), but whereas the heroines of these later films strove to integrate themselves into the traditional (and implicitly noble) structure of the military communities, Priscilla instead remodels the entire community around herself so that it essentially becomes an extended surrogate family, complete with numerous playmates. The ease with which she breaks down resistant father figures, earns the respect of the entire outpost, and effects an unlikely truce is explainable only through the fact that she is Shirley Temple, and it is therefore unthinkable not to love her.

Unlike most Temple films, Wee Willie Winkie does not feature any musical numbers, but it makes up for the loss of spectacle through the use of action sequences, extravagant set design and attractions such as sword swallowers. This effort to break away from the trappings of the conventional Shirley Temple film appears to have been successful, with a TIME reviewer writing that:

“Shirley Temple acts with amazing skill and competence. She only sings once, and does not dance at all, and puts over a really remarkable performance.”[30]

The success of Shirley Temple’s performance in Wee Willie Winkie can therefore be attributed to a toning down of certain elements of her persona, and to a resituating of her character into an environment which allowed other elements to be emphasised. Just as nineteenth-century, small-town Americana proved to be conducive to some of the more poignant aspects of Will Rogers’ persona, the seeming austerity of army discipline provided the perfect setting for Shirley Temple to work her special brand of magic. Ford’s use of framing in these settings gave extra meaning to the actor’s performances, while still allowing them room to display their star qualities. The commercial and critical success of this adaptation of the Shirley Temple formula is evidence of both Zanuck’s talent for gauging public tastes, and Ford’s instincts for drawing out the nobler and more emotionally engaging aspects of the actors that he worked with.

Part 3 – A Job of Work: John Ford as an Auteur



[1] P. J. O’Brien. Will Rogers: Ambassador of Good Will (Hutchinson & Co, 1935), 67.

[2] Will Rogers was one of the two most popular stars in America from 1933 to 1935, and Shirley Temple occupied the top spot between 1935 and 1938. (Quigley Publishing Company, “Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll”.

[3] Bryan B. Sterling. “Biography” in The Best of Will Rogers (M. Evans and Company, 1979), 3-28.

[4] Andrew Sarris. The John Ford Movie Mystery (Secker & Warburg, 1976), 51.

[5] James A. Henretta. America’s History: To 1877 (Dorsey Press, 1987), 775.

[6] Michael C. Steiner. “Regionalism in the Great Depression,” Geographical Review, Vol. 73, No. 4 (October 1983), 436-440.

[7] A typical Rogers comment: “There is not a man in the country that can’t make a living for himself and family. But he can’t make a living for them AND his government, too, not the way the government is living. What the government has got to do is live as cheap as the people”. (Sterling, op. cit., 95.)

[8] Gerald Weales. “Steamboat Round the Bend,” Canned Goods as Caviar: American Film Comedies of the 1930s (University of Chicago Press, 1985), 126.

[9] Weales, op.cit., 114.

[10] Joseph McBride. Searching for John Ford (Faber and Faber, 2004), 212.

[11] Dudley Nichols stated that the fog in The Informer was used to “get us into the region of Gypo’s mind”. From a letter printed in Lindsay Anderson, About John Ford (Plexus Publishing, 1981), 239.

[12] Tag Gallagher. John Ford: The Man and His Films (University of California Press, 1986), 126.

[13] Andre Sennwald. “The Screen,” The New York Times (20th September 1935).

[14] Andrew Stott. Comedy (Routledge, 2005), 41.

[15] Weales, op. cit., 131.

[16] Sterling, op. cit., 14.

[17] Geoff King. Film Comedy (Wallflower Press, 2002), 51.

[18] McBride, op. cit., 212.

[19] Sterling, op. cit., 180.

[20] Charles Eckert. “Shirley Temple and the House of Rockfeller.” In Stardom: Industry of Desire, ed. Christine Gledhill (Routledge, 1991), 66.

[21] Dan Ford. Pappy:The Life of John Ford. (Da Capo Press, 1998), 92-94.

[22] Eckert, op. cit., 65-66.

[23] Ibid., 67.

[24] Quoted in Shirley Temple Black. Child Star: An Autobiography (Headline, 1989), 163.

[25] According to “The New Pictures.” TIME (19th July 1937), the average cost of past Temple pictures was $300,000, compared to $1,100,000 for Wee Willie Winkie.

[26] McBride, op. cit., 260.

[27] Tina Balio. Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise 1930-1939 (University of California Press, 1995), 179.

[28] Rudyard Kipling. Wee Willie Winkie. Under the Deodars. The Phantom Rickshaw: And Other Stories (Macmillan, 1905), 255-270.

[29] Sarris, op. cit., 8

[30] “The New Pictures.” TIME (19th July 1937).