The Little Princess-1939
Starring-Shirley Temple, Ian Hunter
Scott’s Review #827
Reviewed November 6, 2018
The Little Princess (1939) is a latter-day Shirley Temple film released when the child star’s popularity was clearly on the decline. The film is also the first Temple production to be filmed in Technicolor and the last of her major successes. The picture is very good though not the first I would choose as a starting point in her collection: saccharin, wholesome, and predictable are adjectives to describe the film, but also just what audiences adore about the star’s cinematic projects.
Loosely based on a novel entitled A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the film was criticized at the time of release for straying too far from the original novel. The time is turn of the century England and the backdrop is the Boer war. The setting of the film is a highlight for American audiences who were amidst the first World War and on the cusp of World War II allowing for a timely and relevant quality of the film.
In the story Temple plays Sara, the wealthy daughter of a military Captain (Ian Hunter) who is left to reside in a well-to-do girl’s school when her father is called away to serve in the war. When he unexpectedly dies in battle Sara is left penniless and forced to work as a servant in the school she one attended. At first treated like royalty by the staff her treatment gradually harbors resentment among the principals especially the dastardly headmistress (Mary Nash). Sara keeps her chin up insisting that her father is not dead at all as she becomes determined to find him in a local hospital.
In the year 2018 Shirley Temple films mainly serve as a source of nostalgia versus any critical acclaim or cinematic dissection- what is the point? Her films are a wholesome trip down memory lane back to a simpler time for many. Ironic that the film is the first color picture in the collection, this detracts from the enjoyment and adds too much of a modern element foreign to Temple fans. My preference is for the black and white productions of the early and mid-1930’s.
The supporting characters spice up The Little Princess quite a bit. Most notably is Cesar Romero as neighbor Ram Dass, a man who fills the void that Sara needs due to the loss of her father. The chemistry between Romero and Temple is wonderful as the kindly Dass leaves warm blankets for Sara in a tender scene. As the main villainous, common in Temple films, Mary Nash as Miss Minchin does her job flawlessly. Serving as the main foil, Nash provides the perfect blend of rigid mannerisms and the brunt of Sara’s tension.
The overall tone of The Little Princess (1939), hence the title, contains a riches to rags, Cinderella in reverse, type of story. The film is above average, but not the best in the bunch. Venturing to say that the film is a forgotten work save for fans of the Shirley Temple series, it does what it sets out to do and entertains. With drama, musical numbers, and a happy ending, the result is a similar experience to her many other films.