Combustible Celluloid
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With: Shirley Temple, Victor McLaglen, C. Aubrey Smith, June Lang, Michael Whalen, Cesar Romero, Constance Collier, Douglas Scott, Gavin Muir, Willie Fung, Brandon Hurst, Lionel Pape, Clyde Cook, Bunny Beatty, Lionel Braham
Written by: Ernest Pascal, Julien Josephson, based on a story by Rudyard Kipling
Directed by: John Ford
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 100
Date: 07/30/1937

Wee Willie Winkie (1937)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Running Through the Town

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1937, Shirley Temple was a huge star and John Ford was an Oscar-winning director. Whoever dreamed up the idea of them working together must have thought twice before going ahead with Wee Willie Winkie (1937), but the result is delightful, a critical and box office hit, and said to have been Temple's personal favorite of her own films.

Based ever so loosely on Rudyard Kipling's 1888 short story, Wee Willie Winkie turns the title character into a girl, the daughter of a young widow, Joyce Williams (June Lang). When they run out of money and options, Joyce's father-in-law Colonel Williams (C. Aubrey Smith) summons them to his military outpost in India. As they arrive, the soldiers capture a notorious bandit, Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero). Winkie charms everyone at the outpost, including Khoda Khan, but especially the gruff, big-hearted Sergeant MacDuff (Victor McLaglen, Ford's Oscar-winning Best Actor from The Informer). Images of them marching together still inspire "awws."

Eventually things ramp up to a big showdown; Khoda Khan escapes and there's a touching death scene that will choke up most viewers. After, Winkie decides to see Khoda Khan herself and talk him out of starting a war. However, Ford never lets Winkie get into too much trouble. The movie is constructed in little blocks that more or less resolve before moving onto the next section; the tension never grows too terrible. It's as if Ford were protecting Temple from anything too harsh, although part of Temple's appeal is that she knows more about what's good and decent than most of the adult characters do.

Though most of the movie takes place on interior sets, Ford makes superb use of light from windows, as well as staging. The death scene, in which Temple sings "Auld Lang Syne," is particularly outstanding, with a partition behind Temple, turning the public moment private, and a tiny bouquet of crumpled flowers as a major prop. But the outdoor scenes have the true mark of Ford, with extraordinary splashes of light and landscape (especially the many stone steps that lead to Khoda Khan's hideout).

Wee Willie Winkie earned an Oscar nomination for Art Direction. Later that year, Ford released The Hurricane, and Temple starred in Heidi. Eleven years later, when Temple was a beautiful young woman of 20, she and Ford worked together again in Fort Apache (1948).

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