Bright Eyes (1934)

For those of you who - like me - don't have much of a background in 1930s film, this is for all intents and purposes the movie that cemented Shirley Temple as a child superstar. Along with two other films she made the same year, it also netted her an honorary Juvenile Academy Award, the first of its kind awarded. This is also the origin of the song, "On the Good Ship Lollipop," which... is not a mark in its favor, in my opinion.

Let's jump into the story. Shirley Temple plays Shirley, a part you'll be shocked to hear was written for her. Shirley is obsessed with aircraft, largely because her late father was a pilot. She spends most of her time at the airfield with her godfather, James, who'd been her father's closest friend. When she's not there, she's living with her mother, a maid boarding with her employers, the Smythes, who are greedy, selfish, and self-obsessed. Also living with the Smythes is their uncle, Mr. Smith, who's standoffish but well-meaning, and Adele, a visiting relation of the Smythes who's also James's former fiance.

The first half of the movie is set on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and mainly serves to set all these characters up. There are a lot of zany interactions serving to tell us that everyone except the Smythe family loves Shirley and that the Smythes themselves are awful people mainly interested in inheriting their uncle's considerable fortune.

We get to Christmas, and the aviators throw Shirley a massive Christmas party (Shirley's performance of "On the Good Ship Lollipop" occurs during this sequence). Her mother, stuck at work for the morning, is planning to attend, but she's running late. As she rushes to catch a bus, she's hit by a car and killed. When he finds out, James takes Shirley up in a plane to tell her that her mother has died.

The second half of the movie is set after Christmas and concerns the question of who's going to adopt Shirley. James wants to, but he lacks the money and long-term housing to offer her a secure home. He plans to find a way to rectify his situation, but that will take time.

Meanwhile, Mr. Smith blackmails the Smythes into agreeing to take Shirley back into their home, something they're only willing to do to stay in their uncle's will. At first, it seems like everyone's reached a consensus, with Shirley staying with the Smythes temporarily until James gets his life in order and adopts her. But Mr. Smith is convinced he can offer Shirley a far better life and sets out to legally adopt her, leading to an argument between him and James.

Meanwhile, Shirley overhears the Smythes discussing how much they want her gone, so she runs away to the airfield. James informs her she needs to go back to the Smythes, but unbeknownst to him, she sneaks into his plane. What she doesn't realize is he's taking a dangerous job to earn quick cash by acting as a courier in dangerous conditions.

By now, the police are looking for James on suspicion of kidnapping. Shirley, realizing none of the danger she's in or the position she's put James in, reveals that she's stowed away. Soon after, they run into dangerous conditions, the plane becomes inoperable, and they need to bail out, which they do successfully.

We pick up with the story in a courtroom, where a judge is determining who will adopt Shirley, because I guess that whole kidnapping thing just worked itself out. The judge dismisses the army of lawyers Smith brought, then pretty quickly gets everyone to agree to a situation where James will marry Adele, Smith will live with them, and they'll all adopt Shirley.

I should note that despite having a past together, James has shown every indication that he neither trusts nor likes Adele up until this point. But, hey, why shouldn't adopting your dead friend's daughter be the basis for a marriage? Shirley gets to live with all the people she likes (or at least the ones who are still alive), and the Smythes get nothing. I guess that qualifies as a happy ending?

You might be surprised to hear the first half of this seemed fine to me. I wouldn't call it great, but some of the jokes landed, and the characters were interesting enough for the light comedy time they were going for. Shirley's quirky as a character, as is her nemesis, the Smythe's daughter. And Temple is a cute kid: there's a reason she became a Hollywood archetype.

It's the second half where this dissolves into nonsense. Tonally, this is an absolute mess, to the point it's very difficult to discern what they were trying to go for. My best guess is they wanted to contrast the bright, happy Christmas with the tragic death of Shirley's mother, essentially shifting gears from a light comedy to a heartfelt drama. If so... it doesn't come through.

The problem - well, one of the problems - is they don't commit to the tone shift. They don't spend enough time selling the emotional toll: Shirley's sad about the loss of her mother for one scene, then she's back to her normal self. The movie returns to the same jokes, and when it breaks them up with drama, the drama concerns legal issues and economic considerations, rather than emotion. None of it carries much weight. Then, the finale just wraps everything up with a bit of convenient deus ex machina in the form of a wise and benevolent judge. It all feels pointless.

My guess is the Christmas setting is there for contrast and contrived gravitas. There's also a Christmas Eve bit about the birth of Christ that sort of foreshadows how characters will come together for Shirley - read into that what you will.

Again, I didn't mind the first half of this. When it was content to be a comedy, it was competent. It's when it tried to be more that it fell apart spectacularly. I have no idea if the people behind this were out of their league or if the studio set limits on how dark they could go, but either way the resulting movie - or at least the post-Christmas half - just doesn't work.

I can't imagine anyone reading this is seriously considering tracking this down, but I'm the interest of consistency I'll spell it out: you can skip this. It's not unwatchable, but there's really nothing of value here outside a historical footnote about Shirley Temple's rise as a young star.