Essay Retrospective

The Littlest Rebel

(1935) Dir. David Butler


I critique The Littlest Rebel in relation to the ideological ancestor of the American Civil War on film. This is, for me, one of Shirley Temple’s most memorable performances.

Described by the New York Times in 1935 as “an eventful slice of meringue and quite the most palatable item in which the baby has appeared recently [while continuing] to be the most improbable child.”[1] The Littlest Rebel (David Butler, 1935) is a rather unusual Civil War film as one often thinks of men in boots and beards rather than six year old girls with perfectly formed ringlets and dimples. To utilise a phrase by Will Kaufman, it can be described as a film which “regenders”[2]  the Civil War. Like So Red the Rose (King Vidor, 1935) and Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) Rebel initially takes place on a Southern plantation and also has a family at the forefront of its narrative. Mrs (Karen Morley) and Captain Cary (John Boles) idolise their daughter Virginia ‘Virgie’ (Shirley Temple) and the film opens with a dinner party all guests adorned in fine dresses and dinner jackets. It is only upon closer inspection when the camera moves in for a medium shot does the viewer realise that these are children; extremely civilised and polite adolescents uttering ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to their gracious hostess. Virgie is tenacious and independent, sacrificing her own ice-cream in order to ensure that her guests are content and full – she is also white. The Cary’s own slaves, each defined by a stereotype included in Donald Bogle’s pantheon[3]; Uncle Billy (Bill Robinson) is the “Uncle Tom”[4] amiable and protective of his ‘honey-child’ ward. James Henry (Willie Best) is evidently the “Coon”[5], his lack of intelligence and naivety used for comic effect and to incite irritability in Miss Virgie, who at six is his intellectual superior. A secondary character can also be clearly defined as the “Mammy”[6] a robust woman complete with an Aunt Jemima handkerchief around her head.

The news that there have been shots fired at Fort Sumter breaks up the party and sends families back to their homes, Captain Cary must report for duty as rebel scout for the Confederate army and leaves his family. This is a prospect Virgie seemingly relishes as she declares that her “daddy is the best soldier in the whole army”, however, her views change when she realises that her father will be kept away from the plantation for long periods of time. The fighting escalates and the Union army take the Cary land for their own, looting the property under the supervision of Sergeant Dudley (Guinn Williams) who is searching for absent patriarch Cary. Fearing for Virgie’s safety, Uncle Billy hides the little girl away in a secret wall space while the aggressive ‘Yankees’ ransack the house. When Virgie is found she is mistaken for a slave child as she has painted her face and hands with black boot polish in an attempt to conceal her whiteness and remain safe. This ‘blackening’ of Temple’s skin is also repeated in The Little Colonel (David Butler, 1935) when her character recreates a black riverside baptism in a muddy puddle. Lori Merish in her “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics” article states that Temple “purge[s] the cute of its unsettling racial resonances, performing an absorption and domestication of comic styles associated with blackness”[7], a term Richard Dyer describes as “binarism”[8]. She further describes Temple’s temporary ‘blackness’ as “racial hybridisation”[9] which forces the audience to view Temple and Robinson as the visual equivalents of each other. I would disagree; despite concealment beneath mud or boot polish the star persona and ‘whiteness’ is reinforced, there is no ambiguity. Virgie and Uncle Billy are not equivalents of each other but binary opposites: female/male, mature/adolescent, white/black and free/enslaved, a relationship that is described as “safe” by Benshoff and Griffin[10]. Certainly, the two are rarely seen embracing or are physically close with one another and it is Virgie’s relationships with the other male characters that are more compelling. She appears to be somewhat manipulative, particularly, with her affection and happily kisses men on the mouth and climbs into their lap; Virgie lacks no confidence in standing up for her beliefs.


A few weeks (this is a presumed timeframe as the viewer is never aware of days and dates) after her father’s departure, Virgie is playing ‘soldiers’ with a group of slave children and James Henry; leading the way wearing a Confederacy cap while they wear white hats reminiscent of Klu Klux Klan hoods. A Union soldier rides onto the land and the other children run away but Virgie stands her ground and fires a slingshot at Colonel Morrison (Jack Holt), marching in front of him singing ‘Dixie’ and declaring proudly “I’m a Confederate”. The Colonel likes her honesty and finds the ‘little rebel’ amusing. Not long after, following the death of his wife Captain Cary attempts to cross enemy-lines to get his daughter to safety in Richmond and with the assistance of Colonel Morrison he almost makes the journey, unfortunately they are both captured and sentenced to death by firing squad. Virgie comes to the rescue when she is granted an audience with President Lincoln to beg for clemency for the two men she considers her ‘daddies’.

The Littlest Rebel presents itself as a generic hybrid, while it has clear melodramatic indicators not least in the acting styles within the mise-en-scène. Virgie/Temple is often displaying facial expressions of an over-exaggerated nature and, at times, when emphasising her point out tends to pout and put her hands on her hips. When she cries, she has to point out the tears in an effort to reiterate the emotion of the scene, Molly Haskell describes her as the following:

[Virgie’s] flirtatiousness with her daddy [is] outdone, in precociousness, only by the patronizing way in which she [treats] her contemporaries. She [is] not only a little lady, advanced in social etiquette beyond her years, but a little mother, assuming the maternal role with [the] older men [in the movie][11]

Morley’s Mrs Cary delivers a more-understated performance; however, her death allows Virgie to usurp her in the family unit becoming a little mother/housewife and child all the while reinforcing Temple as the star of the show. A non-diegetic score, usually found in the melodrama is seconded to diegetic music in the form of songs sung by Virgie to her father at the film’s conclusion. The musical scene between Virgie and her father also reiterates the North/South dichotomy and in particular the masculine Northerner and the effete Southerner, here personified by Colonel Holt and Captain Cary; their star personas played up to maximum effect; John Boles was a silent star who became a Broadway regular and Jack Holt was a stalwart of the Western genre and favourite of John Ford. This information is not meant to imply that Boles any ‘less masculine’ than Holt, however, Boles’ visage is certainly softer, complete with long eyelashes and dimpled chin, he is often filmed in close up or medium shot and clinched in an embrace with his daughter. Holt on the other hand, much like Rhett Butler, is more stoic with his prominent jaw and monotone drawl.

As with other Civil War melodrama there are ideological messages which are present in Rebel. These suggest that it right to protect your kin – dishonesty is acceptable when for an honourable cause – embrace the beauty in death and show mercy to oppressors. In addition to ideological messages, Jenny Barrett suggests that protagonists within the Civil War melodrama complete three stages: old morality, transformation and new morality with “the civil war thus operat[ing] as a tool for the narrative structure, allowing the moral development of the central characters”[12]. Whether Virgie completes this moral journey is open to conjecture, she starts and ends the film as a six year old, yet in between loses her family home and mother. She is a child who does not know war but learns tolerance of her Northern Oppressors, gains a little independence while trying to save her father’s life and to reiterate Sennwald – an improbable child indeed. Rebel is similar to The Drummer of the 8th (Thomas H. Ince, 1913) in its generic hybridity and child-as-protagonist attempting to reconcile the turmoil of war with family life, however, while Virgie never sees any action (unlike Billy) she knows death.

Historically, The Littlest Rebel was released at Christmas, 1935 to a country in the middle of the Great Depression (1933-1940) two years after the commencement of President Roosevelt’s New Deal[13]. After the release of Rebel Roosevelt made the following statement “when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is splendid thing that for just fifteen cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles”[14]. It shows the power of cinema if a film trying to depict the ‘lighter’ side of a war can make an audience forget poverty, mass unemployment and the worst economic crash of the decade. Little change was made to Civil Rights[15] so one has to wonder whether the black community were able to ‘forget their troubles’ by watching their ancestors on screen or whether the ideological white, patriarchal antecedent, evidently celebrated, is nearer to the ‘he’ that Roosevelt is addressing.[16]

Robert Brent Toplin has argued that cinematic history is also a generic category and that an audience is able to recognise the historical genre by the casting of certain actors[17]. However, I would suggest that by default all cinema, by production alone, has a history and to describe ‘cinematic history’ as a generic category is problematic; more viewers are likely to recognise the historical context of films through more obvious indicators like the biopic, war film, Western, etcetera. To think that viewers freely associate actors with a history film in this modern age is somewhat naïve, specifically the actors he uses as examples[18], not to mention highly subjective – one person’s President Roosevelt may be another’s Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)[19]. Shirley Temple is not usually an actress associated with historical films, her oeuvre consists of more generic recognisable labels like the musical, and is not therefore a principal characteristic by Toplin’s theory. The fact that Abraham Lincoln is present within the diegesis would suggest that Rebel is allied, with cinematic history along side the melodrama and musical.


It would be imprudent to accept The Littlest Rebel as an interpretation of historical fact and would be more appropriate to describe it as an interpretation of historical truth. Fort Sumter was, indeed, fired open and is widely regarded as the place where the war began and not, as suggested by this picture as the North attacking the South, nor did the fighting cease after two soldiers are granted clemency as depicted at the film’s conclusion. Certain artistic liberties have been taken as with the majority of motion pictures, just as Toplin freely admits in his thesis[20], not least in the depiction and representation of the African American male(s) featured, however minimally. They are all slaves and not soldiers which history informs us was not the case. Rebel states, quite categorically, within the opening sequences that the cause of the Civil War was the emancipation of slavery, Virgie asks Uncle Billy what a war is and after he tells her about men killing each other he adds, “A white man says that there is a gentleman up North who wants to free the slaves”.

The ‘man’ he refers to is, of course, Abraham Lincoln and I would suggest that it is through his presence that may shape a historical truth certainly surrounding his Presidency and the time of war. This would substantiate Toplin’s statement that “Hollywood’s interpretations of American history can make a significant impact on the public’s thinking about the past[21], Lincoln’s mythology lend itself to The Birth of a Nation, Young Mr Lincoln (John Ford, 1939) and Rebel amongst others. All attempt to depict the sixteenth President of the United States as the father of the nation – specifically in the latter picture where fatherhood is a metaphor heavily relied upon throughout – a man who was a friend of the people, as wholesome as the apple shared and eaten with Virgie (or the pie judged at competition in Young Mr Lincoln). A confidant who shows clemency to a chosen few – the issue of the 620,000 deaths he helped contribute to with his political decisions is rarely commented upon – instead he is martyred on screen and his antebellum memory is romanticised thereby allowing both filmmakers and audiences alike to avoid serious questions about Lincoln’s character and legacy. This is not a man torn by real indecision (peach or apple pie preference not included[22]), as suggested in the letter to Horace Greeley in 1862[23], but a gentleman who exuded confidence and was fair to the Southern people and indifferent to race – he shakes both Virgie and Uncle Billy’s hand without hesitation and it would seem that the mythology of Mr Lincoln informs both the historical truth and interpretations of the past on the present.

The Littlest Rebel attempts to correct the ruin, death and unhappiness[24] of So the Red the Rose and Gone With the Wind with its romanticised innocence, musical melodrama and racist undertones. The film depicts (circa) 1861 as a time of continuing racism and poverty during war. Its production in 1935 (also a time of continuing racism and poverty[25]) suggests that the historical context of production and finished aesthetics add authenticity to the Hollywood version of history. Shirley Temple coquettishly straddles childhood and adulthood like the improbable child described in Sennwald’s 1935 review. She does, however, surrender her active independence to the hegemonic white, patriarch who continues to inform the ideological American ancestor.

[1] Andre Sennwald, New York Times Reviews The Littlest Rebel, 20 December 1935.

[2] Will Kaufman, The Civil War in American Culture, UK: Edinburgh University Press (2006) pp92-109.

[3] Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films USA: Continuum (1991).

[4] Ibid. pp4-5

[5] Ibid. pp5-6

[6] Ibid. p6

[7] Lori Merish, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics” in Rosemarie garland Thomson (ed) Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, New York: New York University Press (1996) p198.

[8] Richard Dyer, The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation, London & New York: Routledge (1993) p133.

[9] Merish, (1996) p199.

[10] Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film:Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, UK: Blackwell Publishing (2004) p81.

[11] Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies 2nd Edition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1987) p123.

[12] Barrett, (2009) p53

[13] Roosevelt created the New Deal and the 3 Rs – relief, reform and recovery in order to bring the USA through the greatest economic crash of the decade.

[14] Shirley Temple, Child Star, New York: McGraw (1988) p59.

[15] Anthony J. Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940, London: Macmillan (1989) p252.

[16] Anne Edwards, Shirley Temple: American Princess, New York: William Morrow (1988) p85 – in 1935 black men were still not treated as equals to the white man and Bill Robinson, reportedly, had to enter by the rear of the studio lot, could not share his meals with white cast members or use the same bathroom facilities.

[17] Toplin, (2002) p14.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jon Voight played Roosevelt in Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001) and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy – two roles which are widely diverse. One would not necessarily associate him with a history picture with these multi-faceted performances.

[20] Toplin, (2002) p59.

[21] Toplin, (2002) p1.

[22] As visual metaphor to depict Lincoln’s ever-changing min over saving the Union or abolishing slavery.

[23] New York Tribune, 22 August 1862.

[24] New York Times review, 1935.

[25] Badger (1989), p3

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