Categories
Film Festival Review

Review: Judy and Punch (Dir. Mirrah Foulkes, 2019)

LFF 2019

Despite origins in 16th century Italy and containing a character named Pulcinella, the concept of the traditional puppet show Punch & Judy would eventually make its home in Britain during the 17th century – historians say 1662, thanks to a diary entry by the Bridget Jones of his day, Samuel Pepys.

Within a hundred years ‘Pulcinella’ was anglicised to the much snappier and succinct ‘Mr. Punch’ and Joan, his wife also had a name change and took on the moniker ‘Judy’. Puppets on strings would pull a Pinocchio, only rather than becoming ‘real’ they would adorn the hands of the hidden human and entertain adults and children alike for more than 350 years – regardless of form or plot-line – usually at the seaside. Perhaps it was the sea air which rendered audiences immune to the repugnancy of the insidious Mr. Punch.

‘Seaside’ is the locale of Mirrah Foulkes’ debut feature, ‘somewhere in England’ and ‘nowhere near the sea’. A small cloaked figure steals into town to sneak into the evening’s show. Bottler Judy (Mia Wasikowska) shakes a tankard for coinage and entertains the crowd before announcing the main event: Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) and his puppets. He appears through crimson velvet drapery with a bang and cloud of smoke; caked in face-paint, jester-like in his stage costume complete with twirled moustache. Make no mistake, this – debatable when we see Judy’s puppeteering skills – is the star of the show. By the end of the elaborate opening credits we, just like the rowdy audience onscreen, are hooked.

Punch and Judy live in a beautiful home with their daughter, Baby (the cheek pinchingly adorable Scarlett and Summer Dixon), maid Maud (Brenda Palmer) and her husband Scaramouche (Tony Norris). They await the day that scouts arrive in Seaside to discover the magic of their talent and transplant it to The Big Smoke. He wants more fame and fortune – swanning around Seaside as a minor celeb is not quite enough for his ego – while she seems fairly content with their lot. Although, she does seek to tone down the ‘punchy and smashy’ aspect of the show, while imploring him to stop frequenting local watering hole McDrinkie’s, and ideally would like the community around her to be a little less… judgemental.

Townspeople are banished as heretics to the Black Forest, others are publicly hanged, and women are stoned daily for reasons that are utterly ridiculous but are, of course, to the folk of Seaside signs of witchcraft and (obviously) the work of The Devil. Leading the charge is the simpering and sneering Mr. Frankly (Tom Budge) who rewards the important men of town with casting the first stone and brings actual fanfare to the Gallows. New Constable Derrick (Benedict Hardie) has his work cut out; crimes and grievances bypass his office and result in quick confessions and executions. Then there’s his crush on Judy… while local prostitute Polly (Lucy Velik) only has eyes for Punch. Maud’s job is becoming harder as hubby Scaramouche’s memory worsens but as long as her master gets his sausages before Toby the dog gets his paws on them, all should be well.

Plot-wise, if you’re at all familiar with the show, then you can rest assured it’s all here. Foulkes gives us a bit of an origin story – albeit a subverted one – which looks at the historical context and celebration of (gendered) violence, as well as the notion of oral histories and storytelling in its earliest form, idiom and allegory. The film is darkly comic from the very beginning with a never-faltering tone which is perfectly pitched and often black. It’s hard to find the humour in heavy hitting themes such as domestic violence, alcoholism, adultery, murder, early onset dementia, and misogyny but writer-director Foulkes finds that twisted balance perfectly. Assisting her in some lovely cinematography is seasoned DoP Stefan Duscio, gorgeous period costumes designed by Edie Kurzer and a gloriously bizarre soundtrack courtesy of composer François Tetaz – there’s a theatricality to his music which simultaneously feels dated and contemporary when accompanied with the action onscreen.

Performances are solid from Hardie’s drippy Derrick to Gillian Jones’ dark, mysterious – and possibly necromantic – Dr. Goodtime. Terry Norris’ bumbling Scaramouche is a delight, Wasikowska is always worth the price of admission, and the currently ubiquitous Herriman is suitably deranged as maniacal Punch. It’s a charming collective of Australian actors – including Foulkes behind the camera (she can be seen in front of it in The GiftThe Turning, and Animal Kingdom) albeit with a multitude of British and Irish accents. Not every single one is convincing but it often adds to the hilarity – Herriman’s is of course flawless.

Astonishingly, the entire film was filmed on location in Australia and yet is so authentically ‘English-looking’. It all works brilliantly. As an origin story, comedy, and dark drama Judy & Punch is an assured, astute and compelling film. It’s one which offers up a lot and delivers on everything – History becomes Herstory and brava to that.

Categories
DVD Review TV

DVD Review: Channel Zero: Candle Cove

Based upon Kris Straub’s creepypasta short story, Candle Cove was the first anthology in Syfy’s Channel Zero series with the second No End House, Butcher’s Block (S3) and The Dream Door (S4) swiftly following before announcement of its cancellation. Its creator Nick Antosca and producers Don Mancini (Child’s Play) and Harley Peyton (Twin Peaks) brought a unique experience to the small screen, most of which are now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Candle Cove opens during two months in 1988, five children: Jacob Booth, Sadie Williams, Carl Cutter, Gene Hazel and Eddie Painter go missing with four later found murdered. Only one – Eddie – was never returned nor remains discovered for burial. The Iron Hill Murders were never solved and now, 28 years later, Eddie’s identical twin brother Mike (Paul Schneider) a child psychologist is recovering from a breakdown and plagued by nightmares that eventually make him head home to mother Marla (Fiona Shaw) and the childhood home and friends he left behind. Once there, he realises that a TV show has started to air again called Candle Cove, an eerie puppet-led programme that only children seem to be able to see and which brainwashes them into participating in some deeply disturbing antics.

As more children go missing and start acting strangely, losing teeth along the way, Mike, – even finding himself a suspect at one point – must embrace his repressed memories, childhood traumas and nightmares head-on if he is ever going to discover the truth about Eddie. His creepy journey will see him recollect the bullying, the paralysing fear, and meet the mysterious Jawbone, its merry band of shipmates aboard the happy ship on the way to Candle Cove, and prevent history repeating itself.

While some shows tend to tell their stories from the child’s perspective, the world between adults and kids separated, here they interlink; childhood fear enforces adulthood and that trauma never leaves – all those things that grown-ups dismiss as an overactive imagination manifest and are all the more real and frightening. What makes Candle Cove so effective is its thoughtful and understated – even mundane – approach to horror. Yes, it uses tropes familiar in the world of Stephen King but there are also elements of The Twilight ZoneThe X-FilesAmerica Gothic and even Mystic River (2009), with additional (and repetitious) layers of intrigue. The fact that Winnipeg (doubling for Iron Hill) is so green, lush and naturally shot only enhances the supernatural.

There are nods to Treasure Island, The Muppets and an all-too terrifying version of the tooth fairy but not like you’ve ever seen. Childhood fears are its emotional backbone but it uses guilt, grief, dream logic and some surreal and whimsical imagery to really sell the deeply unsettling. The performances particularly those of Schneider, Shaw and two of the children, Abigail Pniowsky (Arrival) as Lily Painter and Luca Villacis, who portrays the Painter twins beautifully and skilfully relays two very separate personalities, elevates the subject matter. The thing about murderous children is that they are utterly terrifying; corrupted innocence disturbs and distresses on such a profound level. The lack of gratuitous violence is refreshing also, it’s not completely absent but tends to be distancing, quick and almost always off-screen.

Told over six episodes this anthology is an atmospheric and quietly unique experience, it builds the dread and truly unsettles staying with you long after the denouement. It’ll haunt your dreams especially the child made entirely of human teeth but never fear, head to bravery cave, all your secrets will be safe in Candle Cove…

Categories
Review

Review: It (Dir. Andy Muschietti, 2018)

It feels idiotic to assume yet I expect most of the world is well-versed in the Stephen King novel and if not the book then the TV serial which surfaced in 1990. It’s back and, just like before children are disappearing and the adults are oblivious. Amidst a downpour in 1988, a little figure clad in a yellow slicker and green galoshes runs alongside the paper boat that his big brother and ‘bestest pal’ made for him. SS Georgie battles the raging seas i.e. gushing rainwater on the streets of Derry, Maine, until it slips from tiny grasp into the storm drain.

Twelve months later and still reeling from the loss of his little brother George (Jackson Robert Scott), Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) and his group of friends: Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), Ben Hanscomb (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) known affectionately, as The Losers Club join forces to defeat school bullies and the evil thing that is devouring the town’s children.

Adapting any major work must be hard, not least when the original text is a magnum opus. Liberties were certainly taken in 1990 condensing nearly 1400 pages into a three-hour TV series but then I was a child, had yet to read a King novel, and was utterly horrified at the prospect of Pennywise the Dancing Clown and his shifting shape(s) of fear. This time round, and now well-read, it feels slightly more faithful in some ways and yet there are those damn liberties again. Despite early production problems, and the acrimonious departure which took with him, his Will Poulter-shaped Pennywise and director’s chair, Cary Fukunaga retains a writer credit alongside his writing partner Chase Palmer but it’s Gary Dauberman who takes the lead while Andrés (Andy) Muschietti (Mama) steers the ship.

The novel’s structure has changed and 50s Derry is transposed to the 80s – just as Regan handed over the keys of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to Bush – but that just gives the 15-rated film a Stand By Me meets The Goonies (and John Wayne Gacy) retro quality that actually really works. Splitting the film into two chapters and avoiding those flashbacks and forwards, means these kids are able to hook us entirely, we’re completely invested in their plight, their friendships and fears, and that emotional connection is made. This is their time and each of the main cast is a delight.

Richie’s still a motormouth and has the best lines, Bev – she of Winter fire hair – is great; kind and tough, hypochondriac Eddie is more verbose than I remember, Bill’s still a little bland, and Ben’s a sweetheart (with excellent taste in boybands). Stanley’s character is fleshed out a little more while, disappointingly, Mike’s is somewhat diluted. His interest in Derry history is sidelined and given to Ben for reasons unknown, and not, one hopes, just a way for the filmmakers’ to avoid the racial elements of the story. He is clearly painted as the outsider. Fingers crossed that come Chapter Two some of these issues will be addressed, and he receives the narrative pull that was expected. My point is, gripes aside, it’s like revisiting old friends.

Had I watched this version at 11 years old, I’d have been traumatised, It comes back every 27 years (in actuality, 25 for me) and now I’m the adult no longer afraid (well, ish). To be fair, Bill Skarsgård in the clown get-up is the stuff of nightmares. He’s less abrasive and wisecracking than Tim Curry, and there is an underlying innocence to his Pennywise which adds to the vile and creepy. His body movements are manic and frenetic, even a little awkward, like a child who has experienced a growth spurt overnight and boy, is he hungry (the saliva drenched lips and string of drool, a dead giveaway). He is terrifying and yet, for me, the scares throughout the film are somewhat lacking despite the gripping sense of unease felt from the start with poor Georgie. 

Visually, the film is stunning thanks largely to Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography, Janie Bryant’s costumes, and the VFX and make-up provided, in part, by Stan Winston alums Tom Woodruff Jr and Alec Gillis. The sets are elaborate and striking and for horror fans it has a real kid-in-a-sweet-shop feel, especially the house on Neibolt Street. The set-pieces are thrilling and rich in detail, and littered with plenty of horror-themed easter eggs, the jump scares are fairly frequent and perhaps a little obvious but there was one that the two guys sat next to me didn’t see coming.

All-in-all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable adaptation, horrific, heartfelt, and not in the least bit hokey; a perfect trip down memory lane via childhood street and nostalgia way. By the time the credits roll, you’ll float too.

Categories
Review

Review: Boy (Dir. Taika Waititi, 2015)

The year is 1984, and 11-year-old Boy (James Rolleston) welcomes us into his “interesting world” as he stands before his classmates and recounts who he is, what he likes (Michael Jackson), and who he shares his life with. There’s Nan (Mavis Paenga), cousins Miria, Kiko, Che, Hucks and Kelly, Aunty Gracey (Rachel House) who’s a tennis coach, the “mailman”, school bus driver and manager of the local shop; a pet goat named Leaf and a six-year-old brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu). Rocky thinks he has superpowers. Bless him, he doesn’t.

Boy’s interests include art (cue desk graffiti), social studies (getting picked on by older boys) and Michael Jackson. His other idol is his father, Alamein (Taika Waititi), a master carver, deep sea treasure diver, captain of the rugby team and holder of the record for punching people out with a single fist. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth but in Boy’s world, reality isn’t really the mainstay, he is a kid after all.

After Nan leaves to attend a funeral, he’s the man of the house and so he ensures all the younger children wash, eat and generally thrive, until Alamein Sr returns to Waihau Bay, fresh out of prison, seeking a “treasure” he buried in the field opposite the house. It gives him the perfect opportunity to reconnect with his estranged sons as long as they stop calling him Dad… it’s “weird”. Boy, initially thrilled by his father’s return, soon comes to the painful realisation that his father isn’t the hero he imagined. In complete contrast, Rocky’s reluctance to accept the man he has never known comes full circle and his doubt and suspicion turns to respect. The moment all three boys reach the point of transformation is a deeply moving and beautiful thing, and harks back to that opening quote perfectly – “You could be happy here… we could grow up together” (E.T., 1982). 

Boy is a thematically rich film and one which comments upon rurality, poverty, childhood, adulthood and grief while using magical realism, animation, mythology and a free-spirited style which also incorporates intertextuality and 80s popular culture to bring Waititi’s approach to identity and masculinity to the screen. That very specific form and unique Aotearoa voice has been so prevalent since those couple of Taika-written and directed episodes of Flight of the Conchords.

While including visuals of the sublime landscape, hostile terrain and open roads that have long been associated with New Zealand cinema, Waititi also gives us a Māori film rich in culture and beautiful hues of colour via a nostalgic trip to the eighties. The absentee father within a Māori family is just one of the thematic links Boy has to Once Were Warriors (1994) and Whale Rider (2002), however, here the comedy and pathos, drama and fantasy is – as one has come to expect following Eagle vs. Shark (2007), What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) – charmingly measured.

Rolleston is wonderful in the titular role, however, one can’t help but fall in love with the largely mute and thoughtful, cape-wearing Rocky as both boys shine in this endearing and magical coming-of-age drama. Waititi is equally adorable as the misunderstood big boy of the trio, Alamein, a man who has yet to truly face his responsibilities or fully embrace adulthood but whose little men will help him pull his socks up. Boy is a big-hearted film – possibly even Waititi’s finest – poignant, funny, an effortless joy. Oh, and that Haka hybrid is genius.

Categories
Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: My Life as a Dog (Dir. Lasse Hallström, 1985)

Lasse Hallström seems to have an affinity with pups, recently in cinemas with A Dog’s Purpose and before that, there was the utterly heartbreaking Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009). It all began, however, with his first feature 1985’s My Life as a Dog (Mitt liv som hund) which has now been transferred from original film to High Definition Blu-ray by Arrow Academy.

Based on Reidar Jönsson’s autobiographical novel, the film is set in late fifties Sweden and centres upon Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius); a gentle soul, if a little eccentric. He’s ‘married’ to a local girl (by cutting his thumb and having her suck the blood), gets his penis stuck in a bottle during a sex education class, and displays a slight tremor when drinking. Ingemar is twelve. He’s also attempting to live life as normally as possible while his terminally ill mother (Anki Lidén) screams bloody murder at her two sons, and fades slowly awaiting her final days.

Ingemar likens himself to Laika – the Soviet dog that was sent up into space, launched on a one-way trip aboard Sputnik 2, and ultimately left to die. Big feelings for a child who’s convinced things could be worse and one day he’ll be happy as he is packed off to spend the summer with Uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Brömssen) and Aunt Ulla (Kicki Rundgren), and the wonderfully unconventional cast of characters who inhabit Småland. There’s Manne (Jan-Philip Hollström), the boy with green hair, Saga (Melinda Kinnaman) the girl obsessed with boxing and football whose burgeoning breasts are tightly bound so she can stay on the team. Ailing Mr Arvidsson (Didrik Gustavsson) who lives in the basement of Gunnar’s house and likes to be read the lingerie catalogue, in order to silence the persistent roof-hammering of Fransson (Magnus Rask). He’s convinced the noisy neighbour wants to finish him off via the knock-knock-knocking of the metal head against wood. Even Uncle Gunnar with his cleavage obsession and his old vinyl copy of ‘I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’ (which he plays on repeat) is a tad awkward and sweetly peculiar.

Regardless of their character traits there’s warmth and sincerity and real affection for our young protagonist despite being left at kennel after kennel, never completely wanted by anybody. It’s a remarkable performance by Anton Glanzelius) whose range, sensitivity and affecting depth belies his age and impish grin. While not as dark a piece as Cría Cuervos (1976), it does deal with a lot of the same issues and rests on the young shoulders of its lead(s), as the loss of innocence hits profoundly and they find themselves thrust somewhat prematurely into adulthood. Cinema Paradiso (1988) would follow – and would nicely round off this highly recommended triple-bill – even the US-produced October Sky (1999), clearly took some of its cues and hues from this Academy Award nominated Swedish film.

Hallström has made many pictures since 1985 and there has always been a gentility to his oeuvre, whether he’s dealing with ABBA, cider, chocolate, or Grapes and this bittersweet film extolling the virtues of rural communities and growing pains is no different. This is a warm, whimsical, funny and moving tale of a boy and his search for family; a place he can call home. Canines aside, My Life as a Dog is Lasse’s masterpiece.

Categories
Article Review

Review: Ghostbusters (Dir. Paul Feig, 2016)

File_005

*minor spoilers

For my 4th birthday, I received – amongst many gifts – a beautiful Ghostbusterscake. It was huge, had red-frosting and the logo emblazoned across the front. My cousin, born six years before and ten days later got the same cake (only his icing was blue). Lol [his name not laughter] was responsible for my introduction to Ghostbusters and Star Wars, actually, if truth be told. At no point did he exclude me because I was younger or because I was a girl, and let’s face it, a four-year-old will test any ten-year-old’s patience regardless of gender.

I remember having the crap scared out of me watching the film on TV then suffering sleepless nights, that bloody ghost in the library. Six years later I had a David [brother] to pass the love of ghosts and busting onto; films  cartoons, and toys, oh-so-many-toys. Spengler (Harold Ramis), Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson)  and smart-ass Venkman (Bill Murray) held a special place in my (and his) childish heart. Now, Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and Tolan (Leslie Jones) will provide joy for a whole new generation. Seriously, why is that so terrible?

File_001

The expected happened. I grew up, the little girl repressed somewhat but still knocking around, and rewatching Ghostbusters (1984) as an adult is a whole different experience. Now you can laugh at the adult humour that sailed over your cherubic head, cringe at the effects which at times are pretty awful and the best part? Crawl under a duvet, hungover, and passively let each scene douse you in nostalgia like an ectoplasmic gloop. A sequel arrived in 1989 – largely disliked now – who knew? It was fine. I regularly rewatch.

File_002

The reboot was announced. Urgh! Originality is a concept lost on most Hollywood studios. This one was to be directed by Paul Feig. For the record, he seems like a very nice man, always impeccably dressed, and there’s no denying how he has boosted women-led films, but he directed Bridesmaids (deplore), The Heat (lukewarm) and Spy (I adored that one). Was it really a surprise that this Ghostbusters, his vision, would be all-woman? I was intrigued sure, can’t say I was overly fussed either way. The casting of Hemsworth piqued my interest, not least because he would be the male Janine (Annie Potts) – bravo!

Time passed as the darker pockets of the internet cried, screamed and generally threw a strop. Misogyny is never pretty and even that four-year-old girl (now a 35-year-old woman) was verbally abused for daring to say she liked the trailer. These men seemed to have forgotten their own mothers, sisters, grandmothers and aunts as they rendered women ill-equipped to play *fictional* paranormal scientists; their childhoods (long gone) destroyed forever. *Pause for dramatic effect*

File_004

The world lost a vital 1/4 of the original line-up in 2014, with the sudden passing of Harold Ramis. A Ghostbusters III without him would have been senseless. While unable to cameo in the new film, one of his sons makes an appearance and that gorgeous gold bust seen from Gilbert’s desk is a beautiful touch and definitely brought a lump to my throat. Okay, progression. Four more humans don the overalls, get slimed and save New York from paranormal activity, not such a far-fetched notion. Oh, and they have lady-parts…So, what’s it all about?

Following a very effective opening whereby Gertrude Aldridge’s ghost (Bess Rous) is terrorising her childhood home, physicist Erin Gilbert (Wiig) – up for tenure at the prestigious Columbia University – is approached by Ed Mulgrave (Ed Begley Jr). Clutching Gilbert’s co-authored book, a hardbacked thesis written by Dr. Gilbert and her ex-colleague/ estranged friend Abby Yates (McCarthy), he begs for her help. Unaware of the book’s existence, Erin visits Abby and her new colleague, engineer Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon) in a lab strewn with gadgets – think Egon’s place, only messier.With the help of human A-Z and New York history buff, Patty Tolan (Jones) and inept-but-we-gave-him-the-job-because-he-was-the-only-applicant receptionist, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), the Ghostbusters (it’s easier for Kev to pronounce than the actual name, you see) are born; to capture paranormal entities and prove their existence to the world while a city of naysayers including the Mayor (Andy Garcia) attempt to discredit them.

New-Ghostbusters-Movie-2016-International-Trailer-Released

Doesn’t sound so drastically different from the previous incarnation and you would be right in thinking the original has served as a blueprint much like The Force Awakens‘ (2015) similarities to A New Hope (1977). Each acknowledges what has gone before but stands alone in its own, inclusive, right. There are enough nods to the past for the girl with the cake to recollect fondly and yet enough meta commentary and gags for the adult to snigger at and mentally high-five all involved.

ghostbusters-2016-movie-trailer-750x400
Girls 2016

It’s not “man-hating” which is how I saw it described this morning. The antagonist, Rowan North (played another SNL alum Neil Casey) is white, male, and a little fragile but so are most Bond villains, and after the scourge of hate heaped upon this film, why wouldn’t the filmmakers and writers respond not least in an entertaining way? And it is, you know, extremely so, and I’m sorry but a blast from a ray gun aimed at a marshmallowy nutsack is amusing. It has been a long time since a big studio offered a blockbuster that is as enjoyable and, more importantly, FUN as this one.

ghostbusters-gozer-roof
Boys 1984

The cameos (there are a fair few and perhaps one or two could have been saved for the inevitable sequel) but they would not have worked so well had those actors been playing the characters they made famous yonks ago. Thankfully, they’re a breath of fresh air and each one more joyful than the last. Hemsworth is perfect as pretty but dumb Kevin, his Norse God alter-ego is a saviour, however, it’s refreshing that four ladies get to rescue him, and I don’t necessarily mean just from peril – they become a family. The women themselves are hilarious, smart, loud, brash, uptight, and gloriously realistic albeit plonked in a disbelief suspended setting.  Abby and Erin are the heart of the narrative, it’s their friendship which drives the plot while Jillian and Patty are the funny. I’m unfamiliar with their Saturday Night Live work but Jones is hysterical and McKinnon, a revelation. It’s not perfect, nor was I expecting to be, it’s a Ghostbusters film and I don’t mean that in a derisive way – as long as there are creepy ghosts, gloop, busting of said see-through creeps and humour, I’m easily pleased.

It does exactly what it set out to do, which is bring the Ghostbusters into the 21st century, passing the proton pack to a whole new generation. That’s the beauty of it, there is no either/or, everyone will have a preference, sure but neither undermines the other – there are now eight Ghostbusters to identify with and choose as your favourite – I just had faceache and a warm, fuzzy feeling throughout watching this one. I’m still chuckling days later. If only that four year old girl could have seen it…

Categories
Essay Retrospective

The Littlest Rebel

(1935) Dir. David Butler

rebel5

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.

rebel3

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.

littlest_rebel_lg-1893ecc

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