The Antagony & Ecstasy John Ford Marathon continues as promised with a foray into a pair of the director's stranger exercises. In this case, the pairing of one of Hollywood's hottest directors, who had in March of 1936 won his first Best Director Oscar for The Informer, with the biggest star at 20th Century Fox. Filmed in early 1937 and released in July of that year, Wee Willie Winkie introduced Ford to the white-hot superstardom of nine-year old Shirley Temple.

A book could be written, and several have, on the subject of why America's top box-office draw in 1936-38 should be a prepubescent girl, and it's a familiar enough topic that I won't rehash it here. Nor will I go very far in recapping the "Shirley Temple picture" formula, which is still familiar 70 years later even to those who have never seen a Shirley Temple picture: a relentlessly upbeat little girl is introduced to a cranky adult (who, likely as not, is her grandfather), and proceeds to charming the living shit out of him or her. Make no mistake, Wee Willie Winkie is a Shirley Temple picture much more than it is a John Ford film; however, it is probably the best Shirley Temple picture, at least out of the handful I'm familiar with, and that is almost certainly the director's fault, even if it's ultimately just a journeyman project that doesn't trade in all that many of the classical Ford tropes.

Temple plays Priscilla, a relentlessly upbeat little girl traveling with her widowed mother (June Lang) to India in 1897, where they are going to be taken in and cared for by Priscilla's paternal grandfather, Col. Williams (C. Aubrey Smith). No sooner do they step off the train than the girl watches in fascination as the local British forces arrest the leader of the local Muslim insurgent cell, Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero, who was far enough from white to play an Indian Muslim in Hollywood in the '30s. I should point out that "Muslim" is not actually said in the film, you just kind of have to piece it together. I should also point out that the character's name is fiercely close to the He-Man villain Kobra Khan, and this bothered me to no end). Upon arriving at the British base, Priscilla quickly endears herself to everybody, but especially to the avuncular Sgt. MacDuff (Ford mainstay Victor McLaglen), who gives her the nickname Wee Willie Winkie and teaches her about the soldiering life. Eventually, her interest in Khoda Khan turns into a jailbreak that turns into an armed standoff that rather predictably turns into sunshine and kittens for everyone when all concerned, British soldiers and mujahideen alike, can't bring themselves to do anything that might harm the incredibly darling little blonde ball of sugar.

The military setting is unusual for a Temple film to say the least, and it just happens to be the place in the movie where Ford's talents are best allowed to shine. One of his longstanding strengths was in depicting masculine behavior at the place where order shades into chaos, and it's therefore unsurprising that the most engaging sequences in the film tend to be those which focus on the army going about the business of being the army. The film takes a surprisingly long time to tell what is, ultimately, a fairly thin story, and most of that extended running time is devoted to following the rhythm of army life, as filtered through an impatient child's point of view. The visual elements that we most associate with Ford - extreme long shots, bifurcated frames, high-contrast lighting - are mostly absent, but the film is strong with his sense of human activity.

As you might expect, his directing of actors is superb. McLaglen is probably the most memorable presence in the film, as he usually was when working with Ford (this was their eighth film together in twelve years; it would be nearly another twelve years until they would reunite in Fort Apache). The actor was a big man, and his imposing frame could be used by Ford in seemingly any way; while this was not their most effective collaboration, it's still a delight to watch the manipulations of perspective that allow the director to cast him as a sort of jolly protecting figure, part Santa and part teddy bear and part actual bear. The only other male cast member to stand out is the quintessentially British Smith, whose shtick was prickly old military men, but a shtick he played extremely well. No-one else is given much of a chance to stand out, although Cesar Romero uses his limited screentime to come across as both charming and threatening enough to justify a role that reflects no real concept of humanity. Meanwhile, the only prominent adult woman, June Lang is decidedly bland in a role that exists just to facilitate a love story to keep the grown-ups interested.

But it's Temple's film (she appears in the vast majority of the scenes) and it's quite possibly her best role - the best one I've seen, at any rate, and it's telling that even now the long-retired actress regards Wee Willie Winkie as her career peak. It's easy to write the actress off as syrupy sweet and without any trace of subtlety, and in many cases this is well deserved - her best-known film, Heidi, is virtually unwatchable for anyone with any measurable degree of cynicism. But she became so damn famous for a reason, and that reason is easy to see in this film: she has bottomless charm, but in the right context (and Ford is precisely the sort of director to provide that context), she can actually be quite the little shit. Not edgy, I don't mean, but she can pop out with some surprisingly virulent sarcasm that provides a somewhat shocking contrast to her doll-like dimples and curls. Temple was a rare child actor who was cutesy without being precious or precocious, and Wee Willie Winkie is as great showcase for her smarter side.

Ultimately, though, there's not much to say about the film: a top-notch Shirley Temple film because of its director, who is content to be smoothly professional and mostly anonymous. It holds up fairly well as a story, outside of the expected careless bigotry towards non-white people, but all it really aims to be is a Hollywood entertainment that doesn't ask for much investment and doesn't repay close engagement. Insofar as it meets that goal without seeming stupid or cloying, it's a smashing success.