Program Notes: Wee Willie Winkie (1937)

In 1936 director John Ford was sitting pretty in Hollywood.

He had a reputation for doing good work and had just come off a run that included The Informer, Steamboat Round the Bend, The Prisoner of Shark Island, Mary of Scotland, and The Plough and the Stars.

Now, Ford was told by Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck he was being entrusted with the hottest star on the lot and Hollywood’s biggest box-office attraction: 8-year-old Shirley Temple.

Ford later said that he received the assignment with matter-of-fact stoicism. In truth, he was furious that after nearly 20 years of working toward artistic independence he found himself in the role of glorified babysitter.

“How do you do, Miss Temple?” Ford said upon meeting his pint-sized leading lady. “I am the man you are going to direct in Wee Willie Winkie.”

Film Screening:
Wee Willie Winkie (1937)
Monday, Mar. 5 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

Whatever his initial misgivings, Ford brought all his skills to bear on this adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story about a six-year-old British boy who through bravery wins acceptance from a unit of Scottish Highlanders stationed on the frontier in colonial India.

And against all the odds, Wee Willie Winkie became one of his best films of the period. It’s the Shirley Temple movie that even Shirley Temple haters can enjoy.

The tone was set by Zanuck, who told all involved to forget that this was a Shirley Temple movie and treat it like a Little Women or David Copperfield.

“All the hokum must be thrown out,” Zanuck insisted. “The characters must be made real, human, believable ... and it must be told from the child’s viewpoint.”

To accommodate Temple the character underwent a sex change and a geographic transplant (she was a terrific little actress but she didn’t have a convincing British accent, so she played an American).

Set in 1897, Wee Willie finds Temple’s character, Priscilla, matchmaking for her widowed mother (June Lang), melting the heart of her stuffy ramrod of a grandfather (C. Aubrey Smith), and winning over the gruff, rough Sgt. MacDuff (Victor McLaglen, an Oscar winner a few year earlier for Ford’s The Informer), who teachers her the manual of arms and even presents her with a miniature rifle.

Before it’s all over, Priscilla will have made peace between the British troops and the revolutionary leader Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero).

Things started out rocky between the director and his leading lady. Temple recalled in her autobiography that initially Ford was utterly indifferent towards her.

“Previous directors had lifted me onto their laps and peppered me with conversation, as friendly as Ford was distant.”

Moreover, Ford insisted on giving the young actress explicit instructions on how to play her scenes, as if she’d never before been on a movie set.

Temple fought back by engaging her director in conversation at every possible opportunity, treating him like a mean old bear who must be cajoled into submission.

As he slowly realized that his star was tremendously intelligent and fearless (Shirley volunteered to do some stunts with horses that would never be countenanced in today’s Hollywood), Ford warmed.

He began treating Shirley with the same sarcastic humor with which he handled his adult players. Cast and crew were amazed to see the grumpy Ford and the cute Shirley actually teasing each other on the set.

“Outwardly he is a rugged person, but inside he’s kindly and even sentimental,” Shirley decided.

“Shirley was actually a great kid to work with,” Romero recalled. “She wasn’t a spoiled brat at all. She was also very smart, always knew her lines and yours, too ... she was not the precocious little child star at all.”

Wee Willie Winkie is a celebration of innocence. In hands less deft than Ford’s it could have been a cloying monstrosity. But he gracefully inserts us into a child’s world, shooting scenes from Priscilla’s perspective and even tinting his black-and-white images – amber for the daytime scenes, blue for the nighttime ones ... sort of like a child’s picture book.

And he mined a mother load of heartbreaking humor in the relationship between Priscilla and MacDuff, reveling in the incongruity of the hulking man and the petite little girl.

In his biography of Ford, Joseph McBride nails why the movie works, calling it “a case study of how Ford approached what could have been a potboiler and infused it with his own artistic sensibility. If there were any real justice in Hollywood, Ford would have won an Oscar for a film such as this one, whose truly superior craftsmanship is all the more impressive for seeming so effortless.”

In 1948 Ford became godfather to Temple’s first child. And that same year he cast her in Fort Apache opposite John Wayne and Henry Fonda.

Temple claims that Wee Willie Winkie remains to this day her favorite of her films, not only for the finished product but for her experiences on the set.

“I marched, drilled, did the manual of arms, and had a wooden rifle,” she has written. “It was wonderful.”

Other films in the series “John Ford: Not a Cowboy In Sight”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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