In November, TCM is featuring many of the movies based on popular literary classics under the heading of "Great Adaptations". Tucked away in the schedule is The Little Princess starring Shirley Temple.
My girlhood copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess or Sara Crewe was from the Scholastic Book Club. I can't decide if the most exciting day at school was the day the teacher handed out the flyers or the day the box arrived with our orders. I do recall reading my copy of Sara Crewe sitting on the stairway in my Nana Nolan's house.
Halfway down the stairs is the stair where I sit.
There isn't any other stair quite like it.
I'm not at the bottom, I'm not at the top;
So this is the stair where I always stop.
- A.A. Milne
A Little Princess is the Upstairs, Downstairs-like travails of Sara Crewe, the cherished and well-cared for daughter of a wealthy businessman who leaves her at a boarding school in London while he pursues a business venture. Sara's father dies unexpectedly leaving her a pauper at the mercy of the school's bitter headmistress and forced to work as a scullery maid. It is Sara's kind and positive personality that gives her strength until, through a fortunate happenstance, her life is turned around by her late father's business partner.
20th Century Fox's 1939 Technicolor feature The Little Princess makes some changes to the story in fashioning it as a vehicle for star Shirley Temple. Instead of a businessman, Sara's father is a British Army Captain played by Ian Hunter (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Long Voyage Home) who must leave her to fight in the Boer War. We are given a romantic subplot featuring Richard Greene (The Hound of the Baskervilles, TVs The Adventures of Robin Hood) and Anita Louise (A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Sisters) which is easy to take because the couple is so appealing.
Shirley's spunky, never-say-die personality is well suited to the character of Sara and she is more than ably abetted by Sybil Jason (Little Big Shot) as scullery maid Becky and Marcia Mae Jones (These Three) as a snobby student Lavinia. Sara finds a friend in Bertie Minchin played by Arthur Treacher (Mary Poppins, David Copperfield, TVs The Merv Griffin Show). Bertie is a former music hall performer and this gives Treacher and Shirley a chance to sing and dance. Shirley enjoyed tap and in her autobiography Child Star published in 1988, writes she felt somewhat out of her depth in a dream ballet sequence included in this film. Bertie is the sister of the school's headmistress and Miss Minchin is played with hissable relish by Mary Nash (Heidi, Charlie Chan in Panama, Easy Living). Caesar Romero (Wee Willie Winkie, The Thin Man, Oceans 11) is a mysterious and helpful stranger.
Does your PBS station still have movie marathons? My cross border PBS station is Buffalo's WNED and years ago they showed A Little Princess as part of a marathon. The pledge break came at the part of the movie where Sara has learned that her father has died and Miss Minchin cruelly takes back birthday gifts and banishes Sara to below stairs. Programmer Goldie Gardner and her cohort were in tears and could barely go on with their spiel. Of course, I was bawling my eyes out in my living room, just as I sniffled on my Nana's staircase reading the book.
The Little Princess is a satisfying Cinderella story given top flight attention by the studio with talented character actors backing up the enduring star power of Shirley Temple. Gather the kiddies and keep a box of tissues handy. Also, refresh your knowledge of Queen Victoria and the Boer War in case they ask questions.
TCM is screening The Little Princess on Saturday, November 17th at 9:00 am.