Monday, May 27, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: SUSANNAH OF THE MOUNTIES (1939)

Loosely adapted from a 1936 novel , Susannah of the Mounties (1939) is one of Shirley Temple's lesser films, particularly in comparison with her other 1939 film, The Little Princess. Both pictures came late in Temple's career as a child star and were directed by Walter Lang and William A. Seiter, but The Little Princess remains a favorite with her fans, while Susannah of the Mounties shows how thin the standard Temple plot had worn after so many similar pictures. Moreover, the film's insensitive, stereotyped depiction of the First Nations people of Canada makes it problematic for a modern audience, and children who see the movie will need to have an adult present to discuss its racial issues.

Temple stars as Susannah Sheldon, the only survivor of an Indian attack on a wagon train crossing the Canadian frontier. Taken in by a Mountie called Monty (Randolph Scott), Sue adapts to life with the Mounties and even makes friends with a chief's son (Martin Good Rider), but her new home is threatened by the outbreak of renewed hostilities.

The faults of the film do not lie with Temple, who gives a perfectly good performance as feisty Sue. In fact, Sue proves a rather interesting departure from some of the star's sugary sweet heroines; she is jealously attached to Monty and resents his budding romance with Vicky Standing (Margaret Lockwood). She also has a scrappy relationship with Little Chief, and her scenes with kindly old Pat (J. Farrell MacDonald) are fun, especially when she helps him keep his hairpiece on during an attack. She doesn't sing or dance much this time out, but her acting measures up to her usual standard.

The treatment of the native characters bears a lot in common with that seen in Peter Pan (1953), with a lot of stilted dialogue about "palefaces" with "forked tongues" punctuated with grunts. The chief, Big Eagle, is played by Jewish actor Maurice Moscovitch as a living cigar store statue, while swarthy Victor Jory, who was, at least, actually Canadian, plays the villainous Wolf Pelt. The film depicts native resistance to the settlers and the railroad as unreasonable, and the peace treaty reached at the end is really more a voluntary surrender on the part of the chief, a tacit acknowledgement that the whole conflict was just a foolish mistake on the part of the Indians. Cultural and racial problems of this kind pop up in many classic movies, of course, and they're even present in a lot of Temple's better films, but here there's little else going on to rescue the story from its dated imperialism. Canadians might also find fault with the film's version of the story as an American Western; there's really nothing about the movie that reflects its ostensible setting in a meaningful way.

For a more enjoyable Temple outing with cowboy star Randolph Scott, try Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938). Margaret Lockwood appears in the Hitchcock thriller, The Lady Vanishes (1938), and in Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich (1940). You'll find character actor J. Farrell MacDonald in hundreds of small or uncredited roles; here at least he gets a number of good scenes. Walter Lang also directed Temple in The Blue Bird (1940), while William A. Seiter directed two of her 1936 films, Dimples and Stowaway. For more (and better) Shirley Temple pictures, try Heidi (1937), Wee Willie Winkie (1937), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), and Fort Apache (1948).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.