Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Just Around the Corner (1938)



So you* love movies, you've seen a million of 'em--you even respect them, more or less, and accept The Cinema as an art form, perhaps the most important of the past hundred years. In recognition of their stature, you try to watch "classic" films, the kind that make the all-time-greats lists. Consider the latest Sight and Sound/British Film Institute best-of, compiled only once a decade; the most recent is from 2002:

1. Citizen Kane
2. Vertigo
3. La R├Ęgle du jeu/The Rules of the Game
4. The Godfather, Parts I & II
5. Tokyo Story
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
7. The Battleship Potemkin
7. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (tied with Potemkin)
9. 8½
10. Singin' in the Rain

I'll bet you've seen at least some of them--and good for you: By and large, these movies are not only "important" but "entertaining," at least because they're well-made, with compelling story-lines and performances. So they're not only good for you, they're good.

But does your cinephilia demand you watch a movie from the number one box-office draw of the late 1930s? That would be Shirley Temple--and of course you know her name and are certain you've seen a few of her pictures--but I'll bet what you're remembering are snippets from compilation shows, montage tributes to the Golden Age of Hollywood, little moments captured in amber--tinged with gold, to be be sure, but fading.

Well, here's your chance to cross one more cinematic obligation off your list with Just Around the Corner; but this is more than taking your medicine. This "happy little ditty" stands near the end of Shirley's girlhood--she was all of ten years old when it was released--and knows without a doubt that it's a "Shirley Temple Movie," providing ample opportunity for pluck and luck and song, with generous measures of the kind of sentimentality requisite for one of her vehicles.

Added to the usual heart-string-tugging is a typically Twentieth-Century-Fox take on the Depression, acknowledging it exists but blaming it mostly on a lack of "confidence" in zealous entrepreneurship bankrolled by the right tycoon to save the day. Shirley's architect father is reduced to fancy handyman in the very building he designed (a suitably Deco series of curves and sweeping lines), while his dream project lies waiting for the necessary backer--here provided by an Uncle Sam lookalike whom Shirley befriends, assuming he's the real Uncle Sam, "a tough old bird."

Along the way, we get improbable musical numbers, an encounter with dese-dem-dose versions of Our Gang, a boy-meets-loses-gets-girl secondary plot--and Bert Lahr "singing" in his usual surreal warble. And two more presences, irreplaceable, unforgettable: Franklin Pangborn and Bill Robinson, the two of them lifelong experts at what they need to do: one spluttering, the other gliding effortlessly amid lesser lights--although Shirley gets it, and has her usual fun following him; talk about artists at their height.

I'll confess that my affection for Shirley Temple movies stems from family viewing habits when I was a kid: channel 48 in Philadelphia ran Bowery Boys, Blondie, and Shirley Temple on Sundays, so if you wanted a movie you watched what you could get. My sister loved Shirley, and like most siblings in a one-TV family, I learned to defer. And good for me: I understand Shirley better than I otherwise would've, her hard work looking easy, her place in cinema history never in the High Culture Top Ten, but packin' 'em in their seats when needed; like the song says,
"Just around the corner,
There's a rainbow in the sky,
So let's have another cup of coffee,
And let's have another piece of pie."
Irving Berlin's song was almost cruel in 1932; but in Just Around the Corner, it could look back at the decade and start to shrug it off--just in time for the next weight to carry. But that's another Instant Play Pick: Battleground, anyone?

*This "you" does not include fellow film geeks; we've already watched more movies than we should.

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