January 12, 2022

Bright Eyes (1934)
Grade: 57/100

Director: David Butler
Stars: Shirley Temple, James Dunn, Charles Sellon

What it's about. A Depression-era talkie featuring the biggest moviestar at Fox Studios, seven-year-old Shirley Temple. Temple is the daughter of Lois Wilson, a maid at the estate of the Smythe family. They consist of insufferably snooty husband and wife Theodore von Eltz and Dorothy Christy. They have an ill-behaved young daughter, Jane Withers. But the money in the family belongs to Uncle Ned (Charles Sellon), an ornery old man relegated to a wheelchair.

Temple's late father was an aviator at a nearby airport, and she continues to hang out there, especially with pilot James Dunn. Uncle Ned also takes an extreme interest in Temple. Dunn's old flame, lovely Judith Allen, shows up. Lois Wilson is promptly killed off, and the orphaned Temple is the subject of a custody battle between Dunn and Uncle Ned. Predictably, a happy ending places Temple with both men with Dunn married off to Judith Allen, leaving the unpleasant Smythe family on the outs with their former benefactor.

Those of a certain age may be familiar with the treacly children's song "On the Good Ship Lollipop", apparently written for the film and its only production number. It, of course, features Shirley Temple.

How others will see it. Bright Eyes was another commercial success for the young star, who purportedly saved Fox from bankruptcy. The film studio was later known as 20th Century Fox, and yet later simply as Fox once again.

Although it was ignored by the Oscars, Bright Eyes was well regarded, both then and now. At imdb.com, it has a modest 2K user votes, but the user rating of 7.3 is fairly high. Not surprisingly, women grade it higher than men (7.7 versus 7.0), and Americans grade it higher than non-Americans (7.3 versus 6.8).

The user reviews are almost universally positive. The lowest grade the film six out of 10. Although it was made for young girls and their sentimental mothers, cynics have two characters to cheer for, angry grouch Uncle Ned and intensely bratty Jane Withers, who died only last year.

How I felt about it. Bright Eyes was the fourth and final time that James Dunn was cast as a father figure to Shirley Temple, following roles in Baby, Take a Bow, Change of Heart, and Stand Up and Cheer!. Today, though, Dunn is best known for his Oscar-winning performance opposite a different child star, Peggy Ann Garner, in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Dunn's career ran hot and cold but he does have two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one each for his film and television careers.

In Bright Eyes, director David Butler keeps things moving, but the story is conventional and somewhat lacking. James Darwell gets third billing, but she is little used as the Smythe's cook. Judith Allen appears out of nowhere. Wilson's demise, Temple's custody battle, and Dunn's dangerous flight with Temple are Hollywood hokum. We wonder where the props for "On the Good Ship Lollipop" came from.

But the film is exceptionally well cast. Little Shirley Temple's energy and charm would win over the Grinch. Dunn shows great patience and kindness with the indefatigable Temple. Jane Withers steals the show with her hilariously strident performance. We also like Charles Sellon, the character actor playing Uncle Ned.

Classic cinemaphiles know Sellon as the blind coot who trashes W.C. Fields store with his cane in It's a Gift. That film and Bright Eyes were both made in 1934, the most active year of his career. It ended in 1935, presumably for reasons of health, since Sellon died in 1937.