Monday, November 7, 2016

Hollywood Optimism vs. British Reality

Within the last week, I watched two films I hadn't seen in many years: the 1937 Shirley Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie and the 1959 British crime drama Sapphire. It would be difficult to find two films so distinctly different in every way. And yet, these films share a common theme: prejudice. Predictably, one film ends with an optimistic resolution while the other leaves many hanging threads.

McLaglen and Shirley.
Wee Willie Winkie is a prime example of the formula that made Shirley Temple a boxoffice sensation in an era in which moviegoers coped daily with the realities of the Great Depression and impending war. She plays an inquisitive nine-year-old who, with her widowed mother, travels to Northern India to live with her grandfather (C. Audrey Smith). "The Colonel" is a crusty military man with no time for children, so he entrusts his granddaughter to the rough and tough Sergeant McDuff (Victor McLaglen). Pretty soon, McDuff is conducting training drills just so Shirley--looking very cute in her little uniform--can play soldier.

Shirley also befriends Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero), a captured rebel leader plotting war against the British Army. Following Khan's escape, several British soldiers are killed in a skirmish. It looks like more blood will be spilled--on a grander scale--unless Khan and the Colonel can overcome their prejudices and reach an accord.

If you've seen any of Shirley's 1930s films, you know how Wee Willie Winkie is going to end. It's no wonder that Shirley was appointed an ambassador later in real life; by then, her negotiation skills, apparently developed through her movie roles, had to be impressive. Of course, there's a certain satisfaction in knowing the outcome of a Shirley Temple film. It's a comforting experience.

As for Wee Willie Winkie, in particular, it's slickly directed by John Ford (though I grew restless with the 100 minute running time). It features Victor McLaglen in the kind of role that made him famous. His gruffness is the perfect complement to Shirley Temple's sweetness. They make a wonderful team and remain the best reason to watch Wee Willie Winkie.

Made 22 years later, Sapphire tackles racial prejudice in Great Britain, but does so in the guise of a conventional murder mystery. In the opening scene, two children discover the corpse of a young woman in Hamstead Heath. The police soon identify the victim as 21-year-old Sapphire Robbins, a student at the Royal College of Music whom her friends described as a "sweetie." Why would anyone want to stab her six times in the chest?

Police question a suspect in Sapphire.
As the investigation unfolds, a complex portrait of Sapphire emerges. She was three months pregnant, a fact that her fiance and his family may or may not have known. She wore "flashy, pretty underwear" under her conservative clothes. And, in the words of one confidante, she "tried to pass herself off as white" (we learn that her father was white and her mother was black).

Sapphire is not the first film where a character tries to hide his or her race. It was a major subplot in the original Imitation of Life (1934) and took center stage in films like Pinky (1949).

What differentiates Sapphire is its frank approach and willingness to show the ugliness. A detective inspector working on the case casually asks Sapphire's physician: "Did she tell you she was colored? You always can tell, can't you? I can tell them a mile away." There is subtle prejudice, too, such as the landlady who liked Sapphire, but doesn't want people to know the truth because she runs a "white house" and it could hurt business. There's even prejudice against white people; a black barrister, who talks down to the police, makes disparging remarks about Sapphire for being half-white.

Of course, Sapphire plays it safe to a certain extent. The lead detective, Superintendent Hazard (Nigel Patrick), is a no-nonsense, nonjudgmental character. It might have been more interesting to watch him struggle with his own prejudices instead of making his second-in-command the bigot. Still, that's a minor quibble with a well-meaning mystery that reveals the murderer's identity, but is intelligent enough to avoid a neat and tidy resolution. Reality is often messy.

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating pairing of films! "Wee Willie Winkie" set in the skirmishes of war while WWII was impending. While "Sapphire" emerged just prior to the '60s and the "make love not war" phenomenon. In the first film I especially liked the relationship between Shirley and Khoda Khan. In her innocence she provides him with intelligence yet because of their friendship right is done. "Sapphire" is much darker in tone, not surprisingly. I haven't revisited it in a long time. Thought-provoking post, Rick!