The Littlest Rebel (1935) Director: David Butler
The film is a beautiful and classically heart-warming tale of a Southern plantation family during the American Civil War. It was released in 1935, and became a top box-office film, along with Shirley Temple’s signature performance in Curly Top, which was also released in 1935. Shirley Temple stars alongside Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the dancer and musical performer who was the top paid African American entertainer in the 20th century. The film was the second of four films in which Robinson and Temple co-starred. Additionally, the film has found criticism in modern spaces for its tired depictions of black slaves as unintelligent, silly, and mostly defenders of the Confederacy. Bill Robinson would later be criticized for his portrayals in films, though personally he helped to challenge racial barriers for black people. He died a penniless man in 1949, despite being the top paid African American of the 20th century.
The film opens in an idyllic and peaceful plantation during a party, in which Shirley Temple’s character is the main hit and is celebrating her birthday. However, the party abruptly ends with the outbreak of the civil war and the attack on Fort Sumter. The Union invades the south and her father becomes a spy for the Confederacy, often going behind enemy lines. Eventually, their beautiful is burnt to the ground and the family’s mother tragically dies of an illness. Their father escapes back behind Union lines to try to save his daughter, but he is caught. However, the Union solider decides to help him escape with his daughter in a fake coat with a fraudulent note. In their escape they are all caught by Union soldiers and both men, the Union and Confederate soldiers, are condemned to death. The young daughter and their slave decide to go to Washington where they appeal to Abraham Lincoln for their freedom, which nobly grants in a memorable scene. In the end, young Shirley Temple is seen singing happily to a group of soldiers from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
The film is a joy, albeit more than slightly uncomfortable, but it is filled with wonderful scenes of music, including “Polly Wally Doodle.” It is also an early example of color film. It has been suggested that the opening scenes of a peaceful Southern plantation later influenced Margaret Mitchell’s portrayal of the Antebellum South in Gone With The Wind. Though the bulk of the novel was completed in early 1935, the early portions were completed later in the year.
The film is excellent, though riddled with nostalgia and cliche. If the modern sensibilities can stomach the unfortunate characterizations of African American slaves, it is still an enjoyable film for lovers of classic cinema.