Problematic Classics: The Little Colonel & The Littlest Rebel (1935)

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Growing up, I adored Shirley Temple movies. If it isn’t obvious, I’m the fan of old musicals on Frock Flicks staff and watching a fellow child in a musical was the best. Many of these had historical settings, another fave. But re-watching them as an adult draws attention to things I barely noticed or didn’t fully understand as a kid. Such as the overwhelming racism in The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel (1935).

And yet, I can still enjoy these movies in some ways while not forgiving their racism. You have to watch these Jim Crow-era films with a critical eye. Sure, the historical costumes or great performances can still hold their appeal, while the storylines and characters are loaded with the racist stereotypes and also the racism inherent in the Civil War period the films are portraying. The fact that African Americans are treated as second-class human beings in these movies TOTALLY detracts from the works, but it’s still important to give credit to the African American actors in these films for breaking barriers and making achievements under oppressive circumstances.

Shirley Temple is listed as the star of The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel, but dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is the real draw. And May 25 is the anniversary of his birth in 1878, so what better time to appreciate his stellar talent. He’s probably best known for the “stair dance,” that he perfected in vaudeville. Robinson taught a simplified version of the dance to six-year-old Temple, and the stair dance was featured in their movies. In Colonel, this was the first interracial dance pairing on film in the U.S., and the two would dance together in a total of four films. Robinson’s work with Shirley Temple gave him incredible exposure and income not typical for an African American dancer and actor in the 1930s. While some accused him of playing a simple Uncle Tom character, I agree with Robinson’s own opinion that his characters in the Shirley Temple films have agency and are father figures. At the peak of his career, Bill Robinson earned more than any African American in Hollywood, and he used his success to help found the Negro Actors Guild of America, a Negro National League baseball team, and community fundraisers.

Due to his work on film and on stage, Robinson was a huge influence on generations of dancers, black and white. Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis Jr.,  Ann Miller, and Gregory Hines all credit Bill Robinson as an early inspiration, and these Shirley Temple films, along with his final film, Stormy Weather (1943) with Lena Horne, cemented his status as one of American’s most extraordinary entertainers. So don’t knock these flicks just because the storylines give you the squicks. Yeah, they are products of their times and must be viewed critically. But the performances are well worth watching for their technical brilliance and the humanity that actors like Robinson manage to bring to even this little slice of racist history.

 

How to do you feel about The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel and movies like them?

 

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

21 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    I enjoyed seeing them and accept them as they are.
    But I remember a Temple two-part biopic showing a young Shirley Temple meeting Mr Robinson for the first time. It seemed to me that she had no racial biases but it was a modern made piece.

    Reply
    • Nzie

      My understanding is that she was very very proud as an adult to be part of the first interracial dance pair on film. She also went on to be a diplomat and humanitarian. I don’t know what role these films, which definitely have some problems, played, but maybe it contributed to forming a little girl into a good woman.

      Reply
  2. Broughps

    Maybe it’s time Hollywood did a movie about Mr. Robinson. If there are any I don’t remember them or have even heard of them.

    I’ve always loved the Shirley Temple movies and that love hasn’t diminished as an adult. I can view them as products of their time along with movies like GWTW and any other movies filmed before the civil rights era.

    It’s one of the things that irritates me about movies and shows that want to sanitize those time periods. They weren’t great times for the US by diminishing sectors of the population (not just blacks, but any ethic group), but that was the reality and trying portray it as something different is a disservice to people and history.

    Reply
    • Nzie

      I remember there being a TV movie called Bojangles with Gregory Hines back in the early aughts but I never saw it unfortunately. I agree with you about showing the reality. It’s so powerful when it’s done right—much more so than the anachronistic and editorial modern takes imo.

      Reply
      • Trystan L. Bass

        Gregory Hines did a dance special honoring Bill Robinson, & I think that was titled “Bojangles.” It incorporated & elaborated on Robinson’s work, since Hines was inspired by him.

        An actual biopic would be awesome! There’s so many amazing anecdotes about him, his audacity & charity.

        Reply
        • Malena Lannister

          Not only Gregory Hines admired him, but I came to understand the mastery of Bojangles’ craft in a homage Fred Astaire did in Swing Time (and that was 1936.) But because Fred did it in blackface, now it may be considered cultural appropriation or worse.

          Reply
        • Nzie

          This is the one I was thinking of: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bojangles_(film)

          “Hines, arguably the greatest tap dancer of his generation, displays his fascination with the history of the art, but instead of creating a glorified image of the man and his work, he shows a different side of the entertainer. The best scenes of Bojangles are the dance numbers, including a memorable duplication by Hines of a filmed dance by Robinson using an up-and-down set of stairs in which Hines’ step dance is repeated with the film of Robinson’s, side by side.” <– so maybe we’re thinking of the same thing? But it looks like a biopic to me so maybe not. I remember seeing it advertised but I’m not sure we got the channel. But I knew Gregory Hines from White Nights and thought he was cool, and I remembered Bojangles from the Shirley Temple movies.

          Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi1639645465

          I’d love to see a good biopic on Bojangles—it’s ripe for the doing I think.

          Reply
  3. Kathleen Norvell

    I agree with Susan Pola: you have to take the movies for what they are. When I studied film in college (as the only non-theater major), I remember seeing “Birth of a Nation.” While the themes were, of course, heinous, what I could appreciate was that most of the film techniques in that movie had never been done before. D.W. Griffith was a pioneer, even though the film was racist and everything else nasty that’s been said about it.

    I also appreciate the black pioneers on film like Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, Hattie McDaniel, Paul Robeson, and the others who shouldered those burdens to give us Denzel Washington, Hallie Berry, Idris Elba, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson and the rest.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      As an opera singer, I constantly find productions of The Magic Flute that attempt to find a way around the story’s inherent sexism and racism. For me, it’s a matter of: Look what things were like back then, and let’s be happy with how far we’ve come and acknowledge how far we still have to go. Denying the negatives of history does nothing to help us understand where we are today.

      We need to take these films at face value, with appropriate embarrassment, and understand that such things are no longer acceptable.

      Reply
  4. Sharon

    I’ve seen the clip of the stair dance down the rabbit hole of some website. As a black woman I did feel the squicks because…………why would’t I?, BUT, I kept watching until the end because they genuinely looked liked they had real affection for each other and were having a blast

    Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      Shirley seems more natural, less cutesy, when she dances with Robinson.

      Reply
  5. ladylavinia1932

    For me, it’s like watching “Gone With the Wind” or “Reap the Wild Wind”. But seeing Robinson and Temple dance on screen is still magic.

    Reply
  6. janette

    I am afraid I can’t forgive Shirley Temple for those curls. My Mother had a curl fetish no doubt developed from her childhood love of Shirley and would tie my hair up in rags every night to give me Shirley Temple curls, a form of child torture.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Heck. I had to suffer through my mom giving me Tonette perms in the ’50s. It’s a miracle the fumes didn’t kill me.

      Reply
  7. denisejhale

    I’m UK British. I’ve forgotten about these movies which I saw on TV when growing up in the 60s. I did n’ t know much about American race relationships then so just saw a friendship with an elderly (father figure) servant and a rich little girl who treated him as a friend. I can understand why they have fallen from favour, as they were products of their time. Mr Bojangles is probably better know here as the subject of a song. Maybe it’s time a film biopic addressed his influence on America culture. Thank you for post.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      That song gets misattributed to Robinson, but it was actually about a hobo street performer & doesn’t describe Robinson at all (he performed in top hat & tails, for example). It came out after he had died, & I’ve read that Shirley Temple was annoyed by the song since it reflected poorly on her old friend.

      Reply
      • denisejhale

        Thank you for clarifying that. I’m pleased it wasn’t about him as I had assumed that he ended his days forgotten and homeless. I hope this was not the case.

        Reply
    • Aria Clements of Aria Couture

      Absolutely false. Jerry Walker was tossed in jail for being drunk in public in Louisiana in the 60’s, and met a street performer there (white man). The performer gave the false name Bo Jangles to conceal his identity, which was allowed in those days. He started talking about his dog, which made everyone sad, and someone asked for something to lighten the mood. So the man danced a jig.

      It’s actually a wonderful song. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version makes me cry.

      Reply
  8. Aria Clements of Aria Couture

    The movies Shirley and Bo were in were made in a time when a black man holding a white girl’s hand was so incredibly offensive that that movie was banned in some states. There definitely were a good number of people in Hollywood who were progressive (black people were more accepted, being gay wasn’t a big deal, women having abortions were supported, etc), but the viewing public, overall, wasn’t. What movies like Littlest Colonel did was start to crack the ice. A quick plunge right into everything being racially equal would have resulted in more push-back than there was. But what they did was start to ease people into accepting black people as being human beings. We can look at those movies and see them as big racist problems, or we can look at those movies and see the progress they attempted to make in a society where the KKK was still actively lynching black people. Those movies were outright ballsy in that time. We do need to appreciate the risks these movies took.

    More advancement happened in I Love Lucy. Lucille Ball wanted her real-life husband to be her show-husband instead of the white man who played her husband not he radio program (yup, that show was based on a radio show she did). The studio execs were certain that the public wouldn’t accept a white woman and an any-other-race man, even if married in real life. So Lucille and Desi put together an act and took it on the road. The execs went to a show and saw the audience absolutely loving them, and so they green-lit a pilot. Rather than being turned off by an interracial couple…well, you know what happened. :) That show actually tackled some issues such as women’s rights and concerns over meeting families of different races. If made today, that show would be regressive, but at the time, a woman standing up to her husband and an interracial couple was so incredibly progressive, and it empowered people.

    I could continue on with later examples of shows that are problematic from a modern viewpoint, but progressive for the time. Each built on what programs and films that can before did, programs and films that built on what came before them. Progress is often in small steps, and always slower than even the creators would like. But you MUST ease the public into is and let them get used to it a little at time or else risk them shutting progress out altogether.

    Reply

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