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?