Penny Hale (Shirley Temple) returns from girls’ school to find her swanky Manhattan penthouse now belongs to snooty Julia Ramsby (Cora Witherspoon) and her pampered little boy Milton (Benny Bartlett). Having lost his job as an architect, Penny’s father Jeff Hale (Charles Farrell) now lives in the basement working as the building’s electrician. His girlfriend, Lola (Amanda Duff) tries to cajole her grumpy millionaire uncle Samuel G. Henshaw (Claude Gillingwater) into financing Jeff’s latest project, but the old coot will have none of it and Jeff is too proud to accept her help anyway. It falls to Penny to save the day with a cheery attitude and some song-and-dance numbers.
In John Huston’s underrated Depression-era musical Annie (1982), no less a personage than President Franklin D. Roosevelt endorses the titular moppet’s feel-good anthem “Tomorrow” as a means of boosting public morale. One imagines the real Roosevelt would have applauded the “can do” spirit inherant in Just Around the Corner, even though child star Shirley Temple grew up to be a Republican senator. This riches-to-rags story appears something of a call to arms for American industry, imploring tight-fisted old money barons like Henshaw to take a chance on bright young visionaries like Jeff Hale. It finds a potent metaphor for the economic downturn as Penny and her dad descend from penthouse to basement, while Jeff’s profession as architect implies his potential to literally build a brighter future for America.
Although the film’s sentiments are laudable and arguably as relevant today as during the great depression, it remains a slight and shapeless selection of gags and musical numbers. Among Shirley’s co-stars, Charles Farrell and Amanda Duff are simply dull whilst the film squanders the appealing comic antics of Bert Lahr - the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939) - and Joan Davis (who, despite prominent billing, sadly disappears from the narrative early on) who would have made far more engaging parental figures. At least Temple herself continues to sparkle and her song-and-dance routines opposite Bill Robinson remain a delight, particularly the climactic “I Love to Walk in the Rain” stage number featuring Shirley’s gang of tough-talking street urchins who behave like they have watched too many James Cagney movies. Just Around the Corner marked the fourth and last outing for this unique tap-dancing twosome who deserve to be ranked among the great musical partnerships.
Most Shirley Temple films usually leave romantic subplots for the grownups to handle. Here for a change the young star indulges in a little pre-teen flirting with Milton, who goes from rich softy to gaining some grit and character. Clearly no-one has the heart to point out once Jeff marries Lola, it looks unlikely the youngsters can build on this budding relationship without heading into somewhat queasy territory. Based on the novel Lucky Penny written by Paul Girard Smith, the film is somewhat reactionary in its politics preaching a form of self-reliance at odds with Roosevelt’s vision. Its fairytale naivety, implying all struggling folks need are cheery attitudes and rich benefactors to get back on their feet, is among the most strained and unpersuasive in Shirley Temple’s filmography.