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  Stowaway Shirley gets Shanghaied
Year: 1936
Director: William A. Seiter
Stars: Shirley Temple, Robert Young, Alice Faye, Eugene Pallette, Helen Westley, Arthur Treacher, Allan Lane, J. Edward Bromberg, Astrid Allwyn, Robert Grieg, Jayne Regan, Julius Tannen, Willie Fung, Philip Ahn, Paul McVey
Genre: Musical, Comedy, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Orphaned after the death of her missionary parents, Ching-Ching (Shirley Temple) escapes a bandit raid on a remote Chinese village and arrives in Shanghai. Her mastery of Mandarin helps American playboy Tommy Randall (Robert Young) haggle with local merchants and the pair become fast friends. Later, Ching-Ching inadvertently becomes a stowaway aboard the same ship carrying Tommy to America and hides in the room belonging to Susan Parker (Alice Faye), a young woman less than happy about her impending marriage to smug social climber Richard Hope (Allan Lane). Along with the genial crew, Susan takes an instant shine to Ching-Ching although her crabby old future mother-in-law, Mrs. Hope (Helen Westley) remains unimpressed. Amidst much misadventures around the Orient, Tommy and Susan begin falling in love, which does not sit well with Mrs. Hope. While she summons Richard aboard the ship, Ching-Ching finds herself facing life in an orphanage.

Stowaway was another of those enormous hits that established Shirley Temple as America’s little darling and a license to print money for Twentieth Century Fox. Paired opposite the ever-affable Robert Young, the curly haired moppet shines throughout the ensuing comedic and song-and-dance antics including an appealing rendition of “Goodnight, My Love” one of her most enduring tunes. Performing a reprise of this number and shouldering the musical weight was another huge song-and-dance star, Alice Faye. Together this likeable trio compensate for the slight story laden with orientalist clichés. Although Ching-Ching’s kindly protector Sun Lo (Philip Ahn), whose pearls of sub-Confucian wisdom she quotes throughout proceedings, is depicted in a positive light the faintly patronising attitude towards the Chinese characters mark this as a film of its time.

On the other hand, Shirley Temple’s grasp of Mandarin is impressive. She learned forty words for her role. Supposedly around this time the studio tested the I.Q. of their precocious child star which was found to be at genius level. Most of Temple’s vehicles were Cinderella stories at heart and Stowaway proves no different. For Depression era audiences such rags to riches fables were heartening. Shirley starts out a penniless orphan but, with a song and a smile, comes good. Reality might have been more complex but her movies convinced people a happy outcome was within their reach. In spite of the overall light-hearted tone, there is a subtle sociopolitical aspect to Stowaway. Susan derides carefree spendaholic Tommy Randall as “a relic of the terrible Twenties” and argues he “ought to grow up.” The general thrust of the story is to steer Tommy away from his self-indulgent lifestyle towards family and responsibility, paving the way for American success in the ensuing decade. However the message is not in the least bit obtrusive.

Deftly orchestrated by William A. Seiter, a dab hand at both musicals and comedy from the Laurel and Hardy classic Sons of the Desert (1933) and the sublime Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth musical You Were Never Lovelier (1942), there is an element of P.G. Wodehouse about Tommy’s antics alongside sardonic butler Atkins (Arthur Treacher). Also amusing are scenes wherein a Chinese singer impersonates Bing Crosby and Temple takes to the stage imitating an array of popular crooners from Eddie Cantor to Al Jolson including a lively dance routine with a miniature mannequin of Fred Astaire! Exotic locations from Shanghai to Hong Kong are brought vividly to life on the studio lot although the film climaxes in a courtroom in Reno, which incidentally includes the most blatant example of witness tampering in cinema.

Seiter had directed Temple before in Dimples (1936) and would do so again with the infamous Susanna of the Mounties (1939), the film Fox placed her in instead of loaning her out to MGM to make The Wizard of Oz (1939) and which marked the beginning of her fall from grace.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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