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Movie Review

Captain January

Reviewed by: Brett Willis
CONTRIBUTOR

Good
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Family
Genre:
Family Comedy Music
Length:
1 hr. 17 min.
Year of Release:
1936
USA Release:
April 17, 1936
Relevant Issues
Cover art for “Captain January”
Featuring: Shirley Temple, Guy Kibbee, Slim Summerville, Buddy Ebsen
Director: David Butler
Asst. Director: Ad Schaumer
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck | Associate Producer: B.G. DeSylva | Screenplay by: Sam Hellman, Gladys Lehman, Harry Tugend, based on a story by Laura E. Richards
Distributor: 20th Century Fox

In this Shirley Temple formula film, Shirley is fine as always, although the adult actors sometimes deliver their lines rapid-fire rather than with convincing emotion. The film covers a wide range of material, from singing and dancing and a funny dream sequence to social commentary about people losing their jobs to the Great Depression and automation. The writers of Temple’s films possessed the knack of conveying serious themes while maintaining a degree of innocence (pretty much a lost art now).

Captain January (Guy Kibbee), a former seaman who is now a New England lighthouse keeper, rescued Shirley Temple’s character (whom he just calls “Star”) from a shipwreck when she was two or three years old. Everyone else aboard was lost. January made a token effort at finding Star’s relatives, then just kept her for himself. Now, four years later, he has a Truant Officer breathing down his neck because he didn’t send Star to school promptly at age six but “homeschooled” her instead; and he’s about to become unemployed again due to the installation of an automatic lighthouse beacon. Star is of course an irrepressible little bundle of happiness, but very distraught at the thought of being taken away from “Cap.”

Content notes: January and another former “Captain,” Nazro (Slim Summerville), constantly trade insults as their way of showing affection for each other. Although January and Nazro both reverence the Bible (January taught Star from the Bible and a nautical manual because “they both show you how to steer a straight course”), they’re willing to steal the answers to Star’s school entrance exam (but grab a High School exam by mistake).

As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that someone who wants to raise Star is going to lose her, because there just aren’t enough of her to go around. Although the ending is bittersweet, the story does a surprisingly good job of getting out of the corner it painted itself into.

Original songs include “Early Bird,” “At the Codfish Ball” and “The Right Somebody to Love.” A special treat is Shirley’s intricate dance number with young Buddy Ebsen; that scene itself is enough to make the film worth watching. I’ve always liked Ebsen, and he was a long-running talent: Broadway/Vaudeville in the 1920s; the original Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz” (until he got sick from the aluminum paint); Fess Parker’s sidekick in the Davy Crockett movies; TV’s “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Barnaby Jones;” and much more. He did a dance number at his own 90th birthday party in 1998.


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