Sunday, March 05, 2006

HEIDI (1937)

As a child, I managed to miss out on all the forms of this classic story, though I remember my dad getting agitated during the infamous NBC incident in which a TV adaptation of "Heidi" bumped the exciting ending of a football game. I'd avoided this movie mostly due to its syrupy reputation as an archetypal Shirley Temple "orphan" story, but it wasn't as sappy as I'd feared, although I can see where young children might get upset near the end. Temple is the title orphan; her snippy aunt (Mady Christians) has apparently gotten tired of taking care of her and dumps her with her grandfather (Jean Hersholt), a man known in his Swiss mountain village as cranky and reclusive. Naturally, Temple thaws Hersholt out without breaking a sweat, but just when they seem to have established themselves as a loving family unit, fully accepted by the villagers, the wicked aunt returns and takes Temple away to Frankfurt. Her scheme essentially is to sell Temple to a rich family as a companion for their crippled daughter. The girl (Marcia Mae Jones) and her father (Sidney Blackmer) are perfectly nice but Temple wants to go back to Hersholt, who has traveled to Frankfurt to find her, and the last 20 minutes or so of the movie consist of the two looking for each other on the city streets on Christmas Day. After a few tears have been jerked, there is a happy if rather abrupt ending. All the actors mentioned above are good, especially Christans, although Arthur Treacher steals all of his scenes as the city family's butler. Also notable are Helen Westley as an old blind friend of Hersholt's, Mary Nash as Jones's wicked guardian, who is trying to hold onto Temple for mercenary reasons of her own, and Thomas Beck as the village pastor. I guess because of audience expectations, a musical number with Temple is shoehorned in as a fantasy sequence, but it's the weakest part of the film. Generally, quite bearable; given its Christmassy climax (including a lovely, long tracking shot to the tune of "Silent Night"), I'm surprised this hasn't become a holiday TV tradition--or maybe it has and I haven't noticed. [FMC]

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