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Priscilla Williams is a young girl traveling with her mother, Joyce, to join her paternal grandfather, a British army colonel, at the post he commands in northern India. Upon arrival, they witness the capture of Khoda Khan, leader of the rebel Indian faction. Priscilla plays at being a soldier and is even given a uniform and allowed to drill by the genial Sergeant MacDuff, but her gruff grandfather disapproves and insists she remain apart from the troops. She eventually charms him, along with everyone else on the post, including Khoda Khan, whom she wins over by returning a talisman he's dropped. When the attractive Lieutenant Brandes deserts his post to take Joyce to a dance, Khan escapes, and Brandes is arrested. As hostilities with the rebels mount, Priscilla and servant Mohammet Dihn --actually an Indian spy--take off for Khoda Khan's stronghold. Written by
WEE WILLIE WINKIE (20th Century-Fox, 1937), directed by Academy Award winning John Ford, stars Shirley Temple in possibly her most prestigious film of her career. Capitalizing on the current trend of military themes as THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (Paramount, 1935), THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (Warners, 1936), and later the most popular, Rudyard Kipling's GUNGA DIN (RKO, 1939), WEE WILLIE WINKIE, also authored by Kipling, fits well into this category. In spite of Temple's presence, high production values, fine support of Academy Award winning actor Victor McLaglen (RKO's THE INFORMER, 1935), and a well-scripted but leisurely-paced screenplay (by Ernest Pascal and Julian Josephson), WEE WILLIE WINKIE comes close to being overlooked item from cinema history.
With Temple's previous screen efforts typically casting her as an orphan or child of a widowed parents who occupies screen time solving problems with feel good intervals of song and dance, WEE WILLIE WINKIE is a welcome change of pace. While Temple doesn't have any real musical interludes, she does acquire one heartfelt moment worth mentioning where she sings "Auld Lang Syne" to a dying soldier. Of her two 1937 releases, HEIDI, based on the literary work by Johanna Spyri, appears to be most admired mainly because it gears mostly towards the interest of children while WEE WILLIE WINKIE appears to be more of a story for adults. Being the longest (99 minutes, though road show version was reportedly at 105 minutes) of Temple's feature length films of the 1930s, WEE WILLIE WINKIE contains more ingredients of a John Ford movie than Temple's. Regardless, the chemistry of both blends in nicely into the scenario. Temple would work under Ford again in FORT APACHE (RKO, 1948) with McLaglen in the supporting cast.
Plot summary: The year is 1897. Joyce Williams (June Lang), a young widow unable to support herself and her daughter, Priscilla (Shirley Temple), in America, are sent by her father-in-law, Colonel Williams, to live with him on his British Army Base. Arriving by train to Raj Pore station in Northern India, they are greeted by Sergeant McDuff (Victor McLaglen) to escort them via coach to their destination. Before departure, Priscilla witnesses the arrest of Khonda Khan (Cesar Romero), the rebel leader responsible for the smuggling of guns belonging to her grandfather's regiment. Having dropped his sacred charm, Priscilla runs over return "the necklace" back to him. Khan, dangerous and handcuffed, shows gratitude towards this "strange child" as he is taken away by authorities. During her stay at the post, Priscilla meets Branders (Michael Whalen), a young lieutenant she calls "Coppy" (whose hair, as she described, shines like a copper penny). Feeling her grandfather (C. Aubrey Smith) doesn't like her McDuff, at Coppy's request, shows Priscilla the procedures on becoming a good soldier. Providing her a junior-sized uniform, much to the dismay of drummer boy, Mott (Douglas Scott), McDuff renames his little soldier, "Wee Willie Winkie." With an uprising leading to the prison escape of Khonda Khan and the death of Sergeant McDuff, war is officially declared, causing "Wee Willie Winkie" to try and make peace before any more men are killed.
While Temple dealt with grumpy grandfathers before, Lionel Barrymore being her best encounter in THE LITTLE COLONEL (1935), C. Aubrey Smith fits the bill as her military-minded grandfather with little time for his grandchild. Cesar Romero, believable as Konda Khan, gives a remarkable performance. He would assume another recognizable, but less threatening role, opposite Temple once more in THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1939). Military formation and the lives of British soldiers take precedence over the romantic subplot between June Lang and Michael Whalen that has been kept to a minimum. Others in the cast include Constance Collier (Mrs. Allardyce); Lauri Beatty (Elsa Allardyce, her daughter); Willie Fung (Mohammed Dihn); Brandon Hurst (Bagby); Lionel Pape (Major Allardyce); Mary Forbes (Mrs. MacMonachie), and John Ford regular, Jack Pennick, as one of the soldiers.
A successful film in its day, WEE WILLIE WINKIE was later reissued at 77 minutes, the print most commonly used on commercial television prior to 1985. It wasn't until around 1987 when WEE WILLIE WINKIE was available close to its theatrical length when distributed on home video. In recent years, the 99 minute version became available on numerous cable stations, including The Disney Channel (colorized, 1990s); American Movie Classics (1996-2000) and Fox Movie Channel. It's availability on DVD contains the choice of both colorized and black and white formats.
While Temple may seem to be an unlikely candidate on a military base in far away India wanting to become a good little soldier, she's certainly one who hasn't lost her appeal in the rank as "Wee Willie Winkie." (***1/2)
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