The Littlest Rebel (1935)
Directed by David Butler
The importance of this contrived bit of Civil War tripe, starring America’s “Little Darling,” Shirley Temple, lies not in the story, the acting or the production values. Rather, it is its impact on audiences who flocked to theaters to see it as well as its continued popularity among viewers today.
The 7-year-old Temple plays Virgie Cary, a precocious Southern moppet living with her devoted plantation-owning family and a host of blissfully happy, servile family retainers on the eve of the Civil War. Her lavish birthday party is rudely interrupted by the firing on Fort Sumter, and daddy (John Boles) dons Confederate gray and goes off to fight for hearth and home, confident that loyal Uncle Billy (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) will keep little missy safe.
Daddy Cary regularly dashes through the enemy lines to visit his family and adoring slaves, but is eventually caught by a Yankee officer. The officer, however, can’t send him to prison because he too has a little girl at home; he ends up lending Cary his uniform and gives him a pass through the Union lines. Unfortunately, when the ruse is discovered, both men get condemned to death.
Back home, Virgie is comforted by Uncle Billy, who regularly plays and dances with her. Then, in the film’s most over-the-top scene, Billy hides her when Yankees show up at the mansion. Virgie goes into blackface, hoping to pass for one of the slaves.
The film climaxes when the dynamic duo visit the prison where Cary is being held and charm the warden with their vaudeville routine. He advises them to seek clemency for the condemned men from President Lincoln, who can’t resist our heroine and pardons her father. With family values restored, everyone dances off in idyllic happiness.
This was one of the most popular films of 1935, and even though it was a different era back then, this racist piece of rubbish unfortunately still has legs today.
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.