Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Susannah of the Mounties (1939)

Shirley Temple stars as SUSANNAH OF THE MOUNTIES, a little orphan girl who ultimately helps bring peace to the Mounties and Indians during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

Susannah, the sole survivor of an Indian raid on a wagon train, is rescued by Mountie "Monty" Montague (Randolph Scott -- with a mustache!). Susannah is cared for at the Mounties' fort by Monty and his aide, Pat O'Hannegan (J. Farrell MacDonald). It's suggested a home will be found for Susannah, but she has no intention of leaving "Mr. Monty" and "Mr. Pat."

Susannah deals with jealousy over Monty's liking for his commander's pretty daughter Vicky (Margaret Lockwood). Susannah also makes friends with Little Chief (Martin Good Rider), an Indian boy, and when trouble arises she is able to save Monty's life and prevent an Indian uprising. All in a day's work for Shirley Temple!

It's a pleasant film, and Shirley has some especially good scenes teaching Monty to waltz and later dancing around a campfire with Little Chief. Scott is likeable, Lockwood is lovely, and the film's 78 minutes pass quickly. All in all, it's an enjoyable little movie.

As a side note, the scene shown to the left, depicting what must be the burial of Susannah's grandfather, does not appear in the film.

There are a couple minor discordant notes. As film historian Jeanine Basinger notes in A WOMAN'S VIEW, Shirley's role in her films was often fashioned as sort of a miniature wife. This angle is so strongly pushed in the film, as Susannah worries Vicky will supplant her in Monty's affections, that it's just a tiny bit odd, or perhaps it just comes across that way to the modern viewer. When little Susannah hears Vicky is leaving the fort, her immediate relieved reaction is to run around the cabin doing Monty's housework.

Although Susannah helps show the soldiers and the Indians that they can all coexist as friends and brothers, the depiction of the Indians in this film seems particularly cliched to modern sensibilities, even for someone who loves and has watched many, many Westerns. Victor Jory, playing an evil Indian, does lots of muttering about "forked tongues" in broken English, and all the Indians speak cliched English to one another. There are also a couple of painful lines asserting that the Indians are an inferior people.

The film is otherwise a fine family movie, and the awkward moments with the Indian characters might provide a starting point of discussion for parents and children who watch the film together, contrasting the film's positive and negative racial messages and how attitudes have changed over the years since the film was made. Susannah's courage and determination could also provide good topics for discussion. (This is the homeschooler in me coming to the fore...)

Randolph Scott also costarred with Shirley Temple in REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (1938). This is one of just two films Margaret Lockwood made in the U.S. released in 1939; the other was RULERS OF THE SEA with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. I'd love to see that one. (Update: I've now seen it, and here is my review!)

The film's supporting cast includes Moroni Olsen, Maurice Moskovitch, Lester Matthews, and John Sutton. The Indians are portrayed by a Blackfoot tribe.

The film was based on a book by Muriel Denison. Although I don't own that book, we have one of the sequels, SUSANNAH AT BOARDING SCHOOL (1938). There were more books, SUSANNAH OF THE YUKON and SUSANNAH RIDES AGAIN.

SUSANNAH OF THE MOUNTIES was directed by Walter Lang and William A. Seiter.

This film can be seen on Fox Movie Channel. It's also available on DVD and VHS.


Blogger panavia999 said...

I object to the reflexive reaction that when your kids see politically incorrect stereotypes in old movies that it has to be a teaching moment. If parents teach their kids proper respect in the present day, it is not necessary to revisit it in old movies which will cause them to be aware only of the stereotypes and miss the rest of the story which often has many useful virtues not found in newer films. Don't distract from that. Kids are inundated enough already with diversity and respecting ethnic differences, they already know the old time stereotypes were misguided. They are pummeled with white guilt. My parents never told me what was wrong with the stereotypes in old movies, just said "Things were different then." Because they made sure I behaved properly in the present, I recognized what was wrong in the older movies without having a "dialogue". Spend more time on the three R's.
I must say, Susanna's attitude toward Randolph Scott was downright annoying.( Temple did too good a job.) A girl might have a crush and be jealous of a girlfriend and she may get scolded or be embarassed in the end. They should have toned that part of it down. Graham Greene had a point in his criticism that cost his publisher dearly :
As for the "little housewife" aspect - well, girls in the old days began learning household arts at an early age! Old stories are filled with girls who keep house after losing a mother. Randolph Scott is very likeable in this film, but wasn't he always. :-)

2:54 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Well, I would just say that discussing it when it comes up in a film is exactly one of those moments when one teaches proper respect. These things don't need to be mutually exclusive moments. If you have read my blog for a while you probably know I am not a heavily "P.C." type person, but there are times things hit me wrong and I think it's great to discuss it. We've always been the kind of family to talk over all aspects of movies so it's just par for the course for us, along with any other topics that come up related to a film. The very reason I mentioned positive aspects like courage and determination in my post is it's important not to focus only on negatives but, as you mention, also look at the "useful virtues." I feel someone who is thinking critically/thoughtfully while enjoying a film will not just pick up on the negatives, but on all the different interesting angles, pro and con.

Although I just have one homeschooler left at home, they've always had lots of time for the 3 Rs -- especially during their homeschooled years when they had way more one-on-one instruction time than kids receive in a classroom setting. :)

I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts -- we certainly agree on Randolph Scott!

Best wishes,

3:04 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

The film is adorable, Randolph Scott is himself, which is more than enough. As for Victor Jory, ten years later he played a white villain in Canadian Pacific with Randy Scott. He plays what he plays. A good actor. If there is a hidden message about what is known as White Privilege, I think the privilege is modified by generosity.

8:50 PM  

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