Bigger Than Life

Like many movie fans, I’ve tended to look at Shirley Temple as a novelty of a certain time, appealing mostly to children. But I gained a new appreciation for her work after I saw a double feature of her films at the Redford Theatre on March 30, 2012.

The confidence, determination, and talent that she showed in her performances in The Little Colonel (1935) and The Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) burst from the screen and filled the spacious Redford. She could more than hold her own in the world of adults, no matter if it was drama, comedy, singing, or dancing.

“It is a sidelong proof of how far Depression had inroaded confidence in the 1930s that it took Shirley Temple to reassure so many,” wrote David Thomson in the second edition of A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1981).

“She was not only the top box-office attraction from 1935-1938, but the solace and inspiration for essentially an adult audience.”

Memories of that evening at the Redford came flooding back to me this past week following the news of the death of Shirley Temple Black at the age of 85 on February 10, 2014. My first thoughts were that many people today, no matter what their age, grew up enjoying Shirley Temple. Now those same people all feel a little older, with a living connection to the past broken.

The death of Shirley Temple might have felt less significant if the big screen of the Redford Theatre had not helped me fully appreciate her special talents.

A fair case could be made that her accomplishments had more to do with personality than talent. But watching her sing and dance in her own magical way at the Redford and during today’s 12-hour tribute to Shirley on the MOVIES! network made me smile with admiration.

And just a few days later, I had similar feelings about Sid Caesar, who died on February 12, 2014. Caesar was one of the main stars of the 1963 comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which generates waves of group laughter every time it is shown at the Redford.

The Duke

The big screen of the Redford helped show me the power of another screen legend on February 1, 2014, when I saw John Wayne in his Oscar-winning role in True Grit (1969).

I had first seen True Grit in the summer of 1971 as the second feature of an odd double bill with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, starring Vincent Price. I saw these movies in Indianapolis at the now-closed Arlington Theatre, which didn’t have the luck to be preserved like the Redford and the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

I was 12 when I saw True Grit in 1971, and something about that screening affected me emotionally in a way I’d never felt before in a movie theater. It might have been in the development of the bond between John Wayne and Kim Darby as the movie progressed. Or maybe in the sweep of the film, with its expansive outdoor photography that was enhanced by Elmer Bernstein’s energetic musical score.

There was a big snowstorm on the afternoon of February 1, 2014, and I was strongly tempted to stay home and avoid the latest assault of this challenging winter. But I had not seen True Grit on the big screen since that 1971 showing, so I made the drive.

My journey was rewarded with a cinematic experience that felt very personal and very unique. It somehow connected me to that 1971 screening of True Grit in Indianapolis. As the movie built towards that final poignant scene at the cemetery on the snow-covered hillside, I savored every moment, knowing that I would never again experience this particular feeling of rediscovery.

And once again, the Redford added value to a movie. After the final credits of True Grit were finished, the Redford showed a film clip of John Wayne receiving his Best Actor Oscar for True Grit in 1970. Wayne’s genuine appreciation for the recognition helped give more depth to the Redford audience’s enjoyment and appreciation of his performance in True Grit.

In a few days, the Academy Awards for 2013 will be handed out. I’ve always thought of the Oscars as mainly industry awards, and every year brings a new attempt to define the roles of art and commerce in Hollywood.

Both John Wayne and Shirley Temple earned the gratitude of the film industry, and of movie fans everywhere.

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Copyright © 2014 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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