Shirley Temple is one of those actors that modern audiences are mostly familiar with through cultural osmosis rather than through her actual filmography.
Even if you can’t name a single movie that the renowned child actor starred in during her peak of popularity, which ran from 1934 to 1938, chances are that you’ve ordered one of her famous non-alcoholic drinks or seen her signature blond curls plastered on an expensive piece of Hollywood memorabilia.
Because of these cultural artefacts, the name “Shirley Temple” is still considered cute and marketable in the 21st century, so much so that modern movie studios were still willing to release some of her films through collections like the “Little Darling Pack” in 2007.
One of the movies included in this collection is Henry Hathaway’s Now and Forever (1934), which served as my official introduction to Temple’s body of work.
Admittedly, I walked into this screening anticipating nothing but light fluff, since my idea of what to expect from a film starring America’s favourite child star had been filtered through all the pop culture refuse mentioned above.
However, I was pleasantly surprised that Hathaway and his writers managed to use Temple’s natural charm to tell a fairly mature story about parenting and how bad decisions can have a disastrous ripple effect on the ones we love most.
Despite this film being included in a Shirley Temple DVD collection, the plot of “Now and Forever” actually revolves around Gary Cooper’s Jerry, a travelling con man who is far too busy globe trotting with his lady friend Toni (Carole Lombard) to check in on his five-year-old daughter Penny (Temple) from his first marriage.
After a trip to Shanghai leaves him in desperate need of cash, Jerry is drawn back to the United States to sell his daughter’s custody rights to his brother-in-law, with the mother having died years ago.
But when Jerry meets Penny for the first time, he’s immediately taken with her and decides to finally become the child’s legal guardian.
While the two establish a strong bond right away, Jerry’s criminal past continues to linger in the background and threatens to tear their new relationship apart as he tries to carve out an honest living.
One of the most important elements to nail right off the bat with a film like this is the chemistry between the leads, since the story would collapse without a believable family unit at its core.
Luckily, Cooper and Temple establish a snappy back-and-forth from their first scene together, with that rapport only growing stronger as the movie moves forward.
This is no easy task, since Cooper’s character was fully willing to abandon his child for money at the beginning of this story; a writing choice that risks putting the audience at a distance right away.
However, the two leads are able to bridge this emotional gap in a very short time through their combined charm alone, even with Cooper’s past misdeeds continuing to hover over the proceedings like an unseen Sword of Damocles.
Lombard also adds an additional layer of jovial camaraderie into the mix, bucking the tired trend of wicked stepmothers in movies by accepting Temple into her life unconditionally.
In all honesty, Hathaway could have gotten away with filming these three having a fun vacation in Paris without any major looming conflict and gotten away with it, since they play off each other in a very compelling fashion.
But as the movie’s narrative moves forward, it becomes obvious that the director’s true objective was to craft this idyllic on-screen family just so he could cruelly smash it into a million pieces.
The agent of chaos mostly responsible for this tonal shift is actor Sir Guy Standing, who plays a shady businessman that catches on to one of Cooper’s scams and is using this knowledge to blackmail him.
Standing’s performance might be the absolute highlight of Now and Forever, since he successfully crafts a menacing persona without coming across as outwardly rude or threatening.
Instead, he reels Cooper back into a criminal lifestyle through fake British politeness and innuendo, which is way more infuriating than if he simply adopted the American method of commanding someone at gunpoint.
That sleight-of-hand trick is also frequently used by the filmmakers themselves, who lure the audience into a false sense of security thanks to Temple’s cuteness before pulling the rug out from under you.
This dynamic is at play for much of the film’s third act, with Cooper’s unsavory activities constantly overlapping with his idyllic family activities.
The best example of this comes later in the film when Temple performs a lively song and dance number in front of some rich American expatriates living in Paris.
But instead of using this scene for pure spectacle and whimsy, like in most other Temple films, the director intercuts it with shots of Cooper stealing an expensive necklace and stuffing it into his daughter’s teddy bear.
He later uses this teddy bear to smuggle the necklace out of a rich family’s house and into the villain’s hands, all the while lying to Temple about what really transpired.
Not only is this sequence completely gut wrenching, but it also serves as a succinct encapsulation of the movie’s main theme of childhood innocence being sullied by the world of adults.
It also doesn’t hurt that Now and Forever features a snappy script and tight pacing throughout, which manages to wring some of that old Hollywood charm out of a story that feels pretty modern by 1934 standards.
However, some dated elements from that era have not aged as gracefully.
This includes a noticeable lack of music and prevalence of janky editing that is undoubtedly a byproduct of the limited technology available to filmmakers at the time.
The movie’s ending also leaves a lot to be desired, since it’s pretty obvious that the studio forced Hathaway to tack on a much more uplifting resolution to the main conflict in an effort to not completely alienate the movie-going public.
But minor gripes aside, Now and Forever still managed to surprise me and showcase an engrossing family drama that wasn’t afraid to touch on some darker subject matter.
It might not be the best introduction to Temple’s filmography, as I’m led to believe that most of her other work is pretty wholesome and not subversive in the slightest.
However, I feel like Now and Forever remains a pretty good showcase of Temple’s talent as an adorable child actor, while also offering a prime example of how to harness that cuteness and weaponize it against the audience (in a good way).
In other words, this film is the cinematic equivalent of a candy apple that’s been coated in absinthe, since it looks innocent but will fuck you up if you’re not ready.
Corner store companion:
Snapple Spiked RaspCherry Tea vodka (because it’s sugary and sweet but will mess you up in quick fashion)
-Release date: Aug. 31, 1934
-Temple appeared in 29 films by the time she was 10 years old. She would temporarily retire from the film business in 1950 at the age of 22. Her last official acting role was in a 1963 episode of The Red Skelton Hour.
-After retiring from the entertainment industry, Temple began her career as a United States diplomat in 1969 and would serve under several presidents in this capacity, including Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. She also became the US government’s chief of protocol between 1976 and 1977.
-Temple won a “Juvenile” Academy Award in 1934 for her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during that year. She was later given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in February 1960.
-Carole Lombard tragically lost her life eight years after Now and Forever premiered in theatres. The actress, mostly known for her roles in screwball comedies, was the passenger of a plane that was returning from a war bond tour overseas and crashed into a mountain range in Nevada. She was only 33 years old.
-[SPOILERS] In the theatrical ending of Now and Forever, Cooper’s character gives Temple away to a rich friend to raise before he is arrested by the authorities. In the original ending, both Cooper and Lombard die driving alongside a train that is taking Temple away. Paramount executives felt this dark conclusion didn’t jive with the rest of the film and ordered Hathaway to reshoot the ending.
-The title “Now and Forever” is also associated with popular songs from musicians like Drake, Richard Marx and Carole King.