review for The Little Princess on AllMovie

The Little Princess (1939)
by Bruce Eder review

Shirley Temple was at her most engaging in this handsome adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's story, playing plucky Sara Crewe, who finds herself orphaned and reduced to near-indentured servitude at the boarding school where she was formerly a student. Director Walter Lang manages to balance the drama, the little bits of song-and-dance (mostly courtesy of Arthur Treacher), the comedy, the romance (provided by Richard Greene and Anita Louise), and the Technicolor glow of the production, creating one of Temple's most enjoyable movies. Lang's handling of the actors is lively, engaging, and smooth -- he never lets the splendor of the Technicolor shooting, or the lavish sets, stand in the way of moving the story forward or letting his actors do what they're there to do -- the result is a set of highly memorable portrayals in an exquisite screen setting, presenting late Victorian at its most opulent and beautiful (and, at times, cruel). This is the kind of storytelling in which the old Hollywood had no equal, and looking at the pacing, drama, humor, and fantasy elements, one wonders what Lang might have made out of a movie such as Mary Poppins if he'd had the chance to work on that a quarter century later (not that Robert Stevenson did a bad job with the latter...). Additionally, his handling of the dream/fantasy sequence here anticipates his treatment, more than two decades later, of the action through the entire body of Snow White And The Three Stooges (and goes a long way toward explaining the success of that movie). But at the center of this movie's success is Temple, nearing the end of her childhood appeal but able to flex some real acting muscles, especially working in the same scenes with villainous Mary Nash. The only drawback to appreciating The Little Princess is the lapse of its copyright in 1967, which has resulted in a plethora of unauthorized television showings and video releases of the movie, most of them with highly substandard Technicolor, among other problems. The authorized Twentieth Century Fox DVD, released in the late winter of 2007, is the one to watch or to own.