Six year old Star (Shirley Temple) lives in a lighthouse at Cape Tempest with her beloved guardian, Captain January (Guy Kibbee). Having fished Star out of the water when she was just a baby, after her parents drowned at sea, January raised her as his own but never legally adopted her. Now, Mrs. Morgan (Sara Haden), a stern truant officer wants to get Star away from all those uncouth sailors and into an orphanage. Things take a turn for the even worse when a telegram informs January his lighthouse will soon be fully automated and no longer need a keeper, robbing him of his livelihood and only chance to keep Star…
Loosely based on a story by Laura E. Richards called “The Lighthouse at Cape Tempest”, Captain January first graced the screen in 1924 as a vehicle for another child star Baby Peggy, who faded into the history books while Shirley Temple’s stardom endures. This was another big hit for Temple, though very much a cookie cutter vehicle with its sole variation being a nautical theme. The plot mostly involves finding excuses for wee Shirley to look cute, or say and do cute things, a repetitive strain that earned her the enmity of novelist/film critic Graham Greene, though only the most curmudgeonly would deny she sings and dances with aplomb.
Shirley kicks things off with a vivacious tap number but by far the most memorable sequence is “At the Codfish Ball”, a soft-shoe song-and-dance routine that pairs her with an astonishingly fresh-faced, young Buddy Ebsen, playing a friendly sailor. For the most part, the film contrasts Shirley’s apple-cheeked innocence with the crusty character actors who fawn over her in a manner it would be uncharitable to describe as near-paedophilic but does give some indication why Greene described the film as “sentimental, a little depraved with an appeal interestingly decadent.” Captain January and his friendly rival Captain Nazro (Slim Summerville) enter into a kind of Abbot & Costello game of one-upmanship that plays out in a series of amusing, if inconsequential scenes. These include a bizarre opera parody wherein the sight of Shirley in a pretty dress prompts all three to burst into song, and a weird fantasy sequence where January imagines himself as a big baby with Star as his nanny, waiting on him hand and foot.
Even though Twentieth Century Fox and Temple’s family sued Greene over his unflattering remarks, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck may have taken on board some of his criticisms about her movie plots. For while no less corny at times, her later vehicles like Wee Willie Winkie (1937) and Little Miss Broadway (1938) grew rather more sophisticated. Here however, Zanuck’s major contributions involved removing a comedy parrot and revising the original ending which would have had January dying from a heart-attack. Everything ends with sunshine and laughter, in a manner as much childish as childlike, given how Star stubbornly remains frozen in time with all her loved ones nearby forever and ever. Still, this does feature a crane called Ichabod who dances to harmonica tunes.