As the first railroad is lain across the Canadian wild, it falls to the Royal Mountain Police to maintain peace between rail workers and the Blackfoot Indians that resent this intrusion onto their land. Inspector Angus Montague (Randolph Scott) and his troop arrive at the aftermath of an Indian attack from which young Susannah Sheldon (Shirley Temple) is the sole survivor. Aided by his bewigged Irish pal, Pat O’Hannegan (J. Farrell MacDonald), Monty adopts Sue as an honorary mountie. Sue in turn grows very fond of Monty, to the point where she feels a little jealous when he starts courting newly-arrived beauty Vicky Standing (Margaret Lockwood). Vicky’s father, Superintendent Andrew Standing (Moroni Olsen) brokers a peace deal with noble Chief Big Eagle (Maurice Moscovitch), who leaves his son Little Chief (Martin Good Rider) behind at the outpost as a mark of good faith. But Sue and Little Chief subsequently witness a violent confrontation between Indian horse thieves and hot-headed rail man Harlan Chambers (Lester Matthews) that sparks a war only the Mounties can stop.
Remembered solely as the film Twentieth Century Fox made with Shirley Temple rather than loan her out to MGM for The Wizard of Oz (1939), Susannah of the Mounties was based on a popular children’s book written by Muriel Denison that spawned several sequels. In time-honoured Hollywood tradition, the film version took certain liberties with its source, notably opting to kill off the heroine’s parents in an unseen Indian attack. In the book, Susannah spends the summer with her uncle and his fellow Mounties while her parents are in India. Frankly, although Temple is genuinely credible as a shellshocked orphan in the early scenes, her parents might as well be on holiday given how quickly she brightens up in Monty’s company. However, this proves a vital component of the film’s central theme, as Monty teaches Sue a person can overcome any obstacle or threat as long as they have courage.
If there is one theme uniting Shirley Temple’s varied film career it is the embodiment of unyielding American optimism: that can-do spirit. A rare western for the curly-topped moppet, this applies that ethos to race-relations. The film does take a faintly patronising tone towards Native American culture (“We’re supposed to be more grown up than they are” lectures Monty at one point) but has its heart in the right place, stressing the value in learning to understand Indian ways and forge peace treaties rather than practice genocide. This message is underlined in an amusing subplot wherein feisty Susannah clashes with young chauvinist Little Chief until the pair become “blood brothers.” The duo don feathers, bang tom-toms, chant around the fire and even share the peace-pipe that, in a running gag, leaves Susannah decidedly woozy. Having earned the respect of the Blackfeet with her pluck and fortitude, along with the nickname of “Golden Hawk”, the climax has Susannah pleading for the captive Monty’s life and attempting to prevent full-scale war.
However, the plot still plays second fiddle to cutesy antics, comedy routines and the odd musical sequence and relies on a heavy contrivance that prevents Sue telling the truth about Indian villain Wolf Pelt (Victor Jory) until the most dramatically-convenient moment. Coming towards the end of Temple’s reign as America’s most popular child star, this recycles motifs from several past vehicles, notably John Ford’s superior Wee Willie Winkie (1937), exhibiting a similarly sentimental affection for the military, exploring themes of innocence enduring amidst the clash between “savage” and “civilized” values, and has Temple assemble a makeshift family with herself as pint-sized matriarch. Temple radiates charisma with an appealing performance but the film wastes spirited British star Margaret Lockwood in a superfluous role while western stalwart Randolph Scott - reteamed with Temple after the likeable Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) - is also surprisingly underused. Given the third act erupts into a series of fairly exciting action sequences, this has the distinction of featuring the largest bodycount of any Shirley Temple film.