This post was prompted by the “O Canada” Blogathon, hosted by your film friends at Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Be sure to check out the all the other posts for your weekly fill of glorious CanCon!
Anyone who owned a Shirley Temple VHS tape in the ’90s has probably seen this, the schmaltzy and tear-inducing intro to the “Fox Family Features” collection of colourized classics. In it, the most adorable onscreen Shirley Temple moments are inter-cut with images of adorable 1990’s children beaming at their TV screens, surrounded by adorable teddy bears while being hugged by their adorable mothers. In case you were apt to miss the message that watching Shirley Temple movies is an activity guaranteed to send one into a state of hyperglycemia, the fine folks at Fox have chosen a cover of Loggins and Messina’s “Watching the River Run” to sweeten the nostalgia-baiting proceedings. At the end of the promo, a robotic and honeyed woman’s voice says “The Shirley Temple Collection…for a whole new generation to discover.”
I’ve seen this montage countless times, although not in the many years since I discarded my Shirley VHS tapes, presuming I’d replace them someday with better formats. I never did. Maybe I felt I’d outgrown the films, which I used to watch primarily when one of our loud Canadian prairie thunderstorms sent me into a Twister-induced terror. Or maybe I was afraid to revisit them as an adult, wary that a critical eye would break the spell these movies held over me as child. Whatever the reason, I still found myself loving Shirley and longing to live in the cozy rocking-chair world of that dreamy Fox promotional video. When the “O Canada” Blogathon was first announced, a VHS cover popped into my mind immediately: Susannah of the Mounties. I could visualize Shirley on the cover even after all these years, clad in a brown leather vest, hands on her hips. Was it a good movie? I couldn’t remember. What I did recall was that it was one of the only American classic films with a Canadian theme that I had seen in my pre-teen years. It was time to finally resurrect Shirley and see what she had to offer.
About ten minutes into revisiting Susannah of the Mounties for this blogathon, I started to regret choosing it as my topic. Why? Well, you know what’s missing from that Shirley Temple Collection montage? Parents consoling their children and assuring them they’re not likely to be orphaned anytime soon. Or adults cringing and struggling to explain blackface to a roomful of seven-year-olds. Or kids having an imitation pow-wow in their living rooms and shooting Nerf arrows into the heads of their little friends.
I remembered stereotypical “movie Indians” being a big part of Susannah of the Mounties, but by the time the final peace pipe was smoked during my re-watch, I realized I was out of my depth without devoting some major research time to history and cultural sensitivity – time which I hadn’t left myself, foolishly thinking that Shirley would be a softball choice. So, I decided if I was going to talk about this film at all, I’d need to bring in the big guns for a little cultural context (and to increase the CanCon in this post by a few percentage points). For the purposes of my analysis, I’ve therefore invoked legendary Canadian historian Pierre Berton to give us some soundbites. I’ll call them…Berbits.
Susannah of the Mounties is based on a novel by Muriel Denison. I’ve not read the source material, so I can’t tell you how Canada-centric it is. Denison herself was born in Winnipeg and the novel was set in Regina, Saskatchewan, so it’s a safe bet that the book has a fairly solid grasp on Canadian themes and idiosyncrasies. The film version, however, moves the setting to…well, I don’t think they name the fort or any local settlements, so based on the matte paintings of mountains in the distance, one presumes that little Shirley is on her way through the foothills of Alberta (Alberta was not yet a province during the early-1880’s setting of the film). In a plot device that begins a thousand other American western films, the local Indians (these kinds of movies don’t care which band, just that they were Indians) have raided a wagon train, and poor Susannah is the only survivor. Fortunately, Susannah is rescued and taken in by Monty the Mountie (Randolph Scott, mustachioed) and taken back to his North-West Mounted Police outpost.
“The frontier Mountie was actually a solider, disguised as a policeman by a shrewd prime minister who didn’t want to annoy you Americans; had soldiers chased the whiskey traders back to Montana it might have been considered an act of war. But the Mountie quickly became more than a solider. Over the years he took his place as a father figure in a nation that adores father figures. Incorruptible, adaptable, courageous, courteous, kind (he had all the Boy Scout virtues, as well as the hat), the Mounties comforting presence prevented our west from going wild.” Pierre Berton, Why We Act Like Canadians
If Pierre Berton is right about the evolving vision of a Mountie being that of a Canadian “father figure,” then Susannah of the Mounties carries that theme through, although perhaps somewhat unintentionally. Randolph Scott is harmless and magically paternal as Monty the Mountie, curing Susannah’s post-traumatic stress after witnessing the mass slaughter of the entire wagon train (including her grandfather) with a brief fireside chat about having courage. And the Mounties, on the whole, represent a paternalistic force in the film not only to one little girl, but to an entire nation of people – the Blackfoot tribe – whom the redcoats watch over with colonial authority like a teacher watches over misbehaving schoolchildren at recess. Susannah of the Mounties is careful not to make bad guys of the Mounted Police, instead establishing the fact that one bad white railroad man, and one very stereotypical “Bad Hollywood Indian,” are the reason for any potential conflict and slaughter. To some extent, it feels as if the film makes occasional concessions to certain non-stereotyped possibilities – that not all Indians are bad, or that the white people could be unnecessarily hostile, or even that peace and understanding was achievable. But, the eventual outcome of “peace” is a requirement of every Shirley Temple movie plot – she must save the day, and if that is the case, what outcome can there be other than a vision of racial understanding made possible by the tears of a little white girl?
The plot of Susannah of the Mounties is predictable for any viewer versed in the standard white-man-versus-Indian fare. The Canadian setting necessitates a third force in addition to the Indian and the lawless cowboy – the supposedly reasonable code of honour, and level-headedness, of the Mounties. The local Blackfoot tribe fears the arrival of more settlers and government troops as the railway cuts further into their territory. A raid of horses from the railroad camp brings Chief Big Eagle (Maurice Moscovitch) to the headquarters of the Mounties. Determined to prove that his tribe is reasonable, and that the horse raids were conducted by violent outliers, Chief Big Eagle promises to catch and return the offenders to the Mounties. Chief Big Eagle leaves his son, Little Chief (Martin Good Rider), with the Mounties as a proof of his allegiance. An assurance of fair treatment to Little Chief is provided by a Mountie to Chief Big Eagle as he leaves the post: “It will do no harm for your son to learn the ways of the white man.”
“The Mounted Police were inviolable; it was useless to come up against them in the kind of mano a mano gunfight cherished by aficionados of the American West. For if one were shot, another would immediately take his place and, if necessary, another and another, until, in the finality, the long arm of justice, reaching all the way from Westminster, would pluck the culprit from the wilderness and bring him to book.” Pierre Berton, The Wild Frontier
While the Mounties and Blackfoot tribe struggle to maintain good relations, Susannah makes herself comfortable with the Mountie lifestyle and designates herself (at the age of 11) the faithful caretaker of Monty, on whom she’s developed something of a crush. Also vying for Monty’s affections is Vicky (Margaret Lockwood), the daughter of the NWMP Superintendent who is visiting from To-ron-to (every syllable clearly pronounced, which is a foreign sound to any modern Canadian). The romance between Vicky and Monty is incredibly half-baked. She asserts (with no scripted evidence whatsoever) that she would make a fine frontierswoman. Her father and Monty, however, would much rather protect her from the Indians and the trials of a life in the bush, which is pretty rich coming from two guys letting a ringletted pre-teen live there indefinitely.
Randolph Scott and Margaret Lockwood manage to work up about as much onscreen heat as a Calgary winter, so it’s a wonder that Temple’s Susannah frets as much as she does over Monty’s potential relationship with Vicky. Temple’s films often have very weird gender politics, but this has to be one of the strangest, showing Susannah begging to clean, sew and cater to Monty’s every whim, whilst simultaneously complaining about the sexist treatment coming from her new friend Little Chief. It makes no real story sense for Susannah to look upon Monty as a crush rather than a protective father figure, and her obsessive desire to take care of him makes for some awkward implications. In one scene, Susannah teaches Monty how to dance. In another, she is chastised for rearranging his sock drawer. It’s a credit to Temple’s sweetness and undeniable acting chops (and Scott’s benign presence) that any of this comes off as remotely charming.
Even less charming, in a film not exactly brimming with charm, is Susannah’s treatment of Little Chief. Martin Good Rider, the young Blackfoot who was cast to play opposite Shirley, is given an unpleasant character to inhabit. His degradation of women and grunting disrespect is a foil for Susannah’s pouty frustrations. The audience could write off Susannah’s annoyances and desire to prove her bravery to Little Chief as the product of childish one-upsmanship, but I suspect there are deeper problems afoot here. At one point, Susannah says to Vicky, with an adult’s certainty, “Isn’t he rude? These Indians certainly are a problem.”
Vague gestures are made toward the topic of acceptance and the suggestion that Susannah had better get along with Little Chief. But this gesture is made in the worst possible way, with Monty educating Susannah by telling her “Indians always treat their women with a superior air. The women seem to like it.” The audience is supposed to hope for a friendship to develop between Susannah and Little Chief, and yet, underlying that friendship is the clear implication that Susannah is the superior human. Undercutting the theme of peacemaking even further is the presence of the “Bad Indian” character. Chief Big Eagle’s desire for a peaceful trust between the Mounties and the Blackfoot tribe his undermined by Wolf Pelt (Victor Jory), a bloodthirsty and two-timing member of the tribe who starts a fight with the railroad men when he tries to sell them horses (which he had previously stolen from them). Wolf Pelt whips the chief and entire tribe into a frenzy after telling them of the confrontation with the railroad man, who had angrily told Wolf Pelt that government troops would be coming via rail to wipe out the Blackfoot. Wolf Pelt, naturally, leaves out the ethically dubious part he played in inciting this conflict, instead choosing to take on all the characteristics of another pernicious movie stereotype – the “Bloodthirsty Indian.”
How do we know when a character is a Good Indian or a Bad Indian? It’s all in relation to how they interact with the white man. Chief Big Eagle is a “Good Indian” because he behaves as the Mounties wish him to behave, turning over the violent members of his tribe so that the Mounties can dispense justice in their own way. And the “Bad Indian”? The Bad Indian is the one who makes the whole enterprise turn sour. He can convince anyone, even a wise chief, that they should attack the white settlements (for reasons which are usually later proven to be lies). Susannah of the Mounties employs this plot device with particular aplomb, which is bizarre because the production went to the trouble of hiring a dozen real members of the Blackfoot tribe from Montana as extras (in addition to Martin Good Year’s casting as Little Chief). One wonders why they bothered, when the only two speaking roles for Indian characters (besides Little Chief) went to the Russian-born Maurice Moscovitch and the decidedly non-Native movie baddie, Victory Jory. Moscovitch and Jory employ the usual “Frankenstein’s monster” language to portray their characters (who have highly suspicious accents), grunting and dropping adjectives and articles to sound more “Indian.” One can only imagine what the actual Blackfoot cast members thought of this Hollywood-ized situation. Shirley Temple recounts the shoot in her autobiography:
“Twelve full-blooded Blackfoot chiefs showed up as bit players in Susannah of the Mounties. Decked out in beaded deerskins and plumed headdresses, they paraded onto the soundstage, suddenly hushed by their commanding presence. Chief Albert Mad Plume was the leader. Chief Many Guns was the youngest at forty-three, and the religious shaman was Chief Yellow Kidney. Five had never left their Montana reservation before, and only one spoke English – Chief Coward, the translator. Each was a picture-book Indian, leathery skinned, hawk-nosed, regal beyond expectation. During introductions they stood quietly looking ahead, arms folded, avoided eye contact.” Shirley Temple Black, Child Star: An Autobiography
Maybe that was the key: “Each was a picture-book Indian.” Temple recounts the friendship and rapport that developed between herself and Good Rider, but there is a sense in her autobiography that the actors and the studio didn’t know quite what to do with their Blackfoot extras. According to Temple, the men were stoic onset and not entirely easy to handle (at least from the perspective of the studio, which wasn’t used to feeding its actors steaks instead of sandwiches for lunch), but to some extent I wonder at Temple’s remembrance of this very strange situation, and whether the perceived stoicism arose from the cultural divide (which must have been almost humorously blatant on a Hollywood set). After all, Temple with her 56 curls and pint-sized leather costume was only playing frontier, not living it. She must have seemed very strange to them, too.
The climax of the film is, naturally, an Indian raid on the NWMP fort. The battle is not especially exciting (William A. Seiter’s direction is noticeably weak in the action sequences, where nothing in particular seems to happen). Shirley is, of course, invincible during the raid, which is why a bullet passing through a wall and whizzing just past her head can be taken as a joke rather than a horror. Monty and Little Chief are kidnapped and taken back to the Blackfoot camp, where Chief Big Eagle demands that the railroad men leave the territory. Monty is about to be burned at the stake when Susannah, having run away from the safety of the fort, comes to his rescue, pleading for his life and telling Chief Big Eagle that Wolf Pelt is a lying cheat and the reason for all the unnecessary violence. Many things happen in Temple vehicles through the magic of tears, but this surely is one of the most unbelievable examples. Susannah plays a white Pocahontas to Monty’s John Smith, and through the sincerity of her childish innocence, peace is restored between the white men and the Indians. In the closing sequence, a treaty is signed and Shirley smokes the pipe of peace. The frontier is safe again.
Re-watching Susannah of the Mounties reminded me that it was not, in fact, a good movie. American audiences and critics thought the same upon its release in 1939. Shirley was growing too old for her precocious characters, and she had previously starred in superior fare (including The Little Princess, which came out the same year). While the film marked the end of the childhood phase of Shirley’s career, Hollywood would carry on making formulaic frontier stories for years to come. They would also continue to make Mountie movies, almost none of which I’ve seen, even as a Canadian.
If we strip away the racism and sexism of Susannah of the Mounties, do we end up with a film that’s entertaining, or perhaps more pertinent to the topic of this blogathon, a film that says something about Canada? I’m hesitant to pass a final judgement on either count. I watched the film several times as a child, but having seen it this once in my adult life, I wouldn’t consider watching it again (until having my own children raises the possibility of another Shirley fan in the house). There just isn’t much entertainment value here. And just how “Canadian” is this Hollywood portrait of their Northern neighbours? I’m a stereotypical Canadian myself, in that I find our identity hard to pin down. Canadians are notorious for defining themselves by what they’re not, rather than what they are. Which is to say, we feel an overwhelming need to point out that we’re not Americans. And there’s something in Susannah of the Mounties that smacks clearly of America. Sure, you’ve got your placid Mounties, mountain vistas, and vaguely British accents. But you’ve also got a shootout in the final reel, a distinctly non-historical Canadian wagon train, and Indians attempting to burn a man at the stake (something the Blackfoot never did), which renders any minor aberrations in the setting indistinguishable from any other portrait of the American, rather than the Canadian, West.
“The concept of the Mounted Police and the concept of the elected county sheriff and town marshal are totally opposing concepts, and one of the reasons is the different countries, because of our attitude towards the law on the frontier, which is a British colonial attitude, not an American Revolutionary attitude. Anyway, Hollywood didn’t understand the Mounties, and they thought that their motto was “We always get our man,” which it isn’t, it’s “Maintain the right” and so on, and they stopped cooperating. Every time they stopped cooperating, Hollywood, which was very good at pressuring, very good at lobbying, and very good at public relations would find a way to get to the Canadian government, especially the Tourist Bureau, or the Trade and Commerce Bureau, and say “Look, we’re gonna leave all this money in your country and we’re gonna publicize Canada,” and the next thing the politicians would be at the Mounties, and the Mounties would have to give in. And always the same results – the picture was always dreadful…” Pierre Berton in an interview with the CBC show “Take 30”, 1975
It would take more time than exists to elucidate every historical inaccuracy in films, classic or modern. A film-goer gets used to these inaccuracies and can accept and ignore them if the story is worth telling and is told well. But what about when an historically-set film carries on a tradition of misrepresenting a particular culture, ethnicity, event or national identity? Repeated a thousand times over these little (or big) mistakes can have a marked effect on a group of people. The movies can tell us who we are – even if their version of who we are isn’t true. If the Mountie is Canada’s only celluloid hero, then what does that say about us (or perhaps more importantly and accurately, what does that say about the American perception of Canada and Canadians)? Would Shirley Temple have been sent to liberate a cowboyed-up John Wayne from the dastardly hands of the Indians? And finally, when we watch Fox’s distillation of Shirley Temple’s most saccharine film moments, what are we really missing? Well, we’re missing almost everything. She really is “for a whole new generation to discover.”