A Ford Farewell: Shirley Temple’s Collaborations with John Ford

The Late Shirley Temple’s Work with John Ford


‘America’s little darling’ Shirley Temple has died at the age of 85 in Woodside, California. The former Hollywood child actress, with her charismatic personality and little blonde curls, was one of the biggest stars of the 1930s.

The youngest ever Oscar winner was a singing, dancing, acting superstar who wowed audiences and filmmakers alike. Among the directors who could not resist her charm was John Ford. Ford worked on two American classics with the late Shirley Temple, Wee Willie Winkie in 1937 and Fort Apache in 1948.


The combination of probably the most popular and famous child star of all time and one of the greatest directors of all time could only be seen as a match in heaven, and the production of two timeless, popular films would seem to be evidence of this.




Upon meeting for the first time, before she was to act in his film, John Ford said to Shirley Temple, “How do you do, Miss Temple?  I am the man you are going to direct in Wee Willie Winkie.”   In spite of Ford’s reputation on set, the two became close.   Shirley acknowledged this in her autobiography Child Star, writing, “Outwardly he is a rugged person, but inside he’s kindly and even sentimental.”[1]


According to Shirley, Wee Willie Winkie was one of her favourite films.  In the film she plays Priscilla Williams, a young girl who travels with her mother to join her grandfather, a British army colonel, at the post he commands in northern India. Priscilla finds herself enraptured by the exciting events of the troop activities. She starred opposite Victor McLaglen, another regular in John Ford’s films, for the picture.

Blogger ‘The Siren’ offers an analysis of the film and talks about how Shirley Temple got along well with Ford, who seems to have brought out the very best in her acting.’ Not only that, but the writer discusses how the film is not just another vehicle for Temple’s star status: “The first thing to know about Wee Willie Winkie is that it isn’t a Shirley Temple movie that happened to be directed by John Ford; it’s a John Ford movie that happened to star Shirley Temple.”

‘The Siren’ observes how, rather than giving into studio pressures, Ford remained loyal to his authorial style and content. The article can be read in full at: http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.ie/2010/08/wee-willie-winkie-1937.html

A clip of Wee Willie Winkie, in which John’s distinctive camera style and touching direction perfectly merges with Shirley’s sweet, innocent presence, can be viewed here: " target="_blank" rel="nofollow">

Fort Apache was made close to Shirley’s retirement from films in 1950. It shows not only a continuing ambition in Ford to revisit and re-evaluate the western genre, but also the attempt on Shirley’s part to escape from the ‘child-star’ persona, which Ford helped with through his more mature direction of the then 20 year old.


The feature stars John Wayne and Henry Fonda, both Ford regulars, who play Captain Kirby York and Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday respectively. York is at odds with Thursday who proves himself an ambitious, arrogant young man upon being posted to Fort Apache. When Thursday’s prejudice towards the local Apache tribe reaches new heights, York feels it is time to step in.

Shirley Temple plays Philadelphia, Thursday’s eligible daughter. She has her own romantic side-plot in the film, evidence of Ford’s desire to include both romance and adventure in his films. McLaglen features in the film as a sergeant.

Fort Apache was the first of John Ford’s ‘cavalry trilogy’, which also included She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. Some of the exteriors were shot in one of Ford’s favourite locations, Monument Valley, Utah, and it was one of the first films to portray Native Americans in an authentic, sympathetic way.


Below is a clip from the film, eerily reminiscent of the dancing sequence of My Darling Clementine, in which Fonda and Temple lead the dancing on the floor:


Although Ford has often been portrayed as being rather tough with his actors, Shirley Temple’s performance shows Ford’s tender, sensitive direction. Perhaps it was the combination of Ford’s direction and Temple’s performance meant they made an inspiring pair.

Shirley is survived by her children Susan, Charlie Jr and Lori, granddaughter Teresa and great-granddaughters Lily and Emma.


Deirdre Molumby

[1] The history of the collaboration between the pair can also be read about in ‘John Ford: Interviews’, edited by John Ford, Gerald Peary and Jenny Lefcourt (University Press of Mississippi, 2001).


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