Kathleen (Shirley Temple) is a lonely 12-year-old daydreamer. Her father, John Davis (Herbert Marshall), neglects her. Her mother passed away years ago. Her harsh governess, Mrs. Farrell (Nella Walker), does nothing but annoy her. Her only friend is Mr. Schoner (Felix Bressart), the owner of the local antique shop. The young girl’s life is far from ideal.
One day, John returns home in time for dinner — a rarity in the Davis household. He’s planning to introduce Kathleen to Lorraine Bennet (Gail Patrick), his new girlfriend. Kathleen takes an immediate dislike to Lorraine, and continues to act out against Mrs. Farrell. Will this dysfunctional family’s problems ever be solved?
Kathleen was directed by Harold S. Bucquet and written for the screen by Mary C. McCall, Jr.
The premise of this film makes it sound a whole lot more dramatic than it actually plays out. The subject matter is, for the most part, handled lightheartedly, and the film ends up to be quite sweet.
There are a few scenes near the beginning that aren’t so lighthearted. Kathleen’s poem for her dad is heartbreaking, speaking of how she only wishes her father loved her. Kathleen is easy to sympathize with, even when she’s acting like a brat. She’s essentially grown up with no parents. Her mother is dead, and her father is absent, leaving her in the care of a stern, harsh woman.
The pace of the film is a bit slow, though not quite so sluggish that it’s unwatchable. The blend of romance and family drama makes the story only mildly interesting to watch; it certainly isn’t the most gripping film I’ve ever seen.
*SPOILERS* One thing I did love about this film was the relationship between Laraine Day and Shirley Temple’s characters. The two actresses are nice to watch together. Day plays a psychologist who comes to stay at the Davis house for the summer, to help Kathleen and act as a sort of replacement for Mrs. Farrell until Kathleen leaves for boarding school in the fall.
While Kathleen is at first resistant to her new governess, they form a friendship and gain a mutual respect for one another. Day’s character is named Angela; Kathleen adores her so much that she nicknames her “Angel.” Knowing how little care and affection Kathleen grew up with, it’s nice for the viewer to see her develop a positive relationship with a mother-figure. *END SPOILERS*
There are also a few daydream sequences that are fun to watch, including one in which Kathleen dreams of starring in a “musical extravaganza,” performing a little song and dance number. This lavish stage daydream is one of the film’s best scenes.
Kathleen came at a strange time in Temple’s career, when she was no longer suited to “adorable child” roles, but not yet a teenager either. This was supposed to be a bit of a “comeback” role, but was instead the only film she made for MGM, the studio that had signed her as soon as her Twentieth Century-Fox contract ended. The film was not a success, and MGM dropped her, but I think her performance is quite good here. In the title role, she injects and immaturity and hopefulness to her character, while also giving Kathleen a bit of a cynical edge.
So, there are a few positives: the Day/Temple friendship, Temple’s performance, and the daydream sequences. Kathleen is in many ways a middle-of-the-road film, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad watch, especially when saved by those few positive elements. Fans of Shirley Temple or those with an affinity for moderately-paced family tales will get the most enjoyment from it. The score: 3/5