Digest>Archives> March 2002

Captain January: Shirley Temple’s Salute to Lighthouses

By Jim Merkel


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<

It’s easy to say “Shirley Temple” and “lighthouse buff” in the same sentence. There’s sentimentality in both, as well as nostalgia, family values, good stories, kitsch and a host of other positive words.

Hence, one of the don’t-miss joys of devotees of lighthouses should be to stick some popcorn into the microwave, open a beverage and pop a copy of the 1936 movie Captain January into the VCR. The next 76 minutes will be spent feasting on Shirley Temple and a good lighthouse story, filmed at a time when Shirley Temple and lighthouses were at their best.

Adopted from an 1890 bestseller, Captain January tells the story of a lighthouse keeper who rescues a baby girl from a shipwreck and raises her as his own. Star (Shirley Temple) loves life with the Captain (Guy Kibbee), in a Maine lighthouse at a place called - get this - Cape Tempest. If that’s not a place for a lighthouse, what is?

“In addition to the finest growth of chin whiskers in New England, the Cap’n had a heart of gold, and he managed to convert little Star into the most precocious, talented and dimpled youngster on the coast of Maine,” said a review in The New York Times published right after the movie’s release.

Helping the captain to raise young Star is Captain Nazro (Slim Summerville), a lighthouse inspector and buddy, along with a host of other townsfolk and mariner types.

It’s a happy life that causes her to break out often in the kind of songs that made Shirley Temple famous. With Buddy Ebsen, she dances and sings a number, “At the Codfish Ball.” She sings her own version the sextet from the Opera “Lucia,” with Kibbee and Summerville singing along. She tap-dances the multiplication tables while she makes her way down the circular staircase of her lighthouse.

When Star asks why the captain is polishing the brass of the light one more time, he responds, “Ships and lives depend upon this light being just so. Suppose that light had been out of order the night you came. Where would you be now?”

“Asleep in the deep,” Star says.

Into this picture of joy come storms, as they inevitably do at a beacon, or in any good story.

One day, Star heads into town on official government business - ordering brass polish. Outside, she dances with fishermen and encounters a nasty old truant officer who decides the best thing for the young girl is to take her away from the Captain and put her in an institution.

More bad news comes when the government decides to shut the lighthouse down and replace it with an automated light.

“All this stuff around here should have been junked years ago,” says a man from the government, who has come with the crew doing the automation work.

“I guess you don’t know how many ships Cap saved with this light,” answers Star.

“That old Chinese lantern? You can do better with a candle and a box of matches,” says the crew-member, unaware that he is speaking to one of those the light has saved.

Walking down the stairs for the last time, the aging Captain remarks that he is glad he won’t have to walk up and down the stairs any more.

“I’m tired of looking out here and seeing nothing but the sea,” says Star.

“Nothing but the sea,” says the captain, immediately before the sounding of a ship’s whistle causes both to break into tears.

The prospects get even worse, as the truant officer produces a court order committing Star to an institution. The captain tries in vain to scurry her away in a boat, but a patrol boat sent by the truant officer proves too much.

“Oh please, Cap, don’t let them take me away,” Shirley screams. “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to. . . . .Why did they take me away from you? What have I done? Cap! Cap!”

Such scenes were made for Shirley Temple, who was turning eight just as Captain January was released in late April 1936, breaking box office records in Milwaukee, Portland, Maine, Dayton, Richmond and Boston.

At such a young age, here was an enormous talent that provided inspiration for Americans during the Great Depression. She was the number one box office attraction from 1935 to 1938, but started to fade after she became a teen-ager. She retired from filmmaking in 1949, at the advanced age of 21.

In later years, as Shirley Temple Black, she worked as a diplomat for Republican administrations. She was a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations under President Richard Nixon, ambassador to Ghana and chief of protocol under President Gerald Ford and ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the administration of President George Bush. She told of her life as a young actress in her autobiography, Child Star, published in 1988.

Although Captain January is not among her most-remembered films, it has a charm that both children and adults will enjoy. The video is available from Lighthouse Depot. It is Catalog No. 26516, and costs $19.95.

“The screen play by Sam Hellman, Gladys Lehman and Harry Tugend is pleasantly salty and the supporting players comport themselves as expertly as usual,” Time magazine said of Captain January, in a review that opened a cover story about Shirley Temple. “As an item of entertainment, however, the value of Captain January depends entirely upon the fact that Shirley Temple appears in almost every sequence, grinning, sobbing, dancing, singing, pattering down stars or spitting on her pinafore, as the scenario requires.”

Sticklers for accuracy, lighthouse aficionados may have complaints. In the lantern room, for example, there is no Fresnel lens. No wonder the government crew thought they could get more light out of a candle and a box of matches. And Captain Nazro hardly seems the type of inspector to check the top of cabinets for dust.

But this is quibbling, the kind the truant officer might do. If not all details are correct, Captain January gets the big picture right of life at a lighthouse. This is a humorous picture of what life at lighthouses was like, at a time when the Bureau of Lighthouses was in its greatest glory. In the mid-1930s, technology was advanced and the Lighthouse Service was disciplined. Automation was still in its early stages. Nobody was thinking President Franklin Roosevelt would order the Coast Guard to take them over by the end of the decade.

Melodramatic? Perhaps. But it is far preferable to the sex and violence of today. In the inevitable happy ending, there is a sense of fun that too many films these days don’t have.

So invite friends - the ones who laugh at all the lighthouse models in the living room - and make a night of it. By the time it’s over, they’ll be singing with you, “Come along and follow me, to the bottom of the sea, we’ll join in the jamboree, at the Codfish Ball.”

This story appeared in the March 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History