In 1934, movie audiences were caught off-guard by a vivacious six-year-old named Shirley Temple in the 20th Century Fox musical “Stand Up and Cheer.” The little girl with the big curls became an overnight sensation and immediately became a superstar of the big screen. However, “Stand Up and Cheer” was not Shirley Temple’s first feature. That distinction belongs to the 1932 gangster drama “The Red-Haired Alibi.”
An independently produced B-Movie, “The Red-Haired Alibi” has been missing from circulation for so many years that it was long forgotten and presumed by some film scholars to be lost. However, the video distributor Hollywood’s Attic (www.hollywoodsattic.com) located a very rare print of this feature and is presenting it on home video. And as a nice little surprise, “The Red-Haired Alibi” is actually a very entertaining film did not deserve to drop into oblivion.
The title role in “The Red-Haired Alibi” does not belong to Shirley Temple but to Merna Kennedy, a one-time protégé of Charlie Chaplin (she was the leading lady in his 1928 silent feature “The Circus”). This film finds her playing Lynne Monitt, the no-nonsense cashier at a hotel gift store who learns she will soon be out of work. Lynne catches the eye of a dapper dude named Trent Travers, who offers her a job in New York. Lynne arrives in the Big Apple to find a very unlikely job waiting for her: Trent will give her a swank apartment and a benevolent clothing allowance in return for having her appear with him at nightclubs, restaurants and other fancy gathering spots around town. But if Trent needs to step out to take care of some unspecified business, Lynne will provide a perjurious alibi that they were together all evening.
Things get rocky when Trent guns down a rival and instructs Lynne to dispose of the murder weapon. Not eager to play J.Lo to this 1930s-style Puff Daddy, Lynne leaves town and heads up to White Plains (which is not much of an escape, as that small city is only a half-hour north of Manhattan). Lynne promptly gets a job as the nursemaid for the daughter of a divorced millionaire. Almost immediately, Lynne gets promoted from nursemaid to wife of the suburban moneybags…but her happiness is short-lived when Trent tracks her down and starts playing a blackmail tune.
“The Red-Haired Alibi” coasts along smoothly with a screenplay that works overtime with wacky plot twists and unlikely conveniences, and the game cast (especially Theodore von Eltz as the dapper Trent) keeps the action moving with brisk performances and an endless line-up of 30’s-style glamourous settings which most Depression-era audiences could only enjoy from a seat in the movie house. Christy Cabanne’s direction is fairly typical of the genre for the era (a bit stagy with heavy emphasis on dialogue over action), but the film packs a lot of fun into its brief 67 minutes and it never falters for a moment.
As for Shirley Temple, she arrives relatively late in the film but almost immediately steals the show once she is introduced. While her professional star-turn was still being fine-tuned here (she had an accidental habit of looking off-screen, obviously for behind-the-camera assurance), she was nonetheless a gorgeous and vibrant child with an unusually clear voice and an uncanny knack of playing to the camera. “The Red-Haired Alibi” showed that little Shirley was clearly a star waiting to be discovered and it was obviously just a matter of time before the major Hollywood players realized what a goldmine she could become.
While hardly a classic, “The Red-Haired Alibi” is a diverting example of the low-budget, high-entertainment world of B-Movies during their early peak years. Fans of Shirley Temple will enjoy seeing their favorite child star in early stellar ascension, while lovers of old-time movies will also enjoy a unique chance to experience a long-lost work of entertainment.