Moments before the best-beloved scene in The Little Princess — the one in which Sara Crewe (Shirley Temple) and Hubert “Bertie” Minchin (Arthur Treacher) dance and sing “Knocked ’Em in the Old Kent Road” for wounded soldiers at a London veterans’ hospital — Sara encounters a soldier (Morton Lowry) who’s lost his wits. He’s tearing a newspaper into the shapes of soldiers; when Sara asks if he knows her father, for whom she’s been searching, he replies, “One soldier more or less doesn’t make any difference, you know.”
It’s a shocking exchange, in a home-front propaganda movie made in 1939, one which begins with the skirling of bagpipes as British troops march off to the Second Boer War and ends with a girl saluting Queen Victoria.
Director Walter Lang’s blocking speaks volumes: Bertie, the old music-hall trouper, is Spectacle, intervening between Sara/Society, who is recoiling in confusion and horror, and the soldier — i.e., the True Nature and Cost of War. For a moment, Sara forgets her father’s (Authority’s) admonition to “be a good soldier”… but then, in his cajoling way, Bertie reminds her. “Let’s try to forget our own troubles and do something for these lads,” he suggests.
So Sara sings, dances, and soon forgets.