An opening Title Card reads, "Kentucky in the 70's". The 1870's, that is. The American Civil War is over, but not for Colonel Lloyd, played by Lionel Barrymore. His son died in the war and for that he can never forgive the North. Too bad for him that his daughter Elizabeth is in love with a Northerner named Jack Sherman. After the Colonel finds out about their relationship, Jack and Elizabeth elope together.
Six years later, Jack and Elizabeth are living on an outpost in The Wild West. They have an adorable little daughter, named Lloyd Sherman and played by guess who. For some cutesy reason, the Army is making little Lloyd into an honorary colonel. But now Jack is going further out west, which is "no place for women and children", so Elizabeth and Lloyd will be going back to Elizabeth's old hometown in Kentucky. With a couple new friends, Lloyd causes mischief in the Colonel's yard and he yells at her without realizing that she's his granddaughter. Oh, what will happen now? Will Lloyd's adorable charms eventually win over her crotchety grandfather and mend their divided family? Will Jack make his fortune out west or will he fall prey to a pair of wily swindlers? And how racist will Bill Robinson and Hattie McDaniel's characters be?
The movie is adapted from The Little Colonel, the first in a series of children's books written by Annie Fellows Johnston. The semi-autobiographical series was published between 1895 and 1912. The Little Colonel books are now in the Public Domain and available on Project Gutenberg.
This film provides examples of:
- Artistic License History: Kentucky never joined the Confederacy. It was one of the "border states" which stayed loyal to the Union.
- Censorship by Spelling: Walker and Mom Beck, the characters played by Robinson and McDaniel, try to use this trope to stop Lloyd from understanding what they're talking about, but they themselves misspell the words which they're trying to censor. This is supposed to be "funny", but nowadays comes off as rather racist.
- The Gilded Age: The movie is set during this time period. Despite the amusingly dated title card, it's not set in what we call The '70s.
- Grumpy Old Man: The Colonel
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Both little colonel and big colonel are prone to anger. It's said to be genetic, although Elizabeth is apparently immune.
- The Lost Woods: During the climax, Lloyd has to pass through some creepy woods to reach her grandfather.
- Maligned Mixed Marriage: Not across race lines, but Jack and Elizabeth are a Northerner and Southerner marrying soon after the Civil War. Most people seem to be okay with it, but not the Colonel.
- Mammy: The mammy, Hattie McDaniel of Gone with the Wind fame
- Named After Somebody Famous: Lampshaded:Jack: My name is Jack Sherman, sir.
Colonel: Sherman, huh? Well, that name's no recommendation.
- Sensational Staircase Sequence: The film's Signature Scene, wherein Shirley Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson perform a tap dance routine on a staircase.
- Southern Gentleman: The Colonel, of course
- Splash of Color: The final scene was shot in Technicolor. When the movie was first colorized in the 1980s, this scene was cut out. The scene has since been restored in newer colorized versions.
- Still Fighting the Civil War: In the opening scenes, the Colonel says that he hates all Yankees and that the war will never be over for him.
- Tomboyish Name: Shirley's character is named Lloyd Sherman, after the Colonel's last name (and her mother's maiden name)