In the Pre-Code era Gary Cooper had not yet been cast as a cowboy or cowboy in modern dress. Here he is an international con man, Jerry Day, who we meet trying to con his way out of heavy hotel bill in Shanghai. Having been warned that an auditor is expected who will deal with delinquent guests, Jerry goes out to a print shop, has a business card made, and introduces himself to unfamiliar hotel staff as the auditor. They give him their ledger to inspect, and he uses it to intimidate other deadbeat guests into making settlement payments to him personally. After paying his own bill he and his girlfriend Toni (Lombard) quit town as Jerry seeks his next score. He's expecting a big payday that'll let them settle down for a while. He had a daughter by a first wife (he's a widower) now being raised by her relatives. Jerry thinks the in-laws will be glad to be rid of him for $75,000, but when he arrives at the family compound to cut the deal, he finds himself captivated by little Penelope (Temple) and decides to keep her. At first glance it's a triumph of family values but it's also further proof of Jerry's recklessly impulsive nature. That ambiguity persists as Jerry and Toni -- initially skittish but soon won over, wanting to settle down herself -- struggle to raise Penny as a good little girl. "Honor bright" is their code for truth-telling as Jerry and Penny test each other constantly.
Now and Forever dares raise the possibility that Shirley Temple can be corrupted. It's a mild corruption, admittedly, but when Jerry sees Penny conning another kid out of a pair of roller skates it's our first inkling that things aren't going to work out for this would-be family. He honor-brights her into giving the skates back, but then it's his turn to go bad again as he falls under the influence of an unsavory character who recruits him to steal a prestigious necklace from a prominent society woman. That's what he's up to while Penny sings the story of the grasshopper and the ants. Finding Penny's teddy bear in the same room as his prize, he stuffs the necklace inside the bear, assuming that it and Penny won't be searched. Getting the bear back, Penny suspects something funny but with an "honor bright" Jerry denies doing anything to her toy. When the bear falls out of her bed and the necklace pops out of its poorly sewn pocket Penny is devastated; her dad is a liar. Now Toni steps in; unable to stand the thought of Penny hating her father, she takes the blame for the robbery, but this only starts a race of renunciation that the studio originally meant to end by literally sending Jerry over a cliff. Jerry now realizes that he's not right for Penny and he arranges for her to be more or less adopted by the same society lady he'd robbed, but not before having a gunfight with the man who set him up. The film climaxes on a note of pathos as Jerry and Toni see Penny off, telling the girl that they're going very far away and won't be able to contact her for a very long time, Jerry all the while struggling to hide any evidence of the grave wound he suffered in the gunfight. Penny goes off none the wiser and oddly untraumatized by this impending long separation, and Jerry collapses in Toni's arms. Jerry's death reportedly was filmed but rejected by appalled preview audiences. Instead, the film ends with Jerry apparently recovering and assured of at least Toni's company in years to come, while Penny presumably finds her own destiny on another path.
If Cooper and Temple became avatars of goodness of different sorts soon after this, a coincidence of movie history saw Carole Lombard unleashed to go wild at the very moment of Code Enforcement thanks to the advent of her defining genre of screwball comedy. Now and Forever catches her before that happened, leaving her the least interesting of the star trio. Cooper doesn't seem like the con-man type, but if you think about it, why should con men conform to a type? In any event, his main role here is the self-aware irresponsible dad who realizes at last that he's not going to get everything he wants in life, and he plays that pretty well. Shirley Temple was simply a freak, more than holding her own against proven charismatic stars at the age of six. In its resistance to her momentum this film is like a rock against the tides, submerged repeatedly but always reappearing. Ultimately it's a movie of more historical than aesthetic interest, but its capture of a transitional moment for its stars and American cinema as a whole makes it kind of compelling to watch all the same.