Wednesday, 12 February 2014

We Didn't Kill Shirley Temple.

The very first Cinema Revisited was broadcast in June 2009 and we mentioned Michael Jackson.  On the 25th June Michael passed away.  We dedicated a show to the magnificent Elizabeth Taylor in 2011.  We lost Liz.  You’d think we’d have learned our lesson?  No. Our last show was broadcast on the 18th January and we mused about the fact that one of cinemas’ most enduring icons, Shirley Temple, was still alive, and joked that, should she die, it wouldn’t be our fault.  It seemed odd given that she is a figure we associate with an earlier, more naive, movie age.  Also child stars, Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor grew up, lived their lives and died before our eyes yet Shirley was still with us.  We now live in an age where we consider it our right to view gruesome and intrusive detail of celebrity deaths; a harrowing picture of Michael Jackson’s corpse lying on a hospital trolley was published around the world.  It was almost a comfort to know we still had Shirley, an untouchable, golden curled reminder, of more innocent times, keeping a dignified eye over modern celebrity.

I can think of no more iconic celebrity figure that Shirley Temple.  She outshines, Michael and Liz, Chaplin, Mickey Mouse, Darth Vader, Clint Eastwood in a poncho and that other blonde goddess, Marilyn Monroe.  Her very name is a byword for all that is good, and cute and wholesome. Which curly haired child has not been compared to her?  Monroe herself was a grown-up reworking of her. She even has a (non-alcoholic) cocktail named after her. She was the youngest person to have ever won an Oscar.   It’s hard to imagine she was ever, actually real.

Most of the coverage of her death has been celebratory and wistful. A child star whose life did not descend into the obligatory car crash. Shirley’s career took off during the American Depression.  She became the golden child, untroubled by the poverty other American children were facing.  A child living as it ‘ought’ to do, untouched by the realities of war, politics and economics, allowed to develop its growing personality in an ideal bubble. Readers in the UK may see a correlation with the Daily Mail giving away a free calendar featuring ‘Little Prince George’; another child we can watch grow up because we can’t afford to have children of our own at the moment.  Shirley’s optimism, self reliance and agreeableness was the embodiment of the values Americans had been reading about in self help tomes like Napoleon Hills ‘Think and Grow Rich’ or Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People”.  Values they were too ground down by poverty to try out for themselves but still wanted to believe would ‘work’.  Temple herself worked long hours, once performing a dance routine after badly injuring her foot.  If Shirley could do it why couldn’t the rest of America?   President F D Roosevelt himself commented “As long as our country has Shirley Temple we will be alright”.  For a brilliant essay on the use of Temple as a political tool and “the fantasy of the golden-haired goddess magically solving all class antagonisms” check out

  Even Shirley’s legend has its dark side though.  The ‘internet’ has been awash this morning with talk that our Shirley was a racist! So, she wore blackface in ‘The Littlest Rebel’ and was a Republican. I think as grown ups we should perhaps accept that not all Right Wing people are evil, bigoted bullies.  Temple was seven years old when she blacked up for ‘The Littlest Rebel’, how much political awareness do we expect the average seven year old have? Temple herself did acknowledge that her early ‘Baby Burlesques’, “occasionally were racist or sexist". In her later roles, however, Temple’s character is often sympathetic to the American working man, including black Americans. She performed song and dance routines with black male performers which adult female performers of the time were rarely seen doing.

 Critics have also picked up an unsettling, sexual undercurrent in Temple’s persona.  In her 1991 bestseller ‘Backlash’ Susan Faludi suggested Temple’s screen persona represented an nonthreatening, ideal woman; childlike,  unchallenging,  grateful for male assistance, compliant and without body hair.   It was Graham Greene who first proposed this idea,  referring to her performance in ‘Captain January’ as “a little depraved”. He went further when reviewing ‘Wee Willie Winkie’  and suggested her older male admirers “respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body”.  Twentieth Century Fox sued Green and he was forced to pay damages to Temple, or, as he called her,  “that little bitch”. Temple herself revealed in her autobiography that a spy hole had been drilled through her dressing room wall and that an MGM producer had exposed himself to her during negotiations for ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

 Temple was also rumoured to be a “curly haired, fifty year old dwarf”; curiously a similar rumour circulated about Michael Jackson, perhaps testament to both of their professionalism and capacity to understand the material they were working with.

Shirley’s career faltered when she lost out on the lead in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to Judy Garland. Times were changing and America was ready for a new sort of heroine.  Details of her brief marriage to abusive alcoholic John Agar tarnished her impeccable image. Her second marriage to Charles Alden Black was a long and successful one.  Now known as Shirley Temple Black she went public with her breast cancer and campaigned for better treatment. She was appointed United States Ambassador to Ghana and later, America’s first female chief of Protocol at the White House.

Whilst Monroe got to marry a millionaire Temple’s character often finds herself being adopted by one. Surely this is a much more desirable financial position than Monroe’s. Who can forget Gertrude Moon reminding her daughter, Daphne, of her good fortune with the words “He’s rich and you don’t have to sleep with him"?  Whilst Faludi’s point is certainly a valid one, Dame Magazine yesterday lauded Temple as “Hollywood’s First Little Feminist”