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
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’. UK 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 Temple ? 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 America
as a political tool and “the fantasy of the golden-haired goddess magically
solving all class antagonisms” check out www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/ Temple .../shirleytemple.html
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.
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. Temple
Critics have also picked up an unsettling, sexual undercurrent in
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
Shirley’s career faltered when she lost out on the lead in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to Judy Garland. Times were changing and
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 America Ghana
and later, ’s
first female chief of Protocol at the White House. America
Monroe got to marry a ’s
character often finds herself being adopted by one. Surely this is a much more
desirable financial position than millionaire Temple ’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 Monroe Temple as “ ’s First Little