Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sidebar: Graham Greene's Fancy Little Piece



Now that we have dealt with the best movie Temple made as a tot, the Siren wants to deal with something that comes up one whole hell of a lot when you discuss Shirley Temple. A while back the Siren posted about movie quotes she didn't want to hear anymore. After spending a couple of weeks researching Shirley and Wee Willie Winkie, she would now include Graham Greene's observations about the relationship between Temple, her movies' "daddy" figures and the composition of her fan base.

Everyone knows the story of Greene's review and the furious reaction it inspired, but for ages the subsequent litigation meant the precise passage was hard to find. The Siren encountered it in its entirety only about 18 months ago, via David Ehrenstein and the wonders of the Internet. Here it is--the "libelous" passage from a review of the Ford film:


The owners of a child star are like leaseholders--their property diminishes in value every year. Time's chariot is at their back; before them acres of anonymity. Miss Shirley Temple's case, though, has a peculiar interest: infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant's palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood that is only skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot last. Her admirers--middle-aged men and clergymen--respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.


The contemporary reaction to this review was way overdone, and the Siren vehemently disapproves of trying to suppress speech. As is true of many libel cases, if Temple's parents hadn't sued to get this paragraph out of the public discourse, it might have lapsed into obscurity. Instead it's immortal.

Greene was a genius all right, one who wrote the screenplays for two of the Siren's most deeply and dearly loved films. But the Siren finds his film criticism a chore. The style is there, but good lord he can be snooty, like he when he informed readers that if they were watching High, Wide and Handsome, a Rouben Mamoulian musical in which Irene Dunne plays a scene with a horse, they would be able to pick out Dunne by looking for "the one without the white patch on her forehead." (All right, yes, it's funny, but my beloved Irene was NOT horsey-looking.) No great film critic should give the persistent impression he's slumming. The Siren also scratches her head over aspects of Greene's taste. He couldn't stand Hitchcock, and his review of My Man Godfrey is so humorless it becomes hilarious. It is probably also worth noting, with regard to the Winkie review, that Greene was described as "obsessed with sex" by no less an authority on that state of being than Otto Preminger.

In the passage above, Greene complains about the "adult emotions" on Temple's face, and ignores the fact that Temple's ability to show deep feeling was neither inconsistent with childhood, nor evidence of corruption; it was simply what made her a great screen actress. Especially now that she's re-watched Wee Willie Winkie, the Siren sees the review as more bitchy than subversive, the moan of a highly intellectual man who cannot believe he just had to sit through that, that tripe. Never mind the millions of kids who adored Temple as much as did any adult. If she's popular, it must be because she wiggles her ass.

Sure, you can read Shirley Temple movies Greene's way if such is your kinky wont; but there's a few that lend themselves to it far more readily than the John Ford film. Little Miss Marker comes to mind, mostly because Adolphe Menjou is so much creepier than Victor McLaglen. In fact, you can read a lot of child vehicles of that or any other era as sublimated sex, and sometimes you'll be right. But it's a tiresomely reductive view to take of a film as good as Wee Willie Winkie, and it diminishes the good points something like The Little Princess or The Littlest Rebel still possess.

So if you want an analysis of the incestuous/pedophilic qualities of Wee Willie Winkie, that's as much as you're going to get from the Siren. She doesn't think the movie, or indeed Temple's performance, deserved that review.

28 comments:

Flickhead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Siren said...

Aw Flickhead, I loved that comment. :) You will always be my favorite decadent sleazebag commenter.

Arthur S. said...

Greene's obsession for sex is there in all his novels. Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that no one conveyed Catholic guilt better and sexier than Greene. The guilt usually arising due to the compulsive sexual drives of his characters(as it did in his personal life).

The joke about Shirley Temple was widely known in the 1930s, Greene was perhaps the first to articulate it in print but before that in Tay Garnett's STAND-IN, there's a scene where Leslie Howard's young executive has to undergo an "audition" by a young girl in a tutu(guided by a "stage mother") strutting like a showgirl, her mother describing her as "the next Shirley Temple". Shades of the Polanski scandal there.

Greene's lack of interest in Hitchcock, stemmed from his liking for Lang, he even liked his American movies.

As for John Ford(who later directed Shirley in FORT APACHE, her finest adult performance) the story didn't end there, he absolutely refused to see THE FUGITIVE(adapted from The Power and The Glory) deploring what he felt was the terrible censorship which turned the fornicating "whisky" priest into a celibate played by Henry Fonda. Ford tried as hard as he could to imply an affair between Dolores del Rio and Fonda but the censors wouldn't have it. The film is still great though, visually, it was shot by Gabriel Figueroa who later worked for Bunuel.

Arthur S. said...

On correction, the "he" in the third paragraph refers to Graham Greene, re-reading it, its not very clear.

X. Trapnel said...

Greene deserves film critic immortality for noting John Boles' "plump, white waste of face"

Vanwall said...

Greene was a helluva writer, true, but I always got a sense he wasn't obsessed so much with sex, as he was obsessed with failure - whether meeting sexual desires or material or spiritual ones, he just plain didn't like the human condition. He had an eye for the least in men and women, and often it was conveyed with a sexual tone, something common enough in real life. Greene's movie reviews were as much about the failure of various elements as they were about any recommendations to view any of them at all, and he had no tolerance for bowdlerizing, true; but M X got it right on the nosey - failure to have a useful face fit right in.

I hate to say it, but altho Greene perhaps was to impolitic in his review, sadly, he is only enumerating a factor that just doesn't die, it goes on. Squickily.

X. Trapnel said...

V, you got it right about Greene and failure. I always think of Greene as a man out of his time, a belated Edwardian, half decadent, half adventurer who found himself misplaced in the grayness of England between the wars. Like Waugh and Robert Graves (and unlike the "committed" 30s generation [please, let's have no talk of Greene's politics; it was all dandyism and his anti-Americanism was mainly aesthetic]) he seemed to occupy a self-invented inward elsewhere at what he thought to be the dangerous edge of things, thus the constant theme of spying, border crossings (literal/metaphorical) and betrayal. All very cinematic and there's no modern author who's career is so entwined with film.

For a very hostile view of Greene see the character Querrell in john Banville's brilliant novel The Untouchable.

Steve said...

I don't know...maybe it's my "kinky wont," but whatever his obsessions, in this passage I think Greene really nailed a particular kind of depravity that carries on even today in pre-pubescent beauty pageants of the kind ineptly parodied in "Little Miss Sunshine." Dressing up little girls like adults, getting them to flirt and wiggle and wink knowingly--ugh and double ugh. You can say Temple did it better than anyone, but it's what she's doing that still freezes my blood. (Caveat: haven't seen this particular movie, but others by Temple).

X. Trapnel said...

No question Greene's comment was prophetic, hinting at creepiness to come (J.B. Ramsay, father-daughter virginity pledges). Kingsley Amis ridiculed Greene by citing his own adolescent indifference to Shirley T., saying in effect that if a 13-year-old boy can find nothing sexy there, there's nothing sexy to find.

Nora said...
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The Siren said...

Oh yes, I will concede the point about some others; Bright Eyes also comes to mind. But Greene wasn't reviewing those other films. He was reviewing this movie, and he's dead wrong about WWW.

Flickhead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flickhead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DavidEhrenstein said...

Not so much "inconsistent with childhood" as bait for pedophile adults.

Out culture rlentlessly sexualizes children. Graham Greene called it -- and suffered the consequences for it. What he wrote remians The Greatest Piece of Film Criticism Ever Written becuase it was more than an "opinion" and was udnerstood as such. Graham Greene was kicking ass and taking names. That we have resolutely chosen to ignore him has led to Jon-Benet Ramsey, and countless others.

Little Miss Sunshine is a happy ocrrective to this mass delusion. But it continues unabated as a recent edition of Kathy Griffin's My Life on the D-List has shown in in grat detail.

DavidEhrenstein said...

THE COMPLETE VERSION:

Graham Green published the following review of Wee Willie Winkie. Both he and the magazine "Night and Day" were sued by Shirley Temple's studio and her guardians. The magazine was bankrupted and Greene fled to Mexico, where he found the material for his novel, The Power and the Glory (filmed by John Ford as The Fugitive). When Greene's film criticism was collected in the volume "The Pleasure Dome" this review was omitted.

Night and Day, October 28, 1937 The Films by Graham Greene

Wee Willie Winkie

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders — their property diminishes in value every year. Time's chariot is at their backs: before them acres of anonymity. What is Jackie Coogan now but a matrimonial squabble? Miss Shirley Temple's case, though, has peculiar interest: infancy with her is a disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece — real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant's palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep.

It is clever but it cannot last -- — middle aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire. "Why are you making my Mummy cry?" - what could be purer than that? And the scene when dressed in a white nightdress she begs grandpa to take Mummy to a dance - what could be more virginal? On those lines in her new picture, made by John Ford, who directed The Informer, is horrifyingly competent. It isn't hard to stay to the last prattle and the last sob. The story — about an Afghan robber converted by Wee Willie Winkie to the British Raj — is a long way after Kipling. But we needn't be sour about that. Both stories are awful, but on the whole Hollywood's is the better."


In short as Greene shows that Temple's appearance is designed to appeal to -- purely purient interest in the sexual satisfaction to be derived from spanking her.

Casey said...
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panavia999 said...

Totally agree with Vanwall's comment on Greene! I'm not familiar with his film criticism but love his novels and autobio.
Graham Greene has a point about Shirley Temple movie characters, even if he went overboard. The movie where his snide comments resonate with me is "Susannah of the Mounties". If you compare characters played by Shirley Temple and Sybil Jason, the plots are often similar: little girl charms older man, but they both give different impressions. Over all, I don't worry about it. I love movies by both actresses and love to watch them when I need a fix of 'cuteness'.
Then and now, lots of people find something disturbing in the "Baby Burlesque" shorts, but I don't see any problem. Little kids love to mimic adults and the shorts are just another style of parody.

Yojimboen said...

Today, Fox would use it on the poster:

“DIMPLED DEPRAVITY!!”
Graham Greene

Much as I love Greene, David, I’m not sure I’d call it the best piece of film criticism ever – superb prose, without question (we expect no less from GG), but I’d hesitate at “best”. At his bitchiest/funniest Greene doesn’t come close to John Simon on an off day.

If anything, it’s kind of mild, Greene leaves quite a bit of room for real savagery; besides the reek of editorial interference, it suffers from its time and place (1937 in a small magazine which went bankrupt rather than contest Fox’s and Temple’s lawsuits).

Still, I’d love to have seen Greene’s first draft.

A couple of fun items:

…And John Ford who resented Daryl Zanuck assigning him to direct Shirley in Wee Willie Winkie (1937) came to respect the child's work ethic. Zanuck rightly blamed Ford's bad influence when Shirley started to address the short mogul as "Uncle Pipsqueak."

Gertrude [Shirley’s mother] would demand that the studio cut any scene where another child looked better than her daughter. This caused great distress for other parents who retaliated by starting a rumor that Shirley was actually a 40-yr-old midget with three kids.”

DavidEhrenstein said...

It's the greatest because the studio sued him.

As a working film critic for over 40 years I DREAM of someone finding my work so important that they would sue me over it.

The Siren said...

David's last comment made me laugh, a lot. I dislike Internet bloodletting and I have no such ambitions; I always tell people that I prefer to write about dead artists and ones too old to fight back. My friends who write about contemporary movies spend a fair amount of time reading emails from wounded egos. I'm also reminded of another friend who got attacked on a certain well-known Breitbart site and spent the next day on Twitter proclaiming things like "This is the best day of my life!" But it is true that an attempt to suppress a review is a very high form of compliment, and one most critics will never experience. I repeat, Winkie in no way strikes me as prurient. I think Greene had a lot of stored-up animus from watching a number of Temple films and he was determined to unload it all on her next vehicle, even one that had Winkie's immense dramatic and visual merit.

But I do admire Greene's nerve here, and I'd be hard-pressed to come up with another review as fearlessly contrarian as this; maybe Kael on Shoah?

Arthur S. said...

Say David, didn't you get trouble from Tom Cruise over one of your books about his following in the gay community. I read that on your wikipedia page.

Isn't that your Graham Greene moment?

Yojimboen said...

“…and I'd be hard-pressed to come up with another review as fearlessly contrarian as this; maybe Kael on Shoah?”

Ah, ma chère Madame… How about Kael on two-thirds of her oeuvre? There was about the lady I submit much less fearlessness than contrarianism (remember, this is the critic who called The Red Shoes ‘kitsch on stilts’ and Brian de Palma a genius).

The finest analysis of P Kael for me is to be found in Louis Menand’s brilliant essay on her memoir “For Keeps” in the Mar 1995 NYRB.

The coda of course was that the ever-indestructible H’Wood Establishment figured out how to pull her canines – they hired her as ‘consultant’.
Sic transit Pauline.

Tom Block said...

I wouldn't call Kael's review of Shoah contrarian--her points are well reasoned, and she took pains to acknowledge the subject matter's emotional difficulty for many people. Raising Kane hits me as the very definition of contrarian (which I take to mean "desirous of pissing people off"), but the Shoah piece reads like a genuine case of someone not liking something at a time most other people are heaping praise on it. She's obviously aware of the fact, but she handles it pretty responsibly for her--her writing there is as gingerly as the lady got.

panavia999 said...

"I think Greene had a lot of stored-up animus from watching a number of Temple films and he was determined to unload it all on her next vehicle, even one that had Winkie's immense dramatic and visual merit." That makes a lot of sense to me.
Back in the grand old days of National Lampoon magazine, Gahan Wilson had a feature on old Hollywood where he illustrated this concept VERY graphically: Sausage curled tot on a casting couch with an dirty old producer.

The Siren said...

Hmm, I think Tom is right; with regard to the Kael review of Shoah, I was using contrarian in its simplest sense, of being opposed to the majority, but it carries connotations of obstinacy or opposition for its own sake that I didn't intend. Pace the very esteemed Yojimboen, I don't think of Kael as contrarian in that sense at all. I don't doubt her sincerity for a minute, whether she is panning Shoah (a review I thought had merit) or dissing The Red Shoes (I need hardly explain to any regular reader that I don't share THAT view at all). In fact I agree with Kael probably only about 50-60% of the time, and it may be lower on certain types of movies. Often I read a Kael review and there's three sentences that perfectly express something I was never able to articulate, and then several others that make me wail "Wait a minute!" That's why I never tire of reading her, and I never suspect her of just wanting to piss people off--even with Raising Kane, which is a book that I have some *vehement* disagreements with.

For that matter, as panavia says, I don't think Greene was being contrarian in the sense of "cussed" either. He had something he really, really wanted to say, and boy did he say it.

Trish said...

Most of the time I'm impatient with child actors because they come across as being too affected. Shirley Temple is the exception. She is genuine, is reliable as a sunrise, and her enormous heart never wavers. And she does look adorable in that kilt.

SteveHL said...

Yojimboen, thanks for the link to the Menand essay, which I had not read previously. I agree with much of what he says but I am amazed that he finds Kael "hardly ever funny". To me, that is contrarian.

Noel Vera said...

Sued for what I've written, no; had an entire article struck out because it attacked the editor's friend and quitting as a result, yes.