Wednesday, February 12, 2014
In Memoriam: Shirley Temple, 1928-2014
It was a day that, due to some long-forgotten domestic dust-up, required distraction, and the Siren sat her boy-girl twins in front of the computer and began to frantically search Youtube for something that would quiet them down. Here’s what she found.
The boy soon wandered off to fetch a toy. The girl sat quietly, so quietly that the Siren figured maybe she was too bored to move. When the video ended, Alida slid forward, pointed to one of the other videos on the sidebar and said, “Her. I want to see more of her.”
We watched about a half-dozen more clips.
My daughter still loves Shirley Temple. When the Siren broke the news that 85-year-old Shirley Temple had died, she cushioned the blow by reminding Alida that we still have Adventure in Baltimore to watch on the DVR, and that surely TCM would be running a tribute day (they are, March 9th). At age 10, she’s seen almost as much Temple as the Siren has.
On that first day surfing Youtube, it swiftly became obvious that Alida liked the dance routines with Bill Robinson best, proving she’s the Siren’s daughter all right. Alida was only four; thus the Siren was spared the need to explain that in the 1930s, the only white partner an adult black man was going to get onscreen was a little girl, and even that caused consternation. Also, since we weren’t watching the whole film, the Siren also didn’t have to explain The Little Colonel’s treatment of its black characters, a task that even now could send the Siren to bed with a sick headache.
All the same, their dancing together was, in its way, revolutionary. When the Siren was a kid, Just Around the Corner was one of her favorites. This number still charms — Bert Lahr stretching his mouth out like an animatronic clown, and Robinson charging down that staircase is thrilling. When Robinson and Temple start to dance, their off-camera regard for each other is apparent. There are all kinds of little ways dancers have of giving each other respect. Look at how, at just before the 1:50 mark, the number’s timing goes just the merest hair off, and they steady each other so fast you could miss it, if you haven’t watched Just Around the Corner three dozen times during your childhood.
Temple represented not only FDR’s remark about a baby who could help Americans forget their troubles, but also the movie studios’ banking on wholesomeness once the Production Code came down. Financially, that was an excellent bet; in the years that Shirley Temple was the world’s biggest movie star, the box office recovered from the slump it had endured in the early 1930s. It was a good bet for Temple, too, money-wise. She’s said to have made about $3 million during her years at the top, although a lavish lifestyle and bad investments depleted that nest egg before she had kids of her own.
Temple’s mother was by all accounts the driving force behind her child’s career. Little Shirley’s first films were Baby Burlesks, the misspelled title conveying the nature of the enterprise. Made at Educational Pictures, where Buster Keaton would wash up a few years later, the shorts are relics of another time when putting kids in adult costumes and scenarios was considered cute. Worse than the Burlesks themselves were the techniques, if you can call them that, used to control the tiny players. The parents weren’t allowed on set, and Temple later recalled that if a child misbehaved, she was shut in a windowless room with nothing to sit on but a block of ice.
Once Temple moved on, her mother was a constant presence; Allan Dwan, who directed Temple in Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, recalled that Gertrude Temple would run lines with the little girl at night. Shirley was always letter-perfect by the time the cameras rolled, ready to prompt with the right line if an adult actor blew his cue. “We hated her for that,” said Alice Faye, co-star in Poor Little Rich Girl. Adolphe Menjou complained that Shirley, age 6, was upstaging him in Little Miss Marker, and she did, although if you’re gonna steal a scene from somebody, Adolphe’s a fine choice of target.
The Siren’s said this before, but give it a rest, please, with the stuff about sublimated sex in Shirley Temple movies. It makes the Siren want to coo, “My goodness, they just can’t slip any subtext past you, you wised-up sophisticated old thing! Next thing you’ll be telling me that war movies are homoerotic and Busby Berkeley’s chorus lines remind you of fascist rallies!” It’s been done.
And Graham Greene offers nothing to explain to anyone why Shirley Temple still has the ability to stop a crabby little girl in her tracks. Admittedly, it’s not necessarily easy from a distance of 80 years for an adult cinephile to figure out what the big deal was. Her early vehicles make Busby Berkeley look like a model of narrative logic. In something like Bright Eyes or Captain January, all you do is watch everybody defer to Temple. Sometimes the Siren can swear the gnashing of adult actors’ teeth is audible on screen, and not just Adolphe Menjou’s.
The appeal lies partly in the mystery of star quality, something Sheila O’Malley describes well: "She was a phenomenal performer. It is impossible, still, to watch her movies and not get sucked into who she is being, what she is bringing to the screen." When the Siren was in acting school, the catchphrase was “give it away.” Temple gave — gives — everything in a scene.
Children learn quickly and painfully that the world does not revolve around them. A kid watching a Shirley Temple movie gets a much sweeter version of life: A little girl who stops the show every time she sings or dances, and when the orchestra lays down its instruments, she runs around straightening out the adults. It was enchanting to the Siren, when she encountered Temple on TV; it shouldn’t have been surprising that Alida, and a very young acquaintance of David Cairns, were also ensnared.
As Temple got older, the musical numbers became less frequent and often less elaborate. But the essential elements are still there. There’s always a little girl facing off against people who are not truly evil, they are just in an extremely bad mood. Shirley knows how to fix that, through the all-conquering might of her childhood pizzazz. After singing and tapping her way through the early Fox musicals, Temple was ready to get a paralyzed child walking again in Heidi and to make a dour farm family sparkle in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. In the wonderful Technicolor The Little Princess, Shirley could even call someone back from the afterlife, as her father (emphatically dead in the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel) reappears in a hospital, a mite banged up by the Boer War but otherwise ready for his closeup.
Is it the least bit surprising that in Wee Willie Winkie (still the Siren’s favorite) Shirley handily solves an Indian diplomatic crisis? No wonder the adult Temple could sail through Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution as the American ambassador.
David Cairns also mentions that Mark Cousins, in his Story of Film, alleges (David's paraphrasing) "that Temple is too performative, not natural enough." The Siren doesn’t understand that at all. Critiquing Shirley Temple for being too performative is like yelling at Lassie for shedding. It’s what she does. How long, oh lord, how long must we suffer the notion that the best acting, child or adult, is always “natural” or “realistic”?
Cousins’ point, however, is an explanation sometimes offered for why Shirley didn’t make it as an adult actress, aside from the fact that she grew up. But the Siren disagrees with those who say Shirley grew into a bad actress. She glows in Since You Went Away, playing a 13-year-old with a crush on (of all God’s earthly people) Monty Woolley. John Ford thought well enough of her, years past Wee Willie Winkie, to give Temple a key role in the magnificent Fort Apache. In The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, her comic timing is on a par with that of co-stars Myrna Loy and Cary Grant, and the number of actors who can claim that is vanishingly small.
Temple faced three much bigger factors as she aged (and yes, that’s a mighty strange thing to write about an actress who basically retired when she was 22). The first was poor script quality; Ronald Reagan all but apologized for That Hagen Girl in his autobiography. And that problem probably stemmed from this one: Nobody knew what to do with Temple. She was still lovely, but the movies that made her name were already associated with a vanished time. There was a war on, and then it was over, but people still remembered the Temple of lollipops and animal crackers. Mickey Rooney, one of but a handful of child stars who ever experienced Temple’s level of fame, managed to make some highly credible noirs. When Deanna Durbin tried that in Christmas Holiday, even decent box-office receipts couldn’t persuade anybody that here was her future.
Hence factor number three: On some level Temple, like Durbin, had had enough.
Who can blame her for that? There’s something sad about such professionalism at a young age, the idea of a little girl crying when the director calls “Action,” instead of over spilled ice cream or a playroom squabble. (Dwan said if you wanted Temple to cry, all you had to do was tell her to imagine never seeing her mother again.) But Mrs. Temple, ambitious though she was, somehow kept Shirley grounded. The greatest testimony to that is how the little girl handled adulthood when it finally arrived.
In 1998 Shirley Temple Black, looking gorgeous, was a Kennedy Center honoree. In part one, look at the ovation she gets! The joy, the affection in that audience is glorious. And when every tap-dancing kid in America comes out to perform “The Good Ship Lollipop” in part two, watch for when they cut to her in the balcony — and Shirley Temple Black, almost 70 years old, is singing along and bopping to the music, happy to still be giving happiness. That’s it right there, what made her a star, and why she’ll always be one. Her. I want to see more of her.