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.


Dan Oliver said...

Of all the things written about Shirley in the last couple of days, this one's the keeper.

rudyfan1926 said...
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rudyfan1926 said...

Beautifully written observations on Temple, her career and her appeal. I loved her, still do and loved the few moments I saw her locally. I'm sure I could have sailed up and spoken to her, but was too shy to do so.

VP81955 said...

She was the last surviving co-star of a Carole Lombard movie ("Now And Forever," 1934 --; there may be a handful of people still around who had minor or walk-on roles in Lombard movies, but I haven't been able to corroborate any.

The Siren said...

Vince, I was hoping this would draw you out! I was struck by that top still's poignance and had to use it. I didn't mention Now and Forever because I am not honestly not sure I've seen it; I would have to watch and see if my memory kicks in after 15 minutes or so, which is often the way for the stuff I watched when I was REALLY little. I love that Greek War Relief photo, and what a sad little cartoon.

The Siren said...

Donna, when did you see her? How old was she?

Dan, thanks so much. I've loved the huge outpouring for her. My own Twitter feed has been the all-Temple channel as I retweet tributes and photos.

CarolMR said...

Thank you so much for the Kennedy Center Honors clips. I started to get choked up. I'd never seen it before.

Anonymous said...

The news of Shirley Temple's death brought back memories of those early Saturday afternoons I used to watch her movies as a child. And although I found her talent astonishing in those 1930s films - especially her breathtaking dance routines with Bill Robinson - my favorite role still remains the one she did in 1947's "The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer". She damn near came close to stealing the picture from Myrna Loy and Cary Grant. And that's no mean feat.

StephenWhitty said...

Lovely of course, but I expected no less.

Of course, like most of us, I first saw Shirley Temple's movies on TV as a child, where they were a regular feature. I thought they were pretty wonderful, although I remember my mother -- who was a few years older than Temple -- still couldn't stand her. (I remember watching "Bright Eyes" with her, and Mom rooting for Jane Withers the whole time.) But I guess it wasn't easy to have been a gawky, lank-haired 10-year-old girl when adorable Shirley suddenly appeared.

Working up my own appreciation yesterday, I was struck by just HOW precociously professional she was. (It takes some doing to steal scenes from Adolphe Menjou, let alone have the mild-mannered Alice Faye half-mockingly say "She was brilliant... We HATED her.") A very very talented young woman.

I'm sorry that she walked away from it -- she's sweet in "Since You Went Away," and "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxier" has been able to crack me up for 40-odd years straight. ("Hoodoo? You do!") And yet the nearly 60 years she had afterward seems like the most fulfilling time ever. Too bad for us, of course, but good for her. Good for her.

monescu said...

I realize that you said "enough" with the sexual subtext thing, but I think that actually fits into another aspect of your second explanation for the decline of her career. Not only did producers not know what to do with her, neither did audiences. The young adult Shirley clearly had a nubile attractiveness, but she had facially changed very little from her childhood years (the roundness of the face, the shape of the nose). I'd suggest that many people were (at least subconsciously) uncomfortable with sexual attraction to the young lady who so insistently reminded them of the little girl they had adored on a different level.

Also interesting to note that the "performative" aspect of Shirley's acting is what allowed for the unique effectiveness in such roles as Susan in THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBYSOXER. I can mentally recast nearly the entirety of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER to the film's improvement, but I can't imagine anyone playing Susan Turner as well.

The Siren said...

Monescu, that's elegantly put, and quite plausible. She did have the same apple-cheeked look as a young lady; hell, she's got it in the Kennedy Center clip.

CarolMR, I watched that Kennedy Center thing live and BAWLED. They cut the best part, at the very end -- I swear that I remember a balloon floating near her, and she batted it back like a little kid.

Juanita, BATBS is sometimes called the last of the screwball comedies and in my book it's delightful enough to qualify.

Stephen, I loved your tribute too. Yes, Temple was absolutely loathed by a lot of little girls who didn't measure up, and one African American commenter here who was old enough to remember Temple movies when they came out once remarked upon how ambivalent he was about her. I understand both viewpoints. But those of us who love her, love her a lot.

Birgit said...

My mom was born the same year as Shirley Temple. My mom grew up in Germany and loved Shirley Temple and wished she had curly hair like hers. My mom was not into films (not like my dad) but she knew 2 people when I was young-Gary Cooper(she had a crush) and Shirley Temple. many, many years later she bought a movie set of her films to show to her granddaughter but she ended up watching them always herself and loved them. My mom, who now has dementia and can still recall the early days quite well would be heart broken to know that Shirley Temple died on her birthday. I will not tell her as that would be cruel. Shirley gave my mom happiness at a time when the worls was cruel. Shirley temple was amazing, simply put.

Muscato said...

Thank you for a lovely appreciation, and for those wonderful links. Her only rival as the Most Famous Little Girl in the world was Pickford, but unlike Mary, she actually was a little girl - and she survived the experience far better.

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Very well said, Siren! Here's a link from NPR Archives to an interview Shirley did with Scott Simon in 1986.

The Siren said...

Thank you Paul! I am seeing so many good links to Shirley stuff. Here is a link to a discussion of her late-in-life (for her TV series) version of The House of the Seven Gables.

And here's Buzz Osborne of the Melvins discussing what it was like to date Temple's daughter. The quote about her drumming and tap dancing is priceless. I wasn't able to work this one in for reasons that will be clear if you read.

The Siren said...

Muscato, true; Pickford was a child impersonator, one of the greatest ever. Here they are together:

And this isn't the best picture of them leaving the set of Since You Went Away, but you can see the wince-inducing headline it ran under: TWO GREATEST HAS-BEENS.

rudyfan1926 said...

Siren, I saw her a couple of times actually, once or twice (surprisingly) at Tower Records where I worked in Mountain View and another sighting in San Carlos. She was always a local presence I could swear I saw her driving along 101, too. This would have been in the 1970s and early 1980s. Sadly, I am not swanky enough or old enough to have run in the same circles when she was involved with the International Film Festival. I think, and I could be wrong, she might have also been at one of the screenings at the Vitaphone Theater in Saratoga, I met Olivia de Havilland there for a few moments and made a fangirl fool of myself.

Fausto Maijstral said...

Buddy Ebsen! I'd never seen that clip. That brightened the end of a long work day.

The Siren said...

Fausto, even my Ebsen-hardened-heart melts a bit at that one. It really is cute.

Donna, speaking of "fangirl fool," you should have seen me with Harry Belafonte. It's pure luck that I didn't genuflect.

Birgit, what a beautiful memory! There are several generations of people now who've grown up with Shirley Temple, and it's wonderful to think they are all over the world.

misospecial said...

I was waiting for your tribute, Siren, and it did not disappoint. I didn't realize how wide a net Shirley had cast in the past 80 years—I fell for her when I was a kid, in the '60s, watching movies rerun on TV (badly edited, with commercials). My mother was born in 1931 and so grew up with Shirley; there's a wonderful portrait of Mom, about 7, in full Shirley drag, and several of her friends have Shirley-style portraits as well. I saw a wonderful picture today of Yoko winning a Shirley costume contest when she was 3.

Shirley gave us those 46 films made before she retired at 22(!) and then another pearl beyond price: her own amazing second act, impressive for anyone but so absolutely the counternarrative to the child star who never recovers. This may sound strange, but if she could survive her success and then her inability to sustain it, could walk away from that horrible first marriage and build a happy family and then a successful career as a diplomat—goddamn, is all I got to say.

I think what has continued to attract the generations is what FDR was talking about, and it was more than how adorable and incredibly talented she was. It was her extraordinary reslience. I saw it today in her walk in War Babies, one of the Baby Burlesks. She was firmly planted on this earth and in her own skin.

God bless, Shirley, now into the light...

Vanwall said...

A lyrical tribute, O Siren.

I actually changed the way I went down stairs because of Shirley Temple, when I was a boy and caught a bit of one her films where she goes downstairs facing sideways with someone - maybe Bojangles or Ebsen. I practiced until I got so I was quick and almost dancer-ly going down. As I got taller, I turned into the two-steps-at-a-time kinda guy when going up, and darned if going down turned into the same thing, and I don't go tripping the light fantastic on the stairs without thinking about that Shirley Temple scene.

Say, I ran across this bit of fluff a while back, it's interesting:

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"How long, oh lord, how long must we suffer the notion that the best acting, child or adult, is always “natural” or “realistic”?

Testify, sister.

Lovely tribute. Years ago, caring for my elderly mother, I luckily found "The Little Princess" on TV. My mother was at the stage of her illness where quiet, comforting things were all she could handle, and this blast from her past (she was a Depression kid, too, but older than Shirley) was just the ticket. At the end of the film when Shirley finds her father, just a bit banged up from the Boer War as you say, I quite unexpectedly burst into tears (though I had seen the movie before and had never reacted that way). Feeling foolish, I turned to my mother to laugh off my tears, and saw that she (a reserved woman) was crying too. We laughed at each other, and my other, shaking her head muttered, "Jeez, that little kid could act."

I'll always be grateful to Shirley for that moment.

jwr said...

Youtube didn't have the march-and-drill scene from Winkie so I started an account just to post it. I'm sure most here have seen it but just in case.

Lovely tribute Siren, as per usual.

DavidEhrenstein said...

As is well-known round these parts,I'm in Graham Greene's corner

The culture's passive-aggressive prurient interest in pre-pubescent girls has reached a deafening crescendo of late with one Dylan Farrow and her stage mother Mia, about which I've been writing quite a lot. Here's my latest.

Did you ever get to look at Adventure in Baltimore, Siren? It was written by -- of all people -- Christopher Isherwood.

FDChief said...
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FDChief said...

I discovered her in my teenage years and from the lofty maturity of fifteen her juvenile films always seemed too childish and twee. I've since developed a greater appreciation for her early talents but never quite to the point of loving her or her child work. My loss, I suppose.

But I love the heck out of her late Forties work! Sshe goes toe-to-toe with the comic heavyweights in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and IS wonderful in Since You Went Away. I've also seen her do delightful work in a piece of postwar comic nonsense called Honeymoon; she really had the chops to make it as an actress in light comedy. It's too bad she didn't manage to keep working past the late Forties.

I should add, though, that it's also probably good that Pete McCloskey beat her for the 11th Congressional District in 1967.

She ran to his right - she was a pretty conservative Republican for the middle Sixties, not that she'd be considered "conservative" today, mind you - and so we remember the child star and the gracious apolitical hostess and not a more divisive conservative Congresswoman in the Nixon (and possibly the Reagan) Era.

My favorite story about her?

Anne Edwards' biography says that when she was invited to the White House in 1935 she shot Eleanor Roosevelt in the ass: "Temple and her parents traveled to Washington, D.C., late in 1935 to meet President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. The presidential couple invited the Temple family to a cook-out at their home in Hyde Park, New York, where Eleanor, bending over an outdoor grill, was hit smartly in the rear with a pebble from the slingshot Temple carried everywhere in her little lace purse." (Edwards, p. 81)

KennethCB said...

What a beautifully observed and moving tribute. Thank you.

Lemora said...

Oh well....another piece of my childhood gone. My dad was a musician, and whenever I watched him perform in a setting where drinks were served, I ordered a Shirley Temple. Shirley Temples are engraved upon my taste buds as one of the best parts of my childhood. I've got to watch "Since You Went Away" again, and I've never seen "The Bachelor And The Bobbysoxer." Got to catch that one too. My friend Joan, whose dad was a screenwriter in the twenties and thirties, got Shirley Temple's dresses from the wardrobe department of Paramount (think) and wore them during her 1930's childhood. I have a photo of Joan in one of them, though I can't tell which movie. I love the photo you use of her waving goodbye. I'm glad that she emerged from her childhood stardom as a strong and happy woman who led a good life.