People are always telling me that they hate Shirley Temple. I get annoyed, and so I try to head them off at the pass.
If their complaint is that she’s saccharine and stupid, I say things like: she was an American delegate to the United Nations during the Cold War. They say: no she wasn’t. And I say: yes, she served on the Social, Cultural and Humanitarian Committee. She also ran for Congress. She was the United States Ambassador to Ghana during the Ford administration, too, and then Ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s. They say: no she wasn’t. And I say: yes, yes, she was.
Then I say: did you know that she was raped by a top studio executive at Twentieth Century Fox? And of course they say no, and so I say: yes, it’s true, she was. Quite a few of them tried it on her when she took control of her own signings at 18. Afterwards, one particular executive came into her dressing room and told her they should get along, because he was going to be an important man at Fox soon. He said: “Sex is like a glass of water: You get thirsty, you drink. You want sex, you have it.” Shirley Temple is tough; Shirley Temple started taking her dogs into the studios with her to sign contracts.
That Shirley Temple was at the UN, ran for Congress, was tough, and was raped are of course no defence to charges of syrupy sweetness, but perspective throws people for a moment, and to give myself a little extra time I normally add: Shirley Temple’s youngest daughter Lori Temple Black was that death metal bassist Lorax in San Francisco in the 80s and 90s, did you know that? Normally, they did not know that.
Then I say: what’s amazing about Shirley Temple is that she really loved what she was doing. She was totally herself on screen, completely present in each moment. She never acted. She wasn’t a child actor in the way that kids are today, she didn’t perform her childhood; the only acting instruction she ever received was from her mother, who just said: Sparkle, Shirley, Sparkle. Shirley Temple just was.
Even in her very early films, the Baby Burlesks, which she filmed in 1932 when she was four—in one, Shirley is a scarlet woman in a war-time bar, doing raunchy dances for the other baby GIs, all of them dressed in ludicrous nappies fastened with enormous pins and ordering bottles of milk from the baby barman–you can tell she’s made for it. The baby GIs slap Shirley’s bottom and fight over her and she smacks them right back and waddles away.
Incidentally, they didn’t let the mothers on set during Baby Burlesks, and to control the cast of 24 toddlers they’d lock them in a completely dark, enclosed sound engineering box with a huge block of ice for company when they misbehaved. Shirley says the formula went like this: “Take one small, obstreperous child. Heat it under bright Kleig lights until perspiration starts. Remove child directly to the chill of the black box. Close door tightly and leave child in box until sufficiently cooled and chastened. Remove child, reheat under the glare of Kleig lights, and carry on with work.”
The Baby Burlesks were the start of a phenomenon, and the end of iced boxes. Between 1931 and 1940 she made 44 films; by the time she retired in 1949, at the ripe old age of 21, she’d made 57. Along the way, she single-handedly revitalised the American film industry, was the subject of multiple kidnapping threats, sang with a gun pointed at her head, performed the first interracial dance on film with long-time partner and friend Billy Bojangles Robinson—have you seen that staircase? Google it—employed two full-time secretaries to deal with her 10,000 weekly fan letters, got married at 17, divorced at 20, remarried at 21, met presidents, politicians and Amelia Earhart, and cost one of my favourite writers, Graham Greene, his position as film critic at the London magazine Night and Day.
Because that’s the other thing people normally say about why they hate Shirley Temple. She’s just too precocious. It’s weird. It’s sleazy. Right? Graham Greene thought so.
On October 28 1937, he wrote in a review of Wee Willie Winkie that, “infancy is with her a disguise, her appeal is more secret and adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece… 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. Her admirers, middle-aged men and clergy-men, respond to her dubious coquetry, 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.”
Oh, the adult subterfuge. On your knees, Graham Greene. Shirley Temple didn’t care about the review, and didn’t understand why they fired him, or, as she puts it, “released him permanently into the ranks of eminent novelists.”
When Shirley did quit movies at the ripe old age of 21, she was broke. By the time she got around to asking her father for her share of the three million or so she’d earned as a child, there wasn’t anything left. Of the countless of millions her films generated in the American economy, she ended up with $44,000. She shrugged, moved to a three-room walk-up flat in Washington with her second husband, and got on with the next part of her life. She never bitches and moans to the press, in fact, to save her father’s pride she didn’t even reveal what had happened until after his death. She’d loved what she was doing, she says. Money was never the point.
Inevitably, around about this point, people ask me why I care so much. They say: I mean, fine, but still? Honestly? Shirley Temple?
And if we get this far, I say: I remember, as a child, watching my aunt’s Shirley Temple films on the floor of her apartment in the days after she died of breast cancer, hour after hour of them winding across the screen, Little Miss Broadway, Susannah of the Mounties, Bright Eyes, The Little Colonel, and feeling my aunt’s ghost walking through the apartment behind me, laughing, because Shirley Temple always knew how to keep on going, right through the darkest years of the Depression. (She actually had a mastectomy in the 1970s, and was the first public figure to speak openly about her experience of breast cancer. I only found that out last week, but it made sense to me. In one of her radio pieces she just said: “Don’t sit at home and be afraid. Don’t sit at home and be afraid.”)