It’s said that Shirley Temple is responsible for one of Graham Greene’s least good but most Catholic novels The Power & The Glory. In the late 1930s an impoverished Greene, scrounging for rent money, became the film critic of a small London-based cineaste magazine Night and Day. He was a pretty good reviewer. He was also brave and careless with language in an England where even today it’s almost impossible for a defendant in a libel action to win. (Which is why the Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh’s son Auberon called the English libel law a “crooks’ charter” where accusers don’t even pay tax on their winnings.)
Poor Graham went to see Shirley Temple in Wee Winnie Winkle and wrote a review with his cock not his brain. “Miss Shirley Temple’s …infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult… 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…the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity….” Oh yes, dimpled depravity.
Actually, it’s a great review pointing to the fetishization of little girls to feed the lascivious appetites of “middleaged men and clergymen” drooling over this “fancy little piece.” Considering what today’s music videos, fashion industry, TV and movies do to prepubescent girl children, you might see Greene’s review as prophetic.
That’s not how the Lord Chief Justice saw it in the inevitable libel trial when 20th Century Fox and Shirley’s folks sued Greene and Night and Day. Of course he lost, liable for damages, and the Little Cinema Magazine That Could promptly folded. Fleeing the scandal and unable to fork over, Greene embarked on his lifelong habit of world travels, ending in Mexico which gave him the raw material for a novel about a whiskey priest who acquires holiness under torture by a socialist Mexican policeman. Greene, himself highly (and flagrantly) sexualized and a leftwing only-half-believing Catholic, would never again write so badly, but you can’t blame Shirley for that.
As a movie addicted balcony-bug kid I joined my gang when we ran to the toilets every time a Shirley Temple movie showed on the screen. Yuk, how embarrassing. Even then I suspect that we pre-adolescents somehow sensed not was all kosher with how the studio smacked its lips over darling little Shirley.
A pity, because now that I have a chance to see her films again on Turner Classics I can appreciate what a superb tap dancer she was, wiggling her fanny and all; and how overpowering was her infectious good cheer at a time when, God knows, our folks needed it.
Somehow, unlike other child stars, she survived her parents, a racist-sexist studio system and the pressure of being “America’s Darling” to become a remarkable, dignified grownup, mature and level-headed, commonsensical and courageous in medical adversity. Yes she was also a hawkish Republican married for 55 years to the same ultra-Republican guy. She went into public life with subdued panache and seriousness of purpose, and was a terrific ambassador in Ghana, whose revolutionary leaders at first rejected her, and to Vaclev Havel’s Czech velvet revolution where she played it cool and constructively.
Her domineering and money-grubbing mother used to command on the movie set, “Sparkle, Shirley!” And she sparkled all the way through to her very last days.
(Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.)