Shirley Temple and the Art of Obits

From 1934 to ’38, she was the biggest star, period. Anything with her image on it sold in the millions; you can still buy the “Shirley Temple doll.” Clark Gable, who finished in second to her year after year as most popular movie star, never had a hit song, and not many singers sold out movie theaters. Many a girl born in the period had to live for a time with her hair done in a perfect, bouncy mop (said to be 56 ringlets), whether or not her hair actually could be so styled.

Several obituaries for Shirley Temple Black yesterday included a quote like this one from people who lived through it: “That little girl danced us out of the Depression.” It is a true statement, both uppercase D and lowercase. More specifically, Shirley Temple sang and tap-danced 20th Century Fox from the edge of bankruptcy. In two dozen movies made in about five years, the country saw a child solve adult problems with a cute song, a dimply smile, and relentless optimism.

Even racism. As the New York Times noted in its own somewhat odd obituary (more on the oddness later), the child Shirley Temple “may have been the first white actress allowed to hold hands affectionately with a black man on screen in her staircase dance with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson in ‘The Little Colonel,'” which was made in 1935. Robinson, born in the Reconstruction South of the 1870s, was a stage star, the most successful black performer of the era to bridge the worlds of white and black audiences, if only by always appearing relentlessly cheerful, as relentlessly cheerful as his child co-star. Their pairing, across four movies, made history by suiting Hollywood’s logic.

Once the dimples faded, though, her movie career declined—she was still popular as an icon, but the sight of a teen Shirley Temple reminded audiences too much of time’s passing, and people had their own lives to remind them of that. (The era of money-making nostalgia was still far-off in our country’s future. Today, in which history is not valid unless it is memorabilia, how is it that there is not an annual “Great DepressionCon,” at which cosplay performers wander around the convention floor dressed as hobos? If there was, Shirley Temple Black would have been a huge attraction.)

The rest of her life, a truly event-filled 85 years of life, minus any of the “child-star becomes a teenager, discovers they are not God, enters rehab” sadness, is sketched briefly in all of the obituaries, like so: Married to a businessman, she officially ended her show business career by age 30, discovered that the millions she had earned had vanished in her father’s bad business decisions, ran for office and did not win, and served in many official public roles.

She was a political fundraiser of such great note that two Republican presidents named her to official posts, only to discover that she was actually a talented and dogged diplomat, much like the dogged problem-solver of a child she played in her movies years before. She was a delegate to the UN, ambassador to Ghana under President Ford, and ambassador to Czechoslovakia under the first President Bush. She was a co-founder of the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies, which sounds anomalous but her brother had MS.

But the New York Times, in its long-standing role of uncle who you like to chat with about current events at parties until he gets creepy, got creepy in its obituary. I admit that I have not seen many of the famous “Baby Burlesks” that brought Shirley Temple to her first fame, but after reading this paragraph, I do not think I ever saw any, not any at all:

In 1932, Shirley was spotted by an agent from Educational Pictures and chosen to appear in “Baby Burlesks,” a series of sexually suggestive one-reel shorts in which children played all the roles. The 4- and 5-year-old children wore fancy adult costumes that ended at the waist. Below the waist, they wore diapers with oversize safety pins. In these heavy-handed parodies of well-known films like “The Front Page” (“The Runt Page”) and “What Price Glory” (“War Babies”), Shirley imitated Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and—wearing an off-the-shoulder blouse and satin garter as a hard-boiled French bar girl in “War Babies”—Dolores del Río.

Later, after affectionately describing Shirley Temple’s partnering with Bill Robinson, the Times does this:

She may have been the first white actress allowed to hold hands affectionately with a black man on screen, and her staircase dance with Mr. Robinson in “The Little Colonel,” the first of four movies they made together, retains its magic almost 80 years later.

Not everyone was a Shirley Temple fan. The novelist Graham Greene, who was also a film critic, was sued by 20th Century Fox for his review of “Wee Willie Winkie” in the magazine Night and Day, which he edited. In the review, he questioned whether she was a midget and wrote of her “well-shaped and desirable little body” being served up to middle-aged male admirers.

Does the next paragraph reveal the outcome of this lawsuit? No it does not. (The movie studio won a few thousand dollars, which at that time was enough of a hit for Greene to close the publication.) “Not everyone was a Shirley Temple fan.” That’s quite a non-transition transition. In its lurching, whiplash style, the Times moves on to the end of Shirley Temple’s contract days, her relief at this, and then … therestofherlife. The Greene anecdote is deposited into Shirley Temple Black’s obituary like any other fact of her life, like the duration of her marriages, say, and then given the same weight as any other fact.

The story of Graham Greene’s ancient movie review is worth exploring on its own because it raises issues of child stardom, audience participation in the fetishization of a child star, especially a female one, and even libel law. Greene’s attempt to capture the uncomfortable specter of middle-aged people leering at a young body instead veered most uncomfortably into the specter of watching a middle-aged Graham Greene leer at a young Shirley Temple’s body (he calls her a “fancy little piece,” for instance), but its place in Shirley Temple Black’s obituary, out of context, seems to place us in the leering role. The Times uses Greene’s language to raise the issue, then does not follow through on the issue because why would we, this is an obituary. It is the prurient censor urging us not to think thoughts we may not actually be having while holding up a photo, pointing at it, and telling us not to look.

Shirley Temple, a child star whose image became immortal eight decades ago, and Shirley Temple Black, dead at age 85, probably deserve better.

2 comments

  1. wscottling · February 12, 2014

    I agree that the obit could have been better written (though I’ve seen the Baby Burlesk films and thought they were kind of cute actually). Shirley Temple has always been one of my favorite people. She will be missed.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Today in History: April 23 | The Gad About Town

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