Two Awards, Plus a Film Plug

About two years ago, before this blog was launched, an online publication presented without any introduction a short film that I could not stop watching. It was an insomniac night and I no longer remember the name of the publication that made the insomnia worthwhile. (Buzzfeed, perhaps?) I think the only thing the publication said about it was that it was “narrated by Siri,” the iPhone voice, and that it was weird.
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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.

100 Years with The Tramp

One hundred years ago this month, Charlie Chaplin developed his most important creation, the Tramp. He started with the costume, and with it came the character, or the beginnings of one. On January 10, 1914, the Tramp, wearing what soon would be his globally recognized outfit of baggy pants, too-small derby hat, bendy cane, and little mustache, made his public debut in front of a crowd at a youth car derby in Venice, California. A film of his antics, “Kid Auto Races in Venice” was released a couple weeks later, in February.

The Tramp came to Chaplin fully formed, it appears. Not only is the costume complete in the movie but his full array of gestures—the twirl of the cane, the dismissive tip of the hat, the flat-footed walk, a kick of the leg to turn his body entirely around—is seen. (There is one prop and one gesture that are unfamiliar to viewers of today, though, and they did not stay with the character: he is seen smoking cigarettes throughout the short.)

“Kid Auto Races in Venice” is merely a series of unrelated scenes of the Tramp interfering with a film “crew” recording the day’s “Junior Vanderbilt Cup” races, an actual event taking place that day; in reality, the crew were actors and the real crew was unseen, giving us a very early example of a film within a film, a fictional documentation of a real event. The Tramp keeps sneaking into the camera frame, as if he wants to be in the movie, any movie, but before he can do more than mouth a “Hi” into the lens or primp himself up, he is pushed to the ground, pulled away, chased off.

(Here is all six minutes and nine seconds of “Kid Auto Races at Venice”):

In one five-second long sequence, he pushes a child out of the way so he can be seen alone on camera, flashes a quick “It’s okay” palm at the off-screen urchin, primps for the lens, and then reacts to a wad of paper thrown at his head by the child by wielding his cane like a spear. The child is spared by two film crew thugs who shove Charlie out of frame. Five seconds. It is sloppy–the child is off camera, after all, and the gestures are wild–but it is slick. A lot happens quickly. The moment is also a little mean, and that can be a surprise for someone whose main association with the Tramp is him holding the Kid in “The Kid,” made in 1921.


Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in “The Kid”

Some of the crowd, there to watch the races on the streets of Venice, California, were confronted by the sight of this one oddly dressed little man and what appeared to be two film crews photographing him (the real one and the “real” one). Onscreen, the spectators frequently ignore the cars zooming by to look at both foreign objects, the actor and those cameras and it often looks like the cameras were winning the attention of the crowd over both the cars and Chaplin.

He and the Mack Sennett crew were filming “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” when the studio decided to send the Tramp out into the world and visit the Venice races, and today, January 10, is the 100th anniversary of that debut. In February 1914, “Kid Auto Races” was released, followed two days later by “Mabel’s Strange Predicament.”

By the end of 1914, Chaplin would make another 33 films and become a national star; by the end of 1915, there were 13 more and his character was an international icon. In all, the Tramp appeared in 65 Chaplin shorts or features, ending with 1936’s “Modern Times.” (In “The Great Dictator,” from 1940, both his Jewish barber and the dictator Adenoid Hynkel certainly bear more than a passing resemblance to the Tramp.)

Chaplin was hired by Sennett at the end of 1913 and only instructed to be funny and look older. (He was 24.) He already had made one film for Sennett, “Making a Living,” in which he wore a walrus mustache and top hat (and complained that his best takes were cut out of the finished movie, forecasting future conflicts), and was making his second, “Mabel’s Strange Predicament,” when he was called to the set. In the rather cinematic version of the story he wrote in his “Autobiography,” published in 1964, Chaplin describes the moment:

I had no idea what makeup to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter [in Making a Living]. However on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small mustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression.I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born.

Chaplin tended to romanticize his life story and he certainly had every right to, fifty years after the moment of his greatest creation. But the Tramp of these first Sennett one-reelers is not yet the plucky Everyman, he is by turns mean and put upon, apoplectic and self-centered. The one element already in place that would remain till the end of his career is the Tramp’s anti-authoritarianism: whoever is in charge–a film crew or the police, most especially the police–is there to be laughed at, evaded, escaped from, ignored, or swung at. Sometimes in a single gesture.

Film lovers would not be laughing at and studying Chaplin’s films one hundred years on if the Tramp had remained the pointlessly vain and strangely gymnastic dolt seen in “Kid Auto Races,” but this short movie shows more than a glimpse of what was to follow, for Chaplin and film. And it was made one hundred years ago today.