Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Shirley Temple

Child Star by Shirley Temple Black

published 1988







[Child actress Shirley Temple is making the film Captain January, in 1936]

Where everything really exploded was with my hula. As a nubile island maiden, I wore a hula skirt and brassiere of slippery seaweed fronds, and swayed and swished until my costume seemed alive. Whatever my sins of suggestiveness, reviewers from the Mothers Clubs of America gasped in horror. The hula was immoral.

No studio wants to fly in the face of that sort of charge. The scene was re-written, the hula deleted, and I was refilmed, this time in tight-fitting trousers with flared bottoms and doing a sailor’s hornpipe.





You can’t please everyone. … Film critic Graham Greene [wrote] … ‘some of her popularity seems to rest on a coquetry quite as mature as Miss Colbert’s, and on an oddly precocious body, as voluptuous in grey flannel trousers as Miss Dietrich’s.’



observations: Shirley Temple Black died this week at the age of 85, having lived her life in fair obscurity (apart from some political and diplomatic work) since retiring from films more than 60 years ago. 


She was a massively successful star as a child actress in the 1930s, and her autobiography does a great job of telling her story. It is not clear whether she had ghost-writing help, but it seems likely that the tone is authentic – simultaneously matter-of-fact about her extraordinary life, funny and self-deprecating about some aspects of it, and appealingly pleased about a few of her achievements. She had experiences that were pretty much unmatched by anybody, and a good eye for what we might like to know about that. 

She tells us that she could remember where to stand on a film set because she would move till the studio lights on her face felt right, and that she could shed tears on demand. She explains what it was like to find out at age 12/13 that she was a year older than she thought she was because the studio had knocked a year off along the way. And what it was like to find out that her father had lost most of her money in bad investments. She is very un-self-pitying about this, and what really comes over is her fear that no-one ever believed that she had no money as an adult, and so her children were targets for kidnappers.

The films are problematic - the scenes where she tapdances with Bill Bojangles Robinson are wonderful beyond description, and supposedly she was the first white actress to be shown holding hands with a black man on screen. But the very-much-of-its-time racism is hard to take. And the extract above hints at an aspect that is again of-its-time but hard to take – the weird adult-ness of her performances, all somewhat JonBenet Ramsay. A later review by Graham Greene referred back to the one above, and called her ‘a complete totsy’ and said that her admirers ‘respond… to her well-shaped and desirable little body’. The film studio sued for libel and won – when the review was reprinted in 1985, the publishers still felt they had to put a disclaimer beside it. 
The story features in this blog entry, and Temple Black says in the book that the lawsuit was nothing to do with her – which presumably is true, as she was 9 at the time (though believing herself to be 8). Her use of 'nubile'  above is wince-making.

**ADDED LATER** In a comment exchange below, I said that we really needed Bill Selnes - lawyer, blogger and crime fiction fan - to put us straight on the legal aspects of this case. And he did! Do go and read his fascinating blog entry devoted to the case: it's here**

The book is a complete model of a filmstar autobiography, a pleasure to read. The films you can watch with a selective eye – enjoying the tapdancing, and ignoring the less attractive bits. And she sounds like a nice woman.

10 comments:

  1. Never could understand how Greene's publishers lost that suit really but them was different times (apparently).

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    1. WE need Bill to talk about the legal issues. I read the whole review yesterday, and was quite astonished by how harsh it was, and he did basically imply that the studio was pimping out her image to older males. I don't know if that is libellous! I'm all for free speech myself, but he probably did break the rules of the time...?

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  2. I'd struggle to name a film she was in and I'd be more surprised to find it would be one I'd seen. Relative obscurity seems a more desirable route to travel life, than what's befallen some other child stars........Michael Jackson, Macauley Caulkin, to mention two. Not that it always turns out badly.

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    1. Yes indeed, a much more respectable way to go. As they said in the Guardian today, no twerking no rehab.... I suppose Jodie Foster is the main other person who really handled the transition gracefully.

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  3. Sounds like a good autobiography, if I finish the 10 other celebrity bios (Rita Hayworth, James Stewart, Elvis -- two volumes, Peter Sellers) I have I may look for it. I like Shirley Temple for her tap dancing and her dancing partners; tap dancing in movies and short subjects is my thing.

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    1. I love this book: although her experience is completely unique, I think it gives you a lovely picture of American life in the 1930s and onwards. I do enjoy celebrity biog/autobiogs. Another of my favourites is Tammy Wynnette's.

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  4. Moira - Shirley Temple was a streak of sunshine at a time when people were desperate for it. Her experiences in some ways those of Judy Garland - another star of the same era. It's hard to believe in today's world just how vulnerable those child stars were. Or perhaps it's not. She will be missed...

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    1. Yes indeed - and as I said to Tracy, she's an important historical figure, telling us about the USA in the 1930s through her films as well as her life and her later memories.... She certainly handled everything very gracefully and graciously.

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  5. Moira: Hmmmm .... check my blog tomorrow evening. I will see what I can come up with on the case.

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    1. I knew we could rely on you! I'll be looking out for your post....

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