It’s hard to be an uncloseted fan of Shirley Temple these days if you’re a middle aged man. Yet, I have long proclaimed my fandom before all and sundry to the four corners of the Earth, and I am too old and stubborn to stop now. My mother, another longtime fan, is really the one who instilled in me a love for the young actress, singer and dancer, and I have seen almost all of her films, including the notorious “Baby Burlesque” shorts that launched her career. And so her death was a truly sad mile marker for me. But I don’t want to talk about my own connections to the 1930s-era child star. What I wish to do instead is outline what I think made Temple so special, and to do so we will need a bit of a history lesson.
To be sure, one can see even in Temple’s earliest work that she had that je ne sais quoi as the French say, that glimmer of something that one cannot quite put his finger on but nevertheless recognizes as a facet of greatness. It was with this quality that the little girl managed a nearly impossible feat: taming the monster that was the Great Depression for many of her contemporary fans. Now that we are in the 1930s, let us slip back even further in time: a few decades before Shirley Temple arrived on the scene, a peculiar but brilliant Victorian polymath–a mathematician, author, college professor and accomplished photographer, among other things–by the name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), a self-confessed admirer of young girls, penned a poem for a beloved 5-year-old of his acquaintance named Beatrice, in which he wrote:
For I think, if a grim wild beast
Were to come from his charnel-cave,
From his jungle-home in the East–
Stealthily creeping with bated breath,
Stealthily creeping with eyes of death–
He would all forget his dream of the feast,
And crouch at her feet a slave.
These lines perfectly sum up how a great many Victorians looked upon children. It is difficult for modern folks, with all of their cynicism and paranoia about child sexual abuse, to understand the Victorian Cult of the Child and what it was about. What it was really was an idea whose time had come, an essential stage of the Great Movement towards a more humane understanding and treatment of children. This admiration ultimately stemmed from the fact that children were idealized in the Victorian mindset, seen as possessors of a quality of spiritual innocence that, once lost, could never be regained in this life (and only if one lived a morally upright life, meaning a life that adhered to Christian values, could one be assured of regaining this magical property in the next world). As such, childhood and children themselves were almost worshiped, but this often had detrimental effects on real children, who were more often than not unable to live up to the moral standard imposed on them. More on this another time.
Anyway, there can be no doubt that one of the manifestations of this Victorian idealization of children was the inevitable fetishization of children’s–especially girls’–perceived sexual innocence, and indeed whenever we encounter descriptions or discussions of the rampant problem of child prostitution in Victorian England, France and America during the time, we almost always see it framed not as a matter of physical or psychological harm but as a matter of spiritual harm, a corruption of children’s innate connection to Divine Perfection. Unfortunately, this is where the origins of our modern understanding of the moral lives of children still lies to an embarrassingly large degree. Despite our improved understanding of children’s brains, kids themselves have had a hard time shaking off this quaint moral yoke, and even now almost every morality movement of any persuasion has as at the bottom of its manifesto a famously effective thought-terminating cliché, that chronically reconstituted but undying refrain “Think of the children!“
Here we are whisked back to the Great Depression, the dawn of the Child Star and the revitalization of a concept that had largely fallen out of favor with the arrival of Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalysis, which revealed children–albeit via notoriously fuzzy thinking–to be a seething cauldron of sexual weirdness that could be carried on into their adult lives. Why, then, did Americans embrace the Victorian concept of the Sainted Child during the 1930s? To me it is no mystery: both individuals and societies tend to swing conservative during bad times, likely owing to a chain of cognitive biases like the ambiguity effect (when facing the unknown, people tend to opt for the known), anchorism (overemphasizing an initial understanding of an issue and under-assessing new information) and of course risk compensation. And there was comfort and hope in the old idea of children holding the keys to the kingdom inside them, a generation that could possibly bring about the rebirth of Paradise under the right conditions, if only they could be shielded from those worldly evils which had surely instigated this new economic Fall of Man.
To put this in perspective, we should note that the economy had had recessions and depressions before, but nothing like the Great Depression. Although we have experienced a lesser depression (and seen a predictable rise in conservatism as a result), we have been largely isolated from the effects of our own depression in ways those who lived through the big one were not.
But throughout the majority of this horrific event, beginning in 1932, Shirley Temple was our nation’s fearless cheerleader, a pint-sized purveyor of America’s promise and a visible icon of the state of spiritual innocence we longed to return to. Now, this calls for a bit of clarification, as there may be a tendency here to conclude that Temple was only a symbol and nothing more, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of her story knows otherwise. For one thing, even as a child she was a certified genius, and we have the tests to prove it. She was tested during the filming of Stowaway (she would’ve been around age eight at the time) and was found to possess an IQ of 155. In comparison, physicist Richard Feynman, who was unquestionably a scientific genius, tested at 125! So Temple wasn’t just a cute, curly-haired moppet; she was also brilliant. And of course multitalented, which geniuses tend to be.
Despite the image of wholesome sweetness and innocence she projected, Temple was noted for her extreme professionalism, her polished performances and her maturity on set; and moreover, she seemed to be aware of the great weight she held as America’s darling, a true superstar who, whatever your opinion of her, did carry the financially strapped 20th Century Fox on her tiny back through the bulk of the Depression years and kept it from bankruptcy while other studios were falling down around them.
We cannot neglect to point out either that, even though she was young enough to deflect any serious accusations of promoting racial miscegenation, Temple shared the first on-screen dance with a black male partner (in The Little Colonel)–popular tap dancer extraordinaire Bill “Bojangles” Robinson–and therefore can be credited with breaking an important racial barrier on top of everything else. As a matter of fact, the chemistry between Temple and Robinson was so natural that the two played opposite each other in no less than four films, and the little girl is reputed to have been in tune with Robinson to a degree that she could mimic his tap moves just by hearing them!
In this light we cannot doubt that Temple was an important figure of the time, and at that point everyone–well, everyone with a heart–was a fan, including grown men. President Franklin Roosevelt spoke for an entire generation when he said, “As long as we have Shirley Temple, we’ll be alright.” Perhaps there was a subtle sexual element to many men’s fascination with her, but again, I think it is foolish and simplistic to suggest such things amounted to outright conscious lust.
Of course, there were bound to be some men who did feel that way, but that would’ve been true regardless of the prevailing zeitgeist. At any rate, anyone who suggested such a thing overtly was quickly derided, like critic Graham Greene when he wrote “Her admirers—middle-aged men and clergymen—respond to her dubious coquetry, to 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.” Greene’s attempt to demystify the relationship between adult male fans and the little girl star, although noble, aside from coming off as snarky and demeaning to Temple, fails to grasp the complexity of what was actually occurring. After all, the majority of Temple’s roles depicted her as a little ball of sunshine who cracked the stone-like hearts of stodgy, stoic men and let the light of love inside, forever changing them. In effect, the films of Shirley Temple were a new manifestation of the Victorian Cult of the Child; what was different was that the concept was now writ larger than life on the silver screen and so came packaged with all of the additional magic of cinema.
Meanwhile, Temple herself seemed impenetrable to darkness, including the sexual variety. When she was twelve, for example, and was visiting MGM studios (probably there to discuss the role of Dorothy for the upcoming The Wizard of Oz film, a role she obviously didn’t get), producer Arthur Freed exposed himself to her, and Temple, with her famous poise and cheeriness, reacted probably the best way anyone could react to a person who clearly meant to feed on her shock: she laughed at him and joked, “Mr. Freed, I thought you were a producer, not an exhibitor.” I can see in my mind’s eye Freed deflating–in more ways than one–in embarrassment at such a quip before tossing the girl out of his office, which is precisely what happened. Could it be that Temple lost what would arguably have been the biggest role of her life because she giggled at Arthur Freed’s goober? Perhaps, but even if that is true, it is still Shirley Temple who comes across as the winner here, because that story alone is worth ten Wizard of Oz‘s.
In this light we can better understand why so many people, including adult males, fell in love with her at the time. She was a distraction from the horrors of the Depression certainly, but more than that, her mere existence was an active force against them, and like Beatrice’s “grim wild beast”, the hell-hounds of Poverty and Want, of Cynicism and Despair, seemed to kneel before her while she pranced, curtsied and smiled in movie theaters across the nation.
Even after Hollywood no longer had any use for the child star and all but abandoned her, she rebranded herself before rebranding was a thing, making a new life for herself in the world of politics. I cannot say I agreed much with her political views, although she is of that generation of politicians who, whatever their political stripe, still possessed enough character and respectability to be likable and persuasive. There aren’t many conservatives I respect these days, but Shirley Temple Black was one of them. Needless to say, they are becoming fewer by the day as most of them belong to my grandparents’ generation (Temple was born the same year as my maternal grandfather, actually: 1928). And after all is said and done, neither Shirley Temple the child superstar nor Shirley Temple Black the wife, mother, author and politician ever fell below the horizon the way many child stars of later years did. It seems she was the closest thing we Americans have ever had to royalty, and right to the end our favorite Little Princess lived a pretty charmed life.
RIP Shirley Temple Black