Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Our Man in Mexico: Graham Greene and Deceased Artiste Shirley Temple

When Joan Fontaine died recently, the discussion among movie buffs naturally turned to the question “which Golden Age Hollywood stars are still among us?” Shirley Temple’s name was rarely if ever brought up, because she exited the business in 1950 (with a handful of “comeback” projects, including a TV show in the late Fifties), and her career — although massive at its height — didn’t last as long as those of Olivia de Havilland, Kirk Douglas, and the never-gonna-quit Mickey Rooney.

Still, Temple was the biggest child star of all time in America (“adjusting for inflation,” which makes the dimes spent going to the movies in the Thirties equal to the 12-14 bucks shelled out today).

She started attracting attention in the movies in the early Thirties, but her string of vehicles from 1933-38 made her a major star (from the ages of 5-10). She was a top box-office attraction from ’35-’38. The oddest bit of trivia: at the height of her fame, Fox had a 19-person team of writers at the ready to write Shirley’s vehicles (labeled the “Shirley Temple development team”).

In the Forties she became a pleasant teen performer, but the public wasn’t interested in seeing her star in films anymore; she did have nice supporting turns in Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) with her then-husband John Agar, and with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947).

Her most notable film from that era, for movie “mythology” reasons, is That Hagen Girl (1947), a melodrama in which Shirley is believed to be the daughter of a lawyer, played by ol’ Bonzo himself, Ronald Reagan. The film ends with the two of them — father-figure and daughter-figure — going off together as a romantic couple (in real-life Temple was 19, Reagan was 36, so it’s not that unusual in a H’wood pic, but I guess the fact that their relationship changed so radically as the picture went on soured viewers and critics).

Temple liked the film, but noted that Reagan didn’t, and that prints of it seemed to “disappear” when he was president. The film came out of “hiding” in the Nineties and is now available on YT in its entirety:

Shirley distinguished herself as a diplomat from the Nixon administration through that of George H.W. Bush (she was a steadfast Republican throughout her adult years) and made an important decision to publicly discuss her bout with breast cancer in the early Seventies (she of course won, living 40 more years). She was that rarest of birds in Hollywood: a well-adjusted child actor, whose adult life may not have been spent in show business, but who made important contributions to society.

And then there’s Graham Greene… One of the most interesting things from today's perspective about the critical perception of Shirley Temple at the time of her amazing stardom was a review that the Third Man novelist wrote in October 1937 about the Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie, directed by the mighty John Ford (who did what Fox told him to do) and based on a Kipling tale. At the time Shirley was wowing Depression audiences with her moppet cuteness and chipper attitude. Greene, however, saw something else in her stardom.

In Night and Day magazine, he wrote of Temple: "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 was hit with a civil libel suit by the producer of the movie and fled to Mexico to avoid being prosecuted for criminal libel (the magazine went out of business). From January to May 1938 he stayed in Mexico writing The Power and Glory and avoiding extradition for the libel suit. Even forty years later he was not “allowed” to have the piece about Temple appear in one of his collections of articles.

The thing is, is that Greene was right. There was an odd underside to Temple's amazing success. It may not be as apparent in her squeaky-clean vehicle pictures (although author Jeanine Basinger has noted that there were weird Freudian symbols in those too), but the early series of shorts that Temple made called “Baby Burlesks” were sleazy as all get-out.

The premise is that little kids were parodying the adult movie hits of the day – quite like the “Dogville” series of shorts in which dogs acted out the hits of the day! It's not as disturbing to see dressed-up dogs pretending to be sexy and giving come-hither glances, a la Dietrich and Mae West. It is a little bizarre for kids dressed up in giant diapers to do it.

To strengthen Greene's argument, one would need only producer the short below, which is surprisingly deranged for its time (1933, still pre-Code!). Excuse the crappy colorization (it seems that most of Temple's kiddie vehicles were colorized in the Eighties). “Polly Tix in Washington” is insane:

So now that I've proven Our Man in Havana correct, I'll close out on a much sleazy note with the scene that has my vote for one of the silliest musical numbers of any Thirties musical (I'm not including Busby Berkeley items in this, as those are too bizarrely weird and kinky, and possessed of a very singular genius, to be classified as simply “silly”).

It's the moment in the 1938 Shirley Temple vehicle Little Miss Broadway in which our heroine wants to convince a judge that her adoptive father's show is a great one – so they stage a number from the damned thing IN the courtroom! (Methinks Lars von Trier was a fan, or at least had seen this moment of sheer craziness.) Here it is, again badly colorized, but you'll get the idea. RIP to the original “Little Miss Sunshine.”

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