Shirley Temple passed away a little over a week ago. Now that some time has gone by, though, I thought I would take this opportunity to repost a hilarious 1937 review written by Graham Greene of her movie Wee Willie Winkie. Greene, one of the great British authors of the twentieth century — and there were many — wrote with such searing cynicism and shocking innuendo that Temple’s guardians ended up suing him. He was practically forced to leave the country.
This reposting should not be seen as some sort of final dig at Temple shortly after she died. Indeed, it’s more of commentary on the whole Hollywood industry of the child star, which has claimed so many over the years. And in fact, Shirley Temple is one of the very few who did successfully transition into adult life without completely losing it (an all-too-familiar story for child actors who the studios chew up and spit back out).
Many thanks to Angela Nagle for bringing this to my attention, in any case. She writes:
Graham Greene on Shirley Temple’s pedo-y fans and promoters, for which he got in a lot of trouble and had to emigrate. Although I dislike how Greene’s cynical view here has become standard today, his bloody minded writing style is perfection. You can imagine how scandalous this must have been in 1937.
Night and Day
Oct. 28, 1937
The owners of a child star are like leaseholders — their property diminishes in value every year. Time’s chariot is at their backs: before them acres of anonymity. What is Jackie Coogan now but a matrimonial squabble? Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has peculiar interest: infancy with her is a disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece — real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a [Marlene] Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant’s palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep.
It is clever but it cannot last. 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. “Why are you making my Mummy cry?” — what could be purer than that? And the scene when dressed in a white nightdress she begs grandpa to take Mummy to a dance — what could be more virginal? On those lines in her new picture, made by John Ford, who directed The Informer, is horrifyingly competent. It isn’t hard to stay to the last prattle and the last sob. The story — about an Afghan robber converted by Wee Willie Winkie to the British Raj — is a long way after Kipling. But we needn’t be sour about that. Both stories are awful, but on the whole Hollywood’s is the better.