In Praise of Shirley Temple



Okay, so we are better off knowing the truth. 

But who knew how few of our most cherished illusions would — with the almost complete erosion of the distinction between public and private — survive the light of day?  Our heroes are unceremoniously unmasked as sleaze balls. Foods that we have eaten with abandon are revealed to have been slowly killing us. Celebrities whose lives we have watched and envied have turned out to be anything but enviable. 

For the most part, this is not a bad thing.  We are  still allowed our heroes, but we have no choice but to view them in the fullness of their humanity and the complexity of their character. 

That is why I tenaciously cleave to several illusions that no amount of fact or truth will ever dislodge. I cherish them too much, and refuse to ever let truth intrude on joy.

Which  leads to Shirley Temple.

By the time I was growing up, Shirley Temple’s films were already several decades old.  But they were shown repeatedly on television in Los Angeles, and for my sisters and me they were sheer joy.  She could sing, she could dance, and her singing and speaking voice could melt the heart of even the most crotchety old cynic.  I loved her.

And it’s not that this love was so easy to maintain.   Her charm was probably infinitely more saccharine than I will ever admit.  Very much in the spirit of the times in which she worked; black characters in her films were jesters, clowns, or fools. 

And, most controversially, there probably was something more than a little icky about a flirtatious eight-year-old wiggling and jiggling across the screen.  In a now famous 1937 paragraph, the author Graham Greene wrote words that engendered enough rage to force his immediate escape to Mexico.  But he probably was onto something:

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.

To watch a Shirley Temple movie is, sadly, to see the origins of those atrociously over-sexualized “Jon-Benet” beauty pageants that were so deliciously lampooned in the film  Little Miss Sunshine.

But I loved her and I always will. She made me happy. She made me laugh. And while at 10 years of age I didn’t really understand the notion of romance, I probably got my first inkling of it when I heard her sing a song that, to this day,  can  get me misty-eyed.