I’m A Little Sexpot, Short And Stout — Shirley Temple and Graham Greene

Shirley Temple’s movie studio 20th Century Fox successfully sued author Graham Greene for libel when he described her in a 1937 review of Wee Willie Winkie as “a fancy little piece . . . her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance; her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry . . . watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity.”

When I wrote about Shirley Temple Black in 1989, on the publication of her bestselling autobiography Child Star, I was shocked that anyone could label her a “totsy.” Every weekend of my young childhood her movies beamed out from the tiny black and white set my mom had in the living room of our shabby apartment. I was deeply in love with the little girl who was portrayed by Shirley Temple.

Shirley was everything I wanted to be, starting with the fact that she usually played an orphan. Cast loose from adults, she freely chose her companions from rogues: sailors, gamblers, soldiers and down-at-heels Vaudevillians. These ruffians got her into one fix after another, but with pluck and charm, she got out of every scrape. When I read Greene’s review in 1989 I was sure he had been joking. How could anyone accuse my sweet Shirley of coquetry? Particularly if his example was Wee Willie Winkie where Shirley played a brave little girl in the British Raj.

In 2014, though, we have YouTube and people can make up their own minds about Greene’s intent, as I have.

He cited Shirley’s first performance as a four-year-old in “Baby Burlesks”, short films that satirized big box office hits. In War Babies she was a pint-sized Dolores Del Rio in an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse, a rose behind her ear, super short padded diapers and a garter just below the knee. The other actors are  shirtless boys all under the age of five in similarly overstuffed diapers. As the boys belly up to the bar tossing back big glasses of milk, they all appear to want to make sweet love to Shirley. She dances around the barroom pausing from time to time to shake that well-developed rump in a twerking performance that is part Honey Boo Boo with a dash of Miley Ray Cyrus.

These films were meant to be broad comedy, but it’s hard to ignore the sexuality when Shirley is playing a character named “Morelegs Sweettrick” a play on Marlene Dietrich, in Kid N Hollywood .

And  Mademoiselle Cradlebait in the outrageously racist Kid N Africa.

I didn’t see these films when I was a child. They weren’t part of the weekend matinee fare available on local television. After Shirley Temple died Wednesday I searched out my favorite Shirley film, Poor Little Rich Girl, which I must have watched 20 times when I was young. From the first frame I saw on YouTube, I was back in that little girl feeling of wonder that Shirley was free in the world and very much on her own.

In Poor Little Rich Girl Shirley is only partially orphaned. Her mother has died leaving her in the care of her dashing leading man father, played by Michael Whalen. They live in an Art Deco world right out of a Noel Coward play with sweeping staircases and evenings spent in formal wear sipping cocktails. Shirley is hovered over by a fussy staff that sends her to bed each time she so much as sneezes. Those of us who were forced to stay home alone when sick could only dream of such restrictive affection.

At one point in Poor Little Rich Girl she and her father are listening to a radio program when a love song comes on. (The duet I’m referring to starts at 14:47 and ends at 18:02) Her father holds her inches from his face as he lip synchs, “Every street I walk along becomes a lover’s lane when I’m with you/I can see the sun though we’re out in the rain when I’m with you.” As he mouthed these romantic sentiments to his little girl, I was swept right back to being that fatherless girl in a grey apartment who yearned to have a dad whose world lit up when I walked in the room. How could anyone see this as sexual?

That was until Shirley responded with lyrics her character claimed she’d made up on her own.

“An ordinary day becomes a holiday
When I’m with you.
I have lots of toys but I don’t want to play
When I’m with you.
Oh daddy how I miss you.
You’re busy all your life.
I long to hug and kiss you.
Marry me and let me be your wife.”

When she proposes to her father, she places a pudgy hand on his chin and draws him centimeters from her lips.
At this point in my screening of these films I was sitting up in my chair in horror at the naked pedophilia expressed in this scene. In the recovery phase, though, I remembered singing love songs to my own children when they were toddlers and how I kissed them on their little bellies and held them tightly, as if I was clinging on to their very innocence as it slipped away. That was affectionate and not in the slightest bit sexual.

It seemed pretty clear to me that if directors and producers were manipulating Shirley as a sexual object, she wasn’t in on the joke. The power of Graham Greene’s writing, be it a joke or not, is that once read it forever colors the way you see this bit of popular culture. As my friend Jeremy Larner noted, “It’s a particularly empty, non-evocative kind of sexuality, if sexuality it be.”

Shirley portrayed a genuine little girl, just the sort of girl I was when I watched her films as a child. As she expressed affection for her daddy the camera held on her wide, high forehead, tight curls, narrow chin and bow mouth that made her look just like a baby doll. Even the cheapest dolls you could pick up at the drug store mimicked that cherubic face, cute and sweet and bland enough that the audience could project onto it yearnings, as I did for a father and, I suppose, Graham Greene did when he saw nothing but sex in her adorable sashay.

Or perhaps he was really having us on, in an essay so well written that writers seventy years later are still trying to parse out what he really meant.

What innocence is and how it is expressed is subjective, as demonstrated by the difference between what I saw as a childhood fan of Shirley and what I see now as an adult whose head has been crammed with thousands of hours of crime shows, child porn exposes, Amber Alerts and stories about pedophilia.

I had an image of Shirley I carried in my mind, one that West magazine used to illustrate my Shirley Temple story. It is of her standing facing a big white sphere that comes up to her shoulder level. Her hands rest on the top rim as she looks over her shoulder with a sweet-yet-knowing smile. Most of what I pick up from that image now is how short her skirt is, purposely cut up to her rump by the studio’s costumers who were instructed to expose as much as possible of her chubby legs to keep her looking like a toddler.

I used to see that image as one of Shirley happily playing with a big ball. Now I see Shirley as Mae West, and I wish I that was not the case. Along with Shirley, that innocence of mine was just hanging by a thread, or as Greene put it, “Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin deep.”

(My consideration of her career and her work as a diplomat is on Al Jazeera http://alj.am/1kJiSze )