When Graham Greene, considering the popular mystique of child star Shirley Temple in his 1937 review of Wee Willie Winkie, surmised that it had something to do with “her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap dance,” the resulting outcry drove the writer to Mexico for fear of something like lynching. It was one thing that the observation implied unwholesome attraction on the part of a certain sector of Temple’s vast constituency, and it was yet another that the rump to which he referred belonged to a girl barely nine years old. But the real outrage was the fact he had said what he did about Shirley Temple, and in 1937 that was tantamount to urinating on Old Glory at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial.
With her passing at age 85 earlier this week, we were reminded not only just how big a star Temple as a child had been – world’s top box office attraction three years running – but how some stars dim almost entirely when their moment passes, while others continue to twinkle long after their mortal spark has expired.
I’d wager that a large part of the globe was learning of Shirley Temple for the first time this week, and were no doubt wondering what kind of world would fall at the feet of a tap-dancing six-year-old girl with dimples, ringlets and an aura of almost unnerving pint-sized composure.
An already unnerved world is the answer, and a world undergoing a very particular form of anxiety that needed something equally particular to soothe it. By now it’s almost rote to note that Temple, in a series of custom-made studio vehicles (Heidi, Bright Eyes, The Little Princess) spanning the dirtiest years of the Thirties, was a kind of fantasy tonic for depressed times. Irrepressibly chipper and optimistic even when orphaned and abandoned – as she usually was – and able to hold her own as the only child in an adult world – as she often was – Temple combined innocence and bravado in a way that implied it was possible not only to tap dance your way through tragedy, but with your childlike inner core intact. Her message, a variation on one of the most untiring of popular American myths, was that childhood trumps everything. As a state of being, innocence is transcendent and buoyant as a carnival balloon, and nothing can touch it as it floats over the troubles below. (Or should touch it either, Mr. Greene.)
But that also placed a pretty short shelf life on Shirley Temple’s pop cultural utility: Once her childhood was over, so ended her currency. If this seems a little self-evident because it’s the fate of most child stars – and if the struggle to transition to adulthood lies at the root of so many former child stars’ public traumas – remember that in Temple’s case, childhood was not only a phase of personal growth but also a state of ideal national being. She stood for the country at its precocious and unflappable tap-dancing best, when it so sorely needed to feel like an invulnerable tot, so the very fact of her aging amounted to something like betrayal. If she had to grow up, everybody did.
Which is why the truth of her post-moppet movie career is more poignant than the myth, the one that says Temple was pretty much over by age 12. She wasn’t. Her career not only went on in movies for another 10 years, she was under prestigious contract to David O. Selznick, contracted to 20th Century Fox and worked with top directors such as John Ford and George Cukor. The truth was that people had stopped caring. As fine and beautiful an actress as the teenaged and young adult Temple was, she wasn’t the Temple that people had adored during the Depression because she represented childhood as an impregnable refuge from pain, suffering and reality in general. If anything, she was a reminder that even that was just a dream. The Good Ship Lollipop had sailed over the horizon.