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That Time Nine-Year-Old Shirley Temple Got Slut-Shamed by Graham Greene

The death of Shirley Temple Black last night is bringing on all manner of reflection about child stardom, its foibles, and the possibility of surviving it and living to an elegant old age, as Black did. In the midst of this discussion, people often mention a review by the novelist Graham Greene of Temple’s work. Reviewing Wee Willie Winkie for a small British magazine in 1938, Greene remarked:

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders—their property diminishes in value every year. Time’s chariot is at their back; before them acres of anonymity. Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has a peculiar interest: infancy is her 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 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 completely 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 that is only 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.

Kind of ugly, yes? Greene was, of course, making a legitimate observation about the fetishization of a young star. The particular way this seems to shape up for young girls pairs badly with a fandom composed of “middle-aged men and clergymen.” And while nowadays Temple’s films are remembered as clean-cut and harmless, it’s certainly true that early in her career she was doing a lot of what were called “baby burlesks,” where small children were put into adult roles to spoof popular culture.

Greene chose to express his objection to all this, however, by calling her a “fancy little piece,” and repeatedly commenting on the shape of her body, and outright suggesting that she was seeking lascivious male attention in the way she “measures a man with agile studio eyes.” That was a remarkably incautious way to put it, not least because it’s obvious to everyone with eyes that child stars are somewhat oblivious to the way they are being bilked by adults. It is insane, even as a matter of rhetoric, to suggest that Temple was deliberately courting any untoward attention.

That said: Greene probably thought the magazine was too obscure for anyone to notice the remarks, but a firestorm ensued. And in fact, Temple and her backers brought a lawsuit for libel and won it. The little magazine folded, and Greene, according to a friend, may even have fled England for Mexico, fearing criminal libel charges would be brought. It seems fair to find that response, as the film blogger Self-Styled Siren once put it, “overwrought.” She adds: “As is true of many libel cases, if Temple’s parents hadn’t sued to get this paragraph out of the public discourse, it might have lapsed into obscurity. Instead it’s immortal.”

I rather agree. That said, there is a non-legal level on which this small incident encapsulates everything that’s both weird and wonderful about the career of Shirley Temple, a career that in our own time at least is still chiefly remembered and celebrated by adults. And some of those adults might rightly be accused of being the kind of middle-aged men and clergymen Greene refers to. Maybe that’s the discussion about child stars we still need to have, all these decades later.

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