Thursday, February 13, 2014

Kids' Stuff: Some Thoughts on Shirley Temple and Mitt

There’s a scene in one of the Shrek movies in which Puss in Boots, a tricky cat with extraordinary powers of seduction and persuasion, voice by Antonio Banderas, trades bodies with Donkey, a, well, donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy. When Puss tries to win over some guards by flashing them one of his adorable smiles, he fails to take into account how different his features now look, and the guards recoil, screaming, “Kill it! Kill it!” If I admit that that’s pretty much how I feel when I see clips of Shirley Temple in her prime, does that make me a bad person, or just a bad American?

In her first big role in a big-studio movie, Stand Up and Cheer (1934), Temple played one of the discoveries of Warner Baxter, the newly appointed Secretary of Amusement, who is personally tasked by FDR to drum up some entertainment that will end the Great Depression by inspiring Americans to cheer the fuck up. It sounds enough like campy fun that I worry a bit about the spoilsport inside me, who wonders if this presentation of the Depression as some kind of shared national bummer, without regard to the actual policies and attitudes that led to the economic disaster, might have been as bad for people as the sight of people on cable news. That is, those people a few years ago, acting as if the Bush-era economic meltdown had been caused by the government being too helpful and generous to people on the verge of having their lives ruined by bad mortgages sold to them by predatory lenders. When the Great Recession hit, it inspired a special kind of nostalgia in some people for the kinds of movies that helped Americans hold it together in the 1930s. You'd think the popular image that might be conjured up in the minds of repertory programmers and hip film geeks would be the sporty, fast-talking urban comedies and the last of pre-Code Hollywood. But no. It was Shirley Temple, dimpling and smiling, and ordering adults not to be frowny faces, who was the number-one box office attraction, for four years running. How were she and William Powell and James Cagney popular in the same medium, at the same time? How did they share the same solar system?

“Unlike the run of trained actors, who tend to predetermine a few emotions and communicate them” Pauline Kael once wrote, “children permit us to read their face and movements, and perceive the infinite shadings.” Kael went on to note that a precious few great actors—Brando, Blythe Danner, Genevieve Bujold, the young De Niro and Depardieu—could do it too. Temple never did this. As a child performer, she was a complete, expertly trained professional at eliciting soppy responses from audiences. And, with the possible exception of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, she didn’t play with her co-stars; she lorded her command of the screen over them. Her mother had enrolled her in a dance class when she was three, in what Temple, in her autobiography, called a “calculated decision” aimed at launching her toward stardom. She was quickly spotted by a talent agent and went to work for Educational Pictures, a company that showcased her in its series of Baby Burlesks shorts, comedies in which babies were seen to enact spoofs of popular grown-up entertainments. In order to ensure that the kids kept their noses to the grindstone, the director would lock misbehavers in a small, windowless, soundproof box, containing a block of ice to sit on. This would seem to have the makings of a familiar story about crazy stage mothers and damaged kids, except for one thing: the adult Shirley Temple Black insisted that she was cool with all of it. The lesson of “the black box”, she wrote, “was profound and unforgettable. Time is money. Wasted time means wasted money means trouble.” It was just one more valuable element of a childhood that she spent being “bathed in love.” One possible interpretation of this is that Shirley Temple Black somehow grew up to be the sanest, most well-balanced people to have been a major child star. Another is that, on some sub-molecular level, she wound up more profoundly fucked up than Judy Garland, Danny Bonaduce, and Lindsay Lohan combined.

Temple tried to keep acting through her teens and into her twenties, but she didn’t learn how to express anything more than her professionalism—or she never had anything else to express—and by the time an actress is no longer a child, people stop being bowled over that she has the precisely honed manipulative technique of a shameless old pro. At 22, she married Charles Alden Black, retired from acting, and devoted herself to good causes—Republican fundraising, running unsuccessfully for office, serving as U. S. ambassador to Ghana and, in the wake of the Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia. By all accounts, she was an admirable and tireless public servant in the roles she choice. But the riff-raff among us who can’t help looking for cracks in the mask can’t help but take special interest in those little moments when the world she seemed to embody rubbed up against a different world—one that, to passengers on the good ship Lollipop, must have seemed very unsavory—and produced little bits of friction that would never have survived the final cut of any of her movies. According to her New York Times obituary, Temple Black “worked particularly hard for the development of the San Francisco International Film Festival, but quit the festival’s executive committee in 1966 to protest a decision to show the Swedish film Night Games, which she called ‘pornography for profit’.”

Then there was the momentous occasion in 1990 when the plane carrying her to her new post in Czechoslovakia landed at the Prague airport, and she discovered that the huge crowd gathered there was eager for a glimpse of Frank Zappa, the specially invited guest of the new Czech President, Vaclav Havel. To Havel and the other Czech hipster-intellectuals who had proven so much more difficult for their Communist governments to quietly file away in neat slots than their more respectable, well-behaved citizens—their own aspiring Shirley Temple Blacks—Zappa and the other American counterculture rock gods they adored were examples of what is possible in a country that prizes individuality and creative freedom. To Temple Black, he was a long-haired hippie who behaved most disrespectfully when testifying before a Congressional committee on the scourge of dirty rock lyrics. The idea that what Frank Zappa represented might be a stronger source of inspiration to those struggling to throw off the yoke of Eastern European tyranny than the promise of an unregulated free marketplace was the kind of thing she had spent her whole adult life fighting. She denied it entrance to her brain, like the notion that one might go the trouble of throwing all those nice parties and make all those phone call soliciting contributions for a proper, prestigious film festival, only to throw it all away by showing some dirty movie.

By chance, I happened to be watching the Netflix documentary Mitt when I got word that Shirley Temple Black had died, and I recommend it unreservedly to anyone who thinks that we will never see her like again. Mitt documents Mitt Romney’s recent life, from his decision to run for president in 2012 to the moment when it slowly, slowly sinks in, on Election Night, that he isn’t going to pull this thing off. Many people have written that the film “humanizes” Romney to a greater degree than his campaign ever did. And it’s true that one comes away with a sense that the stiff, comically handsome man who gave those speeches and got so sniffy during the second debate when the moderator wouldn’t let him get away with lying about whether President Obama had called the attack on the embassy in Beghazi an act of terrorism really is just like that. It’s not an act. He can crack the occasional joke and still love his huge, colorless, intellectually unadventurous family unconditionally.

Once again, though, I’m left wondering: How bad a person does it make me that I find this kind of pasteboard perfection more creepy than admirable? It doesn’t help that, just as Mitt himself is the poster boy for rich people who think that anyone concerned about income inequality is just jealous, his kids are quick to suggest that the biggest handicap he faces with the general public is that people might think he’s just “too good to be true.” The film confirms the truth of what many news reports alleged in the days after the election: the Romneys really, really believed that Mitt was a lock to win, to such a degree that it hadn’t occurred to him to write a concession speech, even though they had access to all those polls that showed he was going to be creamed. As near as I can tell, no one in Mitt’s camp seems to think that it’s a very good idea that he didn’t win, because anyone who just refused to believe the polls because he didn’t care for what they were telling him was too disengaged from reality to be anything but a terrible president. The final, definitive defense of Shirley Temple’s movies and screen image is that they’re “escapism,” because in a world like this, who doesn’t want to escape from reality sometimes? The problem is that, when people like Shirley and Mitt take their armor-plated personalities into the world of politics, they still seem just as cut off from reality as the inhabitants of any movie set.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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