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Miss Temple & Graham Greene

Shirley Temple and her movies received a lot more attention in Commonweal in the 1930s and ‘40s than I would have expected when I began a search for more information on Graham Greene’s notorious (and ultimately libelous) review of her 1937 vehicle Wee Willie Winkie – an incident that has merited mention in a number of the obituaries after her death this week. More on Greene’s transgression (and what followed) in a moment, but here’s some of what Commonweal was saying at the height of "Miss Temple's" fame.

Richard Dana Skinner in August 1934:

Certainly in Baby Take a Bow [Shirley Temple] manages to be vastly ingratiating, in spite of being pictured as one of the most absurdly spoiled imps of the American home. Being “cute” is not necessarily good acting, nor is playing the part of a little show-off a real test of straight dramatic ability. What little Miss Temple needs, in justice to herself, is a part far removed from musical comedy formulae, something comparable to Chaplin’s The Kid, in which the quality of downright sincerity can show through. My guess is that Shirley Temple has that quality, but that it is in imminent danger of being throttled by the overexploitation of cuteness. At her age, the more sensitive the good qualities, the more easily they can be misdirected and warped. One might add the hope, too, that as a star of films for children, she will not always be surrounded by enough gun-men and sentimentalized ex-convicts to conjure up a succession of nightmares.

And, a year later, Grenville Vernon:

[Curly Top] is only another of Miss Temple’s vehicles, and one of the most saccharine yet. It fairly drips sentimentality. Of course it gives Miss Temple the opportunity to be arch, and charming, to make people happy, to dance and sing, and even to impersonate an old lady. This is all to the good, when done by Miss Temple, but how much better it would be if we could feel that she was not just being made to show her talents like a sort of child on a flying trapeze! That she swings through her stunts in a perfectly marvelous manner is of course true. But then she couldn’t help it--she is Shirley Temple!

And from May 1940, the editors on Temple’s “retirement”:

Miss Temple gives every token of being a gifted screen artist and (what is not necessarily the same thing) a very nice little girl. In the first capacity, she has enlisted us among those innumerable beneficiaries who have to date paid twenty million dollars to see her perform. In the second, she leaves us rather glad that she is retiring (to grade school) at the ripe age of eleven, with all her garlands and honors about her. As far as one can judge from a strictly outside viewpoint, Shirley's parents and managers have guarded her from some of the worst effects of a movie career involving precocious stardom; she still seems simple and happy, and she is universally believed to be so. But no effort or care can annul the essential abnormality of such a life--the consciousness of being the center of a vast system of production, publicity, adulation; the killing hours before the camera, especially (as has latterly been the case) when pictures are multiplied to catch the vanishing graces of childhood. So we feel that the leading female box-office star of the world has won the right to retire.

Running through those excerpts is a note of concern for the well-being of the child who would appear in dozens of movies by the time she was a teenager. I’m not sure I’m prepared to say it’s the same kind of “concern” expressed by Greene, some of whose words, if you haven’t read them recently, were rather more direct:

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders—their property diminishes in value every year. … Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has peculiar interest: Infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. … 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 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.

Satire? One of the first instances of a critic meaningfully addressing the “sexualization of children in film”? Careless writing, or evidence of Greene’s own fetishes? The Internet debate is on

Regardless of how people read it now, the review constituted libel in the eyes of Chief Justice Gordon Hewart of the King’s Bench, which awarded Twentieth Century Fox £3,500 in damages, £3,000 of which was to be paid by Night and Day, the magazine in which the review appeared, and the remainder by Greene himself, who was literary editor. The suit sank the publication, but by that time Greene had left England. The magazine Mental Floss makes explicit the link between the review and Greene’s career as a novelist in an article that is actually headlined “How Shirley Temple’s Lawyers Launched Graham Greene’s Career.”

[The suit] was the start of a journey that would take Greene from Manhattan to New Orleans to San Antonio and then deep into the jungles of Mexico—and eventually, after much suffering and pain, provide him with the material needed to write The Power and the Glory, his masterpiece….His decision to travel to Mexico in 1938 was no accident, nor was it spontaneous. The West had fascinated Greene for years—in particular, a pair of states in the Mexican highlands, Tabasco and Chiapas, where a long anti-clerical campaign had left hundreds of priests dead, all but eradicating any trace of Catholicism. Greene wished to chronicle what he called, “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth.”

The shuttering of Night and Day and the libel suit were all the impetus he needed. He convinced his publisher to give him a modest advance for a travelogue, then set about planning his itinerary, a short stay in Mexico City and a tour of Tabasco and Chiapas, ending in the mountain town San Cristóbal de las Casas, where he had heard Catholicism was being practiced in secret.

Of course, Greene eventually found himself admonished (in 1953) by the Vatican’s Holy Office for what it saw in The Power and the Glory as signs of an "abnormal propensity toward situations in which one kind of sexual immorality or other plays a role.” After meeting with Greene, Westminster Cardinal Griffin later wrote, without mentioning the author specifically, “Novels which purport to be the vehicle for Catholic doctrine frequently contain passages which by their unrestrained portrayal of immoral conduct prove a source of temptation to many of their readers.”  Of course, Temple herself went on to do much more after the retirement Commonweal commented on in 1940, a piece that ended with these words: “So good-bye, Shirley--may you, for your own sake, be happily anonymous from now on.”

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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I posted and then removed the YouTube video of Shirley Temple singing "The Good Ship Lollipop." The more I viewed it, the more uncomfortable I began to feel viewing a bunch of adult men with goofy looks on their faces passing around this little ca. 4-year-old girl in very short dress that showed her cute little panties. In the words of the song, I say: “ooh, ooh.”

I was quite surprised to find our a few years ago that the good ship was a plane and then it was explained to me that we didn’t have a word to describe a means of transportation that went through the air.

I must admit my favorite Shirley temple movie is “The Little Princess.”

(Spoiler Alert: It brings tears to my eyes when she meets Queen Vitoria and asks her help to find her Daddy who is fighting in the Boar War.)

I liked Heidi.

Greene was reacting to the pedophiliac subtext of items like the Good Ship Lollipop, which seems startlingly obvious today, 

I like Baby, Take a Bow



As great a novelist as Greene is, he has never been famous for his portrayal of children, as, say, Dickns was,A Fallen Idol is a very good  movie about a child -- but only one.   I wonder if he understtood them  very well.  And he certainly didn't understand the general appeal Shirley Temple had for people of all kind.  Odd that, consiering that he wrote some of the greatest screenplays ever.

My favorite scene is Shirley tap-dancing on the staircase with Bo-Jangles.  One of the grestest scenes in all movie,  I'd say..  Was there nothing that child couldn't do eminently well?  RIP.


It just occurred to me == might her portrayals of mere girls who could do anything extrememly well  have inspired some of the feminism of the 60s?  Her contemporaries were the right  age to be inspired -- she gave us strong images of girls prevailing in spite of all adversity :-)  Thanks, Shirley.

"The sexualization of children" certainly seems to be the point of the image linked to by Abe Rosenzweig and "The Good Ship Lollipop" (  I had no idea of this aspect of the Shirley Temple craze, but had imagined her as something like Hayley Mills ( Graham Greene comes back to the topic in The Power and the Glory where he presents the priest's daughter Brigitta as precociously sexualized (if I remember correctly). 

Daily Mail review of Richard Greene's "Graham Greene" (2007) sees the Temple piece as indicative of GG's obsessions, and adds: " An alcoholic, he abandoned his wife and two children for affairs with a series of married mistresses. And though he vehemently denied rumours of bisexuality, his closest male friend was a homosexual who daily preyed on young boys, while there is clear evidence that Greene regularly seduced under-age teenage lads on the Italian island of Capri" and much else.

Terry Eagleton gets a far more sympathetic picture of Greene from the same book, and also refers to the Temple review (saying Greene saw Temple as "bait for pedophiles").

I was never a fan of Shirley Temple and her opus. Didn't dislike her, just wasn't a fan. But really, for whatever reason, a female star in 1930's musicals was often surrounded by only male performers. Perhaps they didn't want other women taking away attention. At the same time, tap dancers wore short skirts. A tap dance in a burqua really doesn't come off very well. Personally, I would ascribe Greene's assertions in this case to his anti-Americanism and dour nature. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Can't little girls just be cute?

Since they are female and not male, and since men tend to regard females differently from males, and since little girls will grow up to be women, it seems to me that when they are cute and charming (like Shirley Temple was in her films), if you try to analyze too deeply their appeal, you are getting into the realm of sexuality. Then you are talking about adult men, little girls, and sexuality. And then you may think you are talking about pedophilia. But male appreciation of cute, charming little girls is not pedophilia. It's pefectly normal, although for various reasons, nowadays it makes people uncomfortable.

I was watching some clips of Shirley Temple, and what struck me is that she was a teriffic little dancer, but she really can't sing. Or rather, she sings just like a little girl. If a girl that age were to appear on one of the big talent shows today and sing like that, she could not possibly win. What makes her singing charming is that she sings like a little girl. She is not a miniature adult along the lines of Jon Benet Ramsey. 

" But male appreciation of cute, charming little girls is not pedophilia. It's pefectly normal, although for various reasons, nowadays it makes people uncomfortable."

Also there is an appreciation by all adults of all children. I grew up quite conscious of sex as all males. But I never thought of Shirley Temple as a sex object in any way. So I agree that Green should have been severely criticized. for his observations. It said more about him than it did about Shirley. It is a sorry aftermath of the pedophilia crimes that hugging a young boy or girl is now verboten. At the same time it is true that too many adults do not realize that children oftentimes do not like adults even taking innocent liberties with them.

Margaret Farley is big on showing respect and doing justice in sexual relations. Although it is not sexual (we pray) it is important to show respect to children while showing affection. A balance which too many violate. 

I just watched "The Good Ship Lollipop" and I share Helen's discomfort. What is "cute" about this  scene? That it is a little girl who is behaving like a young adult woman. Replace her figure by that of an 18-year-old and the sexual innuendo becomes obvious.

Of course there are many ways in which little girls or boys can be "cute", that are not sexual. I think that this scene is not one of them.


Sometimes a cute little tapdancing girl is just a cute little tapdancing girl.

Replace her figure by that of an 18-year-old and the sexual innuendo becomes obvious.

Replace a 6-year-old girl sitting on an adult man's lap (or an adult woman's lap, for that matter) with an 18-year-old, and you have an entirely different situation! There is simply no hint that the men in the scene in which Shirley Temple sings "On the Good Ship Lollipop" are relating to the little-girl character in any way other than as a little girl. 

If you are going to imagine all little girls and little boys interacting with adults as 18-year-olds, then many things that are not sexual at all will seem sexual. And of course it would be bizarre to claim that there is nothing sexual at all about little girls interacting with adults. Little girls are feminine. Adult males will respond to their femininity. Little girls and little boys are not interchangeable. It is extraordinarily difficult to imagine a little-boy equivalent of Shirley Temple charming adult women. Of course there is something sexual going on. But it is not pedophilia!

Ah, well, what do I know. This is a thread where, by exception, men know better.

What amazes me about Shirley Temple is that she did not seem to be ruined by her early fame. She had a stable marriage that lasted 55 years; raised 3 children apparently as a "stay at home mom"; no alcohol problems or sex scandals; and a rather remarkable, competent  ambassadorship to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

For the record she started her movie career in "Baby Burlesques." ( I am not implying anythiing here.)


P.S. I still think that the men in the Good Ship Lollipop, routine are goofy looking.

Claire, hopefully it will make you feel less ganged-up on to know that my last post was written before you posted and was not a response to your post. At any rate, I would never associate the names of Shirley Temple and Grahame Greene and this blog posting was an interesting read.


" know better." ???

Not always.

I am thinking about Julie Hess, parochial school principal, whose letter to the diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph  described the many concerns of parents and teachers about Fr. Shawn Ratigan’s conduct around children, especially young girls, and his refusal to abide by the personal boundaries. Six months later pornographic pictures of young girls were found on his computer.



As a little girl I was completely baffled by the appeal of Shirley Temple to grown-ups. She always seemed to be imitating some show-offy grown-up who had trained her to wink and pout on cue, in a mysterious, grown-up way that would have not gone down well with the nuns at Ursuline Academy. 

Shirley's movie version of  Heidi  gave me nightmares, though later on, when I read the book,  I loved it. I don't know whether it was all that fresh air,  the bread and cheese lunches on the mountains--or the goats--but that was fun I could appreciate. And the nuns probably wouldn't have minded it either. 

My thoroly Catholic mother dressed me in Shirley temple dressed....chubby size

Shirley turned out alright. Not so for so many impoverished young women who are exploited and believe their only way out is to sell their bodies.

In a Women's Studies group I sometimes attended in college (early to mid 1970s), Shirley Temple, Child Star, was viewed by some as emblematic of the kind of strict gender roles we foist on women (the frilly dresses and fancy panties). Others saw her as perfectly well-adjusted and happy with her single father, grandfather or some other avuncular caretaker ("The Littlest Rebel," "Heidi," "Little Miss Marker") and ready to come to their defense--that is, a budding little feminist. There was never any discussion that Temple was the object of sexual desire.

But we live in times now, and it's sad. The fathers of the kids I grew up with took us girls all over the place until we could drive--to the beach, to the drive-in, to the snack bar, to the fabric store to buy supplies for our home ec projects. Dads were usually less tight with a dollar than our mothers were, and far more willing to change plans if we said, "Hey, let's stop in here on the way home." A favorite pastime was going to the dump with my uncle, who was single most of his life, to see the rats!

I mentioned this to a much younger colleague, and she said, "You'd never see people doing that now. I'd never let some man take my daughter anywhere, even with a bunch of her friends.

Maybe this is just prudent now, but what a horrible state of affairs.

Jean --

I agree.  My uncles and fathers took us nieces places and a good time was had by all.  But times have indeed changed.  These days, sex -- the healthy kind -- is often considered just premium entertainment, so it's not surprising that some men would act out their perversions thinking, "Oh, well, it's all just entertainment".  I also think that the radical feminists have left scars on the psyches of younger women.  Nowadays many women think that no man can be trusted.  Sad, sad, sad.



"Nowadays many women think that no man can be trusted.  Sad, sad, sad."

I am thinking about how many men think the same about women.

Love that burqua reference--funny.

When I read Greene's review, I thought it said more about him than about Shirley Temple. Obviously, in addition to being anti-American and dour, he saw her as a sex object. Ew.

My parents are the same age as Shirley Temple, and based on what they tell me I believe that children like them were the target audience for most of her films. She reportedly lifted many people's spirits during the Great Depression. That's why her movies were so popular, because families with children went to see them. They weren't stag films intended to be shown at bachelor parties.

My mother, who was the same age as Shirley, was given tap dancing lessons because of her. Most of the girls in her tap class were there for the same reason. She didn't end up with a showbiz career, but she did enjoy the lessons.

I see that scene as a deliberate parody or imitation of the  burlesque/adult musical scenario. The point is to say;look at this;it's just like an adult version except it's just a little girl.It's cute yet consciously alludes to ,points to, reminds us of,the other adult sexualized scene.The men actors  are actually responding to her feminine cuteness, which I agree is not the same as pedophlia, but we the audience are reminded of the adult version where the scene is the same except the singer,dancer is an adult woman, which this is imitating. So sex is aluded to by the scene itself but is not present in the actual scene;the men love her cause she's cute,not cause they're pedophile's getting a sexual thrill by her.The men actors are aware of this.That's my take.Kind of like seeing a puppy in a baby carriage;a puppy is not what you expect in the carriage[scenario] but is cute in itself; a child is not what you expect to be doing that burlesque like  scene with the men, but the child is cute in that scene nonetheless. It changes the norm of the scene[mesmerized men surrounding and supporting the female singer/dancer] but becomes another scene; adults love the adorable child.

I just "love the adorable child" and I am taking "innocent liberties" with her! See a remark of J. Kincaid in one to the links I posted.

Oops, the link is in the main article. "James R. Kincaid writes that Greene’s Wee Willie Winkie review “is talk as brilliant as it is dangerous to let loose. … All Greene did was to specify the fantasy.”"

Shirley Temple films don't appeal to folks as much in this day and age.  A lot of people don't get the Three Stooges, either.  Monty Python reruns don't seem so cutting-edge anymore.  And frankly, Shakespeare's comedies aren't all that funny.  I guess some things age better than others.


Helen --

I agree about many men not trusting women, but I think that's been the case a long, long time -- "womanly wiles" and all that.  I suspect that this non-trusting has something to do with the dimming of romance, but I can't say exactly why.  Look at the movies these days -- how many  are romantic comedies?  Oh, sure, lots of sexy movies, but few romances.  Romance takes a lot of old-fashioned values like trust, hope, possible committment.  Sigh.

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