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.”

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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