Sometime between Leave It to Beaver and All in the Family, a cultural wall between America’s adults and children was obliterated, at around the same time that 18-year-olds started voting and burning shit: Kids once expected to mind their manners and eat dinner at the opposite end of the kitchen started telling their parents to shut up and make love, not war. It was the countercultural generation—or the me-me-me generation, as Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! made clear—that repelled against the Greatest Generation’s Eisenhower-era conformity with self-absorption. Today, American kids on TV not only take their parents to task, but they are very much the center of a consumerist economy and culture, driving decisions about the clothes we wear, the movies we watch, and the food we eat. Their parents taught them well: Kids are effectively bossing the country around.
For years now, Shirley Temple has remained a popular window into a bygone era (her first short film premiered in 1932) when looking down at children as little more than beatific figurines was a social norm. In Queer Duck, a dead-on parody of gay culture, an antique shop for sophisticated queens sells “every piece of Shirley Temple memorabilia in existence” (including the 78-year-old actress herself). A new box set in her name attests to the character’s continuing success as a camp icon among gays as well as a nostalgia trip for grannies chasing their pasts. For the former, the false purity attached to Temple’s countenance and shenanigans is too much to pass up. For the latter, she is as generous an evocation of America’s Age of Innocence as they could hope for.
These movies fetishize Temple’s curls-and-dimples cuteness within an inch of the girl’s life, milking her every dance step and aw-shucks smile for audience approval. In all fairness, many of today’s child stars go through worse, and Temple’s modeling comes from basically harmless motives: Often threatened by rich or powerful characters cynical to her charms, Temple plays a sort of heroine for the Great Depression’s crippled working class. Temple is truly a product of her time, an all-American girl playing to her nation’s desire to escape reality through a superficial understanding of childhood. Only the series’s rampant racism and xenophobia seem like glaring social ills by today’s standards. The toddler-whoring is just quaint.
In this fourth volume of the Shirley Temple Collection, Captain January sets the tone, the best and most endearing entry, perhaps because it is also the one furthest removed from the real world. Temple plays Helen Mason, known simply as Star to the gang of sailors in the port where she lives with her adoptive father, Capt. January (Guy Kibbee), the local lighthouse keeper. When an impossibly coldhearted truant officer (Sara Haden) suggests that January is an unfit parent, he tries to sharpen Star’s brain for an exam that will prove how well he has educated her. Captain January, though light and forgettable, makes some surprising concessions about the needs of a young girl and the meaning of family, putting Captain and Star’s undeniable love for each other into a sharp, realistic context. Only the movie’s cultural oddities suck the viewer out of some mildly charming family comedy: Star makes repeated references to Chinamen in her song-and-dance, those peculiar foreigners who produce “tea and kuh-monas.”
Just Around the Corner puts in double the effort but comes off only half as charming. Even the title is completely nondescript and forgettable. Penny Hale (Temple) comes home from boarding school to find her visionary architect father (Charles Farrell) falling financially under the weight of the Depression. After confusing a bigwig investor (Claude Gillingwater) for Uncle Sam, Penny becomes the businessman’s only savior in the city. She puts on a musical benefit in his honor, reminding city folk that everyone—even Uncle Sam—is just trying to do the best he can in a sticky situation. A trailer for the movie today might go something like this: “When the Country Was on Its Knees…She Brought America to Its Feet.” In other words, a bunch of drippy, sentimental nonsense. (Slightly more racist than Captain January, this one includes a minstrel show-like tap dance by Penny’s grinning doorman.)
Susannah of the Mounties deserves to be viewed last, if only because it might turn away unsuspecting viewers from Temple quicker than a hot-tempered KKK member. This is such an offensive portrayal of Native Americans that it’s almost intriguing to witness how guilefully the movie plays itself off as sweet and harmless. In an apparently alternate-universe vision of the 1882-1884 building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, savage “Injians” are beating down the poor, innocent (encroaching didn’t make it in) White Man. Susannah’s (Temple) grandfather dies in one of the assassinations, after which she is initiated into the group of Mountie officers who patrol the area.
Under the veil of kind British-Indian peacemaking, Susannah launches crude, ignorant slurs at a culture it sees only as another roadblock: When a tribal boy thumbs his nose at Susannah (God, who wouldn’t?), a Mountie must calm her down by explaining that Native Americans are simply “less grown up than us” and treat their women as inferior (as opposed to 19th-century Britain). Later, when Sue becomes the boy’s “blood brother” after a truce, she suddenly fears it might “turn my skin red.” “Oh, it won’t? Well that’s good.” Okay, bitch. One redeeming factor: Twice we get to see Temple take a hit of the tribal pipe and fade into blankness, where she probably belongs.
Another good reason to watch Mounties last: It serves as an awfully clarifying coda to Temple’s stint as America’s favorite cutie pie. She was not only where Americans could unload their world-weary stress, but she was also a blank slab of childhood “purity” onto which they could hang all of their senseless hate. America was Temple’s mother and father, a family like most that instilled youth with the false belief that their parents had only paved a road of good. This is the selfish use of children as rag dolls that every Temple viewer unconsciously engages in. Remember, children: hate is taught, and Temple is not just a character; she’s a fascinating, grotesque journey through American psychology.
20th Century Fox provides fine remasterings of Shirley Temple’s original black-and-white pictures. The image is clean, and in the dust-coated Susannah of the Mounties, even seductively smoky. Also provided are special "colorized" versions of the movies, though why anyone would want to watch them is unclear; the process gives unnatural skin tones to characters and sucks any texture out of shots with a plastic-like smoothness akin to Brandon Routh’s face. The audio seems clear enough, if a little anemic.
The colorized versions mentioned above constitute the biggest feature on this Shirley Temple collection, along with a few old news clips of Temple receiving a pony and unveiling a Will Rogers monument thrown in for good measure. Sadly, no interviews or commentaries with the 78-year-old Temple.
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