As you may have noticed Shirley Temple is dead. I don’t know how much any of you care. Here in the bubble of insanity that’s China it’s impossible to gauge the true mood of my beloved Blighty. I live vicariously through the newspapers, which as you all know, rarely represent the true views of the nation.
I would imagine none of you really give a shit and normally neither would I. The death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, an actor whose performances I always enjoyed, didn’t bother me at all and nor should it, I didn’t know him, I just liked his work.
Conversely, Temple is not an actor I’d ever given much thought to, let alone admired or respected but she happened to die on my birthday and it’s that fact that struck a resonance within me.
On her day of death, and my annual alarm marking my steady march into the mystery of oblivion, I thought instead of rehashing the same old obits, (I must have read them all and they all tick the same boxes, further proof that the internet is killing journalism…please forgive me ‘Oh Great Webmaster in the Sky’ but standards are dropping fuck nuts.)
One of the many things the tributes uniformly mention is the review of her film ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ by Graham Greene, who outright accused her audience as being a bunch of paedos turned on by the lascivious nature in which she was captured on camera.
“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.”
All this is mentioned but no columnist seemed to have actually watched the movie, so in order to assess her career I went a bit further than paraphrasing Wikipedia and actually watched ‘Wee Willie Winkie’
Made in 1937, with the precocious Miss Temple in the title role, ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ is all about titular character and her mother’s (June Lang) adventures in the British Raj, where they’re invited to live at the largesse of her paternal grandfather, the ferocious Colonel Williams.
Wee Willie Winkie is actually a pretty good yarn, (based on a Kipling story, it was going to be) told well by the legendary western director John Ford (who is almost the perfect lens man for a Kipling), it has a light comedic touch depicting Winkie’s adventures in the barracks charming one stony curmudgeon after another with her blunt charm, wisdom and stupid curly hair.
I laughed a few times, thrilled at some nicely shot action set pieces and felt feel some tugs on the heart strings at the right points. Overall, an effective film shot in the classic style, by an assured director. Which is no small achievement for a kids movie.
Not being that familiar with Temple when I set out on this little fact-finding mission, the very concept of her had always been off putting. The saccharine smile, curly hair and upbeat demeanour repelled me, she seemed to be the very embodiment of a stage school brat. But I was quite wrong.
Her performance, though broad and unsubtle – which considering the vintage of the film and the age of the performer is hardly surprising – are also weirdly sophisticated and her on-screen charisma blows the other players out of the water with only C Aubrey Smith as Colonel Williams approaching anywhere near holding his own against the relentless star wattage of Temple.
I was also expecting to agree with Graham Greene’s criticisms of the way she is depicted, but I actually don’t; the coquettish looking back over her shoulder he describes in his review is just not as saucy to me as it is to Mr Greene. He may be correct about the nature of some of her fans but there’s always a paedo lurking somewhere, warping naivety into worldly sexuality. I don’t see any deliberate attempt at sexualising the young star in this film.
There may well be movies in her filmography that exploit her in this manner and these might have lead Greene to hold certain views but I have not seen them and so couldn’t possibly comment.
Based on watching one film featuring the ‘Starriest Tiny Tot in Tinsel Town’ I can confirm that she was indeed a great talent, whose ability to elicit pathos and laughs in equal parts is certainly worthy of remark and to me it’s a shame she retired from acting at such an early age.
It’s also a shame she choose to enter the world of politics and defile her legacy (in my eyes anyway) by being a blinkered right wing, hard arse.