Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On The Good Ship Neverland: Shirley Temple As Icon For A Nation Of Make Believe

“I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was 6,” she once wrote. “Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.”
From Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (but don't have sex or take the car) by Dickie Moore:

"I had to have my lunch in the bungalow because I wasn't supposed to mix with adults. I was supposed to be kept a child. They figured that if I had lunch in the commissary I would learn jokes and would become a little adult, which they didn't want. So I ate alone."

Shirley Temple lived in a bubble made by Hollywood so that she could present a skewed, happy-go-lucky world unaffected by great the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt often stated that she was the best antidote for the era and kept everyone's spirits up during dark times. 

But Shirley didn't know that. She didn't know that her's was the 7th biggest salary in the U.S. She didn't know that she was doing anything particularly special. She was the little queen of escapism, but didn't know it. In fact, later on in life, she always listed her greatest achievements as ambassador (to Ghana first, under Nixon then to Czechoslovakia under George H.W. Bush). 


In a very real sense, Shirley Temple was an isolated little girl in a nation that wanted to be isolated from the terrors of a broken economy. The nation needed Hollywood: it pressed studios for foreign adventures (Gunga Din), great romances (Wuthering Heights), fairy tales (Wizard of Oz) and ended the decade in a melodramatic fever, Scarlett fever, to be exact (Gone With The Wind). It didn't want to concern itself with the machinations of a maniac in Germany. It didn't want to see anything but a perky little girl who melted hearts with a smile and a song. 

When asked about that isolation, Shirley often remarked, "Well, I still turned out OK, didn't I?" So many child stars didn't fare as well: dazzled with stardom and transitioning to adulthood we saw the likes of Jackie Coogan and McCauley Culkin.

Perhaps it was the isolation that saved Shirley Temple: people didn't throng her like they do today's Justin Bieber. 

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