Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 11, 2014

Shirley Temple, tool of racism and capitalism, dead at 85

Filed under: Film,obituary — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

I imagine that most people under 40 have no idea who Shirley Temple was but she died yesterday at the age of 85. Good riddance, I say.

Temple was a big child star in the 1930s. The rather sanitized NY Times obit refers to the films she did with Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, who was immortalized in the Jerry Jeff Walker song from 1968. Robinson, an African-American, was cast in the kind of role that Stepan Fetchit made infamous, a grinning, shuffling and deferential Uncle Tom. In real life, Robinson was nothing like his character. He was a proud and assertive Black man who after being refused service in a restaurant once asked the owner to give him a ten dollar bill for a minute, which he did. Robinson then took 5 ten-dollar bills out of his wallet and shuffled all the bills together. Which one is mine, Robinson challenged.

The worst of the Temple-Robinson collaborations was undoubtedly “The Littlest Rebel” that starred Temple as Virgie, a little girl trying to save her Confederate officer dad from the Union army. You can get a flavor of the film from this Wikipedia article:

The film opens in the ballroom of the Cary plantation on Virgie’s sixth birthday. Her slave Uncle Billy dances for her party guests, but the celebration is brought abruptly to an end when a messenger arrives with news of the assault on Fort Sumter and a declaration of war. Virgie’s father is ordered to the Armory with horse and side-arms. He becomes a scout for the Confederate Army, crossing enemy lines to gather information. On these expeditions, he sometimes briefly visits his family at their plantation behind Union lines.

One day, Colonel Morrison, a Union officer, arrives at the Cary plantation looking for Virgie‘s father. Virgie defies him, hitting him with a pebble from her slingshot and singing “Dixie”. After Morrison leaves, Cary arrives to visit his family but quickly departs when slaves warn of approaching Union troops. Led by the brutal Sgt. Dudley, the Union troops begin to loot the house. Colonel Morrison returns, puts an end to the plundering, and orders Dudley lashed. With this act, Morrison rises in Virgie’s esteem.

This scuzzy movie is online:

Turn to 05:50 for a flavor of the racism in this film.

For what it’s worth, “The Littlest Rebel” is a 20th Century Fox movie, the same studio that brought us “12 Years a Slave”. The executive most closely associated with the 20th Century Fox brand name was one Darryl Zanuck. To his credit, Zanuck was responsible for “Pinky”, a 1949 film that tackled racism in the Deep South. Of course, racial attitudes were a lot different by then.

After her film career ended, Temple married one Charles Alden Black in 1950 and became Shirley Temple Black, a figure long associated with rightwing Republican politics even though she caught flak in 1938 for sending a friendly letter to a French newspaper with CP ties. My guess is that when she was a kid, she had no idea about what was going on in the world. By the 1950s, she had wised up. Anti-Communism was a good career movie, for liberals and conservatives alike.

In 1967 Temple ran for Congress against Pete McCloskey, a staunch antiwar Republican liberal—yes, Virginia, there were such people around back then. Despite losing the race, her political future remained rosy. Nixon appointed her representative to the United Nations and later on Ford made her ambassador to Ghana.

Back in 1974, Charles Eckert wrote an article for Jump Cut—a radical film magazine—titled “Shirley Temple and the House of Rockefeller” that made the case for her films functioning as a damper against working-class militancy. I find his arguments persuasive, especially since they are formulated in terms of rejecting the “Hoover-Roosevelt” solution for economic misery:

If we add to all of this Shirley’s function as an asset to the Fox studios, her golden locks and the value of her name to the producers of Shirley Temp dolls and other products, the imagery closes in. She is subsumed to that class of objects which symbolize capitalism’s false democracy: the Comstock Lode, the Irish Sweepstakes, the legacy from a distant relative. And if we join her inestimable value with her inability to be shared we discover a deep resonance with the depression-era notion of what capital was: a vital force whose efficacy would be destroyed if it was shared. Even Shirley’s capacity for love is rendered economic by our awareness that Fox duplicated the Hoover-Roosevelt tactic of espousing compassion for anterior economic motives (specifically, by making a profit from the spectacle of compassion). And because of the unique nature of the star-centered movie industry of the thirties, Shirley was a power for monopoly control of film distribution.


  1. Actually, I thought she had passed away years ago.

    Comment by Erik Toren — February 11, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

  2. “…who was immortalized in the Jerry Jeff Walker song from 1968″…I think this is not the case. The case is not about the actor, but just borrows the name.

    Comment by Erik Toren — February 11, 2014 @ 5:45 pm

  3. I am old enough to remember her impact on some of my aunts when I was a kid, and thought so what? By the time I grew up and had to deal with the Reagan “revolution” which she supported and uniquely contributed to by her “lollipop” persona she became as ugly as the wicked witch of the west. You know what? She probably understood it, as after her quasi-ambassadorships and a few feminists demo’s she dropped out and who heard from or about her?
    It’s good another Icon of the “Reagan revolution” has gone to Valhalla.

    Comment by Polly A. Connelly — February 12, 2014 @ 2:53 am

  4. This obituary makes me happy.

    Comment by godoggo — February 12, 2014 @ 7:27 am

  5. Thought you would appreciate this:

    (see comment 2 at the top of the page)

    Your post was used to dispute a Shirley Temple Black hagiography over at firedoglake

    Comment by Richard Estes — February 12, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

  6. In addition to the white supremacy angle, two others of note concerning sexuality/judicial censorship, and the class ties of her second husband, scraped from wikipedia:

    “…British writer and critic Graham Greene muddied the waters in October 1937 when he wrote in a British magazine that Temple was a “complete totsy” and accused her of being too nubile for a nine-year-old:

    ‘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.'”

    [No kidding, but…] “Temple and Twentieth Century-Fox sued for libel and won. The settlement remained in trust for Temple in an English bank until she turned twenty-one, when it was donated to charity and used to build a youth center in England.”

    That libel case is called Speaking Power to Truth!

    Speaking of power, husband Charles Alden Black, well, he was the scion of a relatively old-line branch of the SF Bay Area bourgeoisie: “Black was born in Oakland, California in 1919. Black graduated from Hotchkiss School in Connecticut and Stanford University (class of 1940). His father, James Byers Black, was president of Pacific Gas and Electric Company”. PG&E, or “Piggie” as we like to call it, is all you need to know about the origins of the social character of Temple’s hookup with Black.

    In an aside, Piggie was bailed out by the State of California at a huge and enduring cost, victim of Enron/Cheney fake power “crisis” manupilations, itself made possible by Clinton-era deregulation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Gas_and_Electric_Company#Bankruptcy

    Meanwhile, “After WWII he received his MBA from Stanford in 1946. Then in the late 1950s he lived in Hawaii, working as an executive for Castle & Cooke and Dole Pineapple companies. By the end of the Korean War, he was a lieutenant commander.” But Black saw the future and moved from the dirty business of killing commies and super-exploiting agricultural workers into the clean high tech future: “Black was an executive at the Stanford Research Institute (now known as SRI International) from 1952 to 1957 and with Ampex Corp from 1957 to 1965”. That got Black back to his BA birthplace with his new child-star wife, literally there at the creation of the current Lords Capital of the region, the Silicon Valley computer capitalists, residing in the Portola Valley – Woodside redidential haunts of this class, were they both died.

    Comment by Matt — February 12, 2014 @ 11:58 pm

  7. I don’t understand. There is nothing here telling me what racist thing ST ever did. I think a claim as vile as that needs to be backed up with some facts, don’t you?

    Comment by cathy vice — February 14, 2014 @ 5:07 pm

  8. Didn’t you notice the title of this piece? It referred to Shirley Temple as a “tool”, in other words an unsuspecting instrument of racist and capitalist adults. If that was not enough to make it clear, I added: “My guess is that when she was a kid, she had no idea about what was going on in the world.” Of course, when she became Shirley Temple Black, she damned well knew what she was about.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 14, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

  9. Cathy. Here’s another simpler way of viewing it. Consider the fact that the millions of tons worth of bombs that Uncle Sam has dropped on people over the last 100 years were all dropped on brown people with the exception of the Germans in WWII (because, as George Carlin said after the 1st Gulf War in Madison Square Garden, “they were trying to cut in on our turf” — and in Yugoslavia in the 90’s when, according to a CIA analyst on Mcneil-Leher: “they were trying to rid the European Continent of the last planned economy). In other words for a century US Militarism has largely targeted brown people, and slaughter them efficiently they have certainly done. It’s been an inherently racist foreign policy to this day, especially considering the virtually genocidal sanctions in Iraq during the 90’s and the continuing slaughter in Afghanistan. Therefore if you’re an official representative of Uncle Sam you are a tool of racism whether you know it or not, nevermind that foreign policy is only an extension of domestic policy. Moreover, US Foreign policy for over 200 years has always been the policy of Liberalism without exception.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 15, 2014 @ 1:08 am

  10. It’s is simply a low budget move to speak ill of the dead. You suck and your political vision has blinders on. Every film made in Hollywood that featured blacks was usually filled with racial stereotypes and it continues today. You’re a bunch of fucking sheep and no better than the people you’re insulting. Let me examine your parents and grandparents perfect lives and see if their aren’t a few Republicans (like all people who put that R next to their name are the devil) and racists in your closet. I got news for you. There are no Democrats or Republicans. We have the best government money can buy and there is virtually no difference between the political parties on things that really count. Do you think the massive redistribution of wealth happened just because of Republicans? Grow up.

    Comment by Jeffrey S Green — February 15, 2014 @ 6:58 am

  11. But it made me happy. Don’t you want me to be happy?

    Comment by godoggo — February 16, 2014 @ 5:52 am

  12. Louis, you claim that STB knew damn well what she was about. And Karl…really? What ridiculous babbling. You people are shameful, claiming that this woman was a racist and admittedly having not one shred of evidence. Assholes.

    Comment by cathy vice — February 16, 2014 @ 2:49 pm

  13. Your an idiot. Its as simple as that. To say goof riddance about someones death is extreme . But about someone who brought joy to millions is just wrong. It just shows your a lonely person with no life and I’m sure you had a terrible childhood so thats why you are jealous of Shirley’s life.
    At least she died knowing she was loved. Youll die alone and bitter.

    Comment by Jason Wright — July 5, 2014 @ 10:34 am

  14. Shirley Temple did not write script She was child who starred in the movie…Did you even bother to go behind the scenes and be aware of the fact she shared her toys with everyone on the set and was a down to earth child.Shame on you.They were movies..blaming Shirley Temple for the movies she played in,is like me blaming Brooke shields for playing the part in Pretty Baby playing the part of an eleven year old prostitute when basically they Industry got away with child pornography.This was nit her fault her mother signed the contract.The problem with society today generally speaking you don’t like anything wholesome and good

    Comment by Gail — February 12, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

  15. Seems the author is racist himself, considering Black people who get along with White people “Uncle Toms.” Uncle Tom must have been an incredibly wonderful human being because he had enough sense to realize that we ARE all equal and you can’t fight hate with hate. Before you speak out on someone else’s racism make sure you put your own in check. Black and White people need to stop fighting one another over skin tones and start loving one another.

    Comment by Bonita1973 — September 21, 2016 @ 2:32 am

  16. I think to many people are full of demons they are possessed they are lost and headed to hell. The people who sit around stirring up controversy never working to build bridges as no bridge ever suits them and they are to damn lazy to do anything that causes them to sweat.

    Comment by Hojo — September 29, 2017 @ 11:25 pm

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