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.