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What Was the Deal With Graham Greene Calling Shirley Temple “a Fancy Little Piece”?

Shirley Temple in The Little Princess

via Wikimedia Commons

Those who read the New York Times obituary of Shirley Temple yesterday may have stopped short at a jarringly inadequate segue:

Not everyone was a Shirley Temple fan. The novelist Graham Greene, who was also a film critic, was sued by 20th Century Fox for his review of “Wee Willie Winkie” in the magazine Night and Day, which he edited. In the review, he questioned whether she was a midget and wrote of her “well-shaped and desirable little body” being served up to middle-aged male admirers.

The obituary goes on to detail Black’s education, marriage, and career as a diplomat, but doesn’t answer the question on everyone’s mind: What was up with that Graham Greene review?

Night and Day—a short-lived highbrow British magazine at which Greene was an editor—published the offending text on Oct. 28, 1937 in a short double review that covered both Wee Willie Winkie and The Life of Emile Zola (which went on to win a Best Picture Oscar). The review was reprinted in The Graham Greene Film Reader, and the scandalous sections read as follows:

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders—their property diminishes in value every year. … Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has peculiar interest: Infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant’s palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood 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. …

Graham’s insistence on the sexual subtext of Shirley Temple films wasn’t a one-time event. The year previously, Greene had written a review of Captain January in the Spectator (also reprinted in The Graham Greene Film Reader) in which he wrote that “some of [Temple’s] popularity seems to rest on a coquetry quite as mature as Miss Colbert’s and on an oddly precocious body as voluptuous in grey flannel trousers as Miss Dietrich’s.” But it was the review of Wee Willie Winkie that spurred 20th Century Fox to action: The review hadn’t been published in the U.S., but the studio and Temple’s representatives sued Greene and Night and Day in British court for libel.

Greene fled to Mexico—a trip that would inspire The Power and the Glory—and he wasn’t happy about having to go on the lam for a movie review. In a 1938 letter to a friend (reprinted in Graham Greene: A Life in Letters), Greene wrote, “I found a cable waiting for me in Mexico City asking me to agree to apologise to that little bitch Shirley Temple—so I suppose the case has now been settled with the maximum publicity.” Ultimately, a judge found in the studio’s favor—agreeing with the lawyer defending the plaintiffs who called Greene’s review “one of the most horrible libels that one could well imagine”—and ordered a settlement of 3,500 pounds, of which 500 pounds came out of Greene’s pocket.

Greene’s powerful contemporaries clearly thought the review was libelous. But what should contemporary readers make of it? A Flavorpill headline yesterday described the review as slut-shaming, and Greene’s vivid description of Temple’s “neat and well-developed rump” raises alarm bells in an era when pedophilia is widely seen as the most vile transgression imaginable. Clearly, Greene intended to skewer the “middle-aged men and clergymen” who lusted after Temple—see, for confirmation of this, his 1958 essay “Memories of a Film Critic,” in which he succinctly summarizes his intentions: “I had suggested that [Temple] had a certain adroit coquetry which appealed to middle-aged men.”

But did he really see Temple as a knowing temptress with an “oddly precocious” body? In 1986, the L.A. TimesCecil Smith concluded that Greene must have been kidding: “It’s like a Harvard Lampoon of a review. That dumpy little Shirley with her fat legs and chubby, square body would remind Greene or anyone else of Dietrich is absolutely incredible—‘dimpled depravity,’ my great aunt!” Historian Frank Sanello has also taken the position that Greene’s provocative review was “tongue-in-cheek” and “a joke.”

But other modern academics have taken Greene’s review quite seriously. In Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, a study of cultural depictions of sexualized children, James R. Kincaid writes that Greene’s Wee Willie Winkie review “is talk as brilliant as it is dangerous to let loose. … All Greene did was to specify the fantasy.” Variety writer Janet Shprintz has described Greene benignly as “[o]ne of the first critics to address the sexualization of children in film.” McGill University professor Ara Osterweil has fleshed out Greene’s essential thesis in an essay called “Reconstructing Shirley: Pedophilia and Interracial Romance in Hollywood’s Age of Innocence,” which describes “an industrywide fetishization in which Temple’s infantile sexuality was both deliberately manufactured and scrupulously preserved.” The photo that illustrates Osterweil’s essay—in which Temple, clad in a ruffled white skirt that stops just short of exposing her buttocks, smiles as she looks over her shoulder—certainly supports that observation.

I asked Osterweil, who is working on a book about the “pedophilic imagination” of American cinema, what to make of Greene’s review. “I think it is important to note that [Greene] is being deliberately provocative here,” she replied in an email. “Nothing he writes about Temple’s precocious sexuality should be taken at face value.” She went on to argue that Greene was lampooning Temple’s cinematic image, not lambasting Temple’s private character—and that Greene was spoofing his own image, as well, by describing Temple so salaciously and pretending to find her alluring. “I believe that is in fact our contemporary lens—so colored by a hysteria over pedophilic endangerment—that prevents us from understanding either the satiric tone of Greene’s essay or the larger point that he makes,” Ostwerweil wrote. It’s hard to imagine such an inflammatory form of satire flying today. Then again, it didn’t exactly fly in 1937, either.