Go to the Huffington Post, and you can vote on whether you think this video of 8-year-old Laura Fontana as a Baby Gaga singing “Bad Romance” on a Brazilian talent show is “amazing” or “creepy” or “both.” How about another vote: Go to YouTube and check out 4-year-old Shirley Temple in one of the “Baby Burlesks” that launched her career, called War Babies (1932) , and decide which you think is more unsettling. Temple’s short is a parody of What Price Glory?, in which Shirley plays the Dolores del Rio character, Charmaine, wriggling shoulders and hips as she dances for a cafe crowd of GIs (in diapers), two of whom stake a leering claim to her.
In some ways, it’s an easy choice. Charmaine is wholesome compared to Lady Gaga, and Shirley is free of the weird make-up that turns Laura freakish. She also lacks Laura’s eerily mature singing voice. (Shirley has only a couple of lines of coy French, and the delivery is infantile.) And the spectacle of the live audience of adults watching Laura is part of what’s so disconcerting. Then again, just imagine the crew of Educational Studios, the producer of the Baby Burlesks, there on the set urging Shirley to vamp, teaching the little guys to leer, and getting her and her co-star to lock lips.
Don’t look to the mothers to help you decide how far, if at all, the 21 st -century has fallen. On the sidelines, Laura’s mother is totally thrilled. Gertrude Temple, despite all her talk about protecting her daughter’s innocence, had no qualms either. At a screening of War Babies, Temple wrote in her memoir, she “kept whispering to me, ‘Do you see yourself, Presh? That’s you.’”