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  • Writer's pictureRua Fay

The Sinister, Untold History of Shirley Temple

This year, Netflix released Andrew Dominik's Marilyn Monroe biopic, Blonde, with the lead being played by Ana de Armas. From the moment the film hit the festival scene, it had audiences talking about Monroe's mistreatment in Hollywood and her celebrated yet tragic. All of this talk about the women of old Hollywood got me thinking about another star like Monroe, one that everyone has heard of, yet nobody knows anything about...I'm of course talking about the legacy of Ms. Shirley Jane Temple.

Everyone knows the name Shirley Temple, whether you're picturing the bright-eyed child star or the cherry flavored mocktail. Shirley Jane Temple was born in Santa Monica, California on April 23rd, 1928, the daughter of a homemaker and a bank employee. At the age of three, Temple's mother, Gertrude enrolled her in Meglin's Dance School in Los Angeles where she was scouted by Charles Lamount, a casting director for the now defunct studio, Educational Pictures. In 1932, the studio began a series called Baby Burlesks where preschool age children would re-enact famous films and current events. Despite the series having a cast of a dozen children, it was clear that Shirley Temple was the breakout star. At the age of only three years old, Temple landed a role in her first feature film, The Red-Haired Alibi. Her breakthrough film would come in May of 1934 with Fox Studios' Stand Up and Cheer! In December, she starred in Bright Eyes with James Dunn, a film written specially for her. By the end of the year, Temple had starred in ten movies, including four starring roles in major feature films. From 1932-1949, Temple starred in over forty films, for major studios such as RKO, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Fox, Paramount, Universal, and the infamous: Selznik International Pictures, which we will discuss later on. Between 1935 and 1938, Shirley Temple was the world’s top box office star, leaving Hollywood legend, Clark Gable in second place.

Despite her extraordinary level of success, you'd be hard pressed to find someone that can recall or actually name one of her movies, and that's for a reason. None of her films have aged well in the slightest. The overt sexualization of Hollywood's youngest starlet began the very moment she first appeared on camera. Her first ever credited role was for a Baby Burlesks film called War Babies where she played a prostitute named Charmaine, at the age of three years old. One particular scene in the feature film, Bright Eyes shows the toddler singing the song: "On The Good Ship Lollipop" in an uncomfortably short babydoll dress, being carried, held, and touched by an ensemble of around a dozen grown men. The 1936 film, Poor Little Rich Girl also has plenty of scenes of Temple being fondled by grown men, that entire film as a whole is a prime example of early-Hollywood pedophilia and how normalized it was in the industry.

With the arrival of Shirley Temple to the film industry, creeps from all across the globe could fulfill their sick, twisted fantasies from the comfort of the movie theater. And when these movies later came out on home media, the problem only became worse and more easily hidden.

The sexual exploitation of Shirley Temple might have been horrific on screen, but things were so much worse behind the scenes. During the production of her many films, Temple and her fellow child actors endured an abundance of both physical and sexual abuse. In her 1988 book: Child Star: An Autobiography, Temple described the Baby Burlesks series as "a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence." She also explained that if any of the preschool age children misbehaved on set, they were locked in a windowless booth called the "punishment box" and be forced to sit on a solid block of ice for extended periods of time. Temple was sent to the "punishment box" several times but claimed it did "no lasting damage" to her psyche. Temple described these production sets having a very strong, present, "time is money" attitude. This led to her being forced to work while injured on multiple occasions, one time working a single day after a serious eardrum operation.

In 1940, at the age of 12, Shirley Temple had a meeting with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer, Arthur Freed, where he exposed himself to her. After seeing her nervously giggle, Freed threw Temple out of his office. This deplorable man would go on to produce wildly successful films such as Singin' In The Rain, The Wizard of Oz, an American in Paris, and Annie Get Your Gun. Being a known, bold pedophile did little to lessen your reputation or professional success in early Hollywood. Years later, at the age of 17, Temple was made a victim again when producer David O. Selznik of Selznik International Pictures, attempted to sexually assault her. She was fortunately able to escape this ordeal unscathed, but this was not the last time she would have to deal with the pigs of Hollywood.

Temple found herself being a victim to men's twisted fantasies in reviews for her movies as well. Famous British novalist, Graham Greene ended up becoming the most infamous of these critics. Referring to her 1936 film, Captain January, Greene wrote "Her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance." It's important to note that Temple was eight years old at the time. In a review for the 1937 film Wee Wee Winkie, he referred to the child as "Wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy… watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity." Fortunately, Temple and Twentieth Century Fox were able to successfully sue Greene for libel. However, there is no telling the damage this must have done to that little girl's mind and self image at the time.

But the abuse didn't stop there, Shirley Temple was also made a victim of abuse by her viewers. Rumors spread around that she was not in fact, a child but a thirty year old woman posing as a young girl. Her critics would point out her "stocky build" and adult-like teeth that were actually due to a dental plate that she would wear on set to conceal her tooth gaps. This rumor became so prevalent that when Temple was ten years old, the Vatican sent over Father Silvio Massante to investigate the claims of her being an adult.

Vicious "fans" would also claim that her famous trademark blonde curls was a wig, she would often get her hair yanked and pulled on by strangers, trying to prove the rumor true. In reality, her ringlet curls were maintained by a torturous nightly process and a weekly vinegar soak that would burn and sting her eyes. It was because of this that Temple found herself wishing she wore a wig.

Shirley Temple officially retired from acting in 1950 at the age of 22. She starred in 29 films from the ages of 3 to 10 but only ended up appearing in 10 from the ages of 14-21. In 1967, Temple began her career as a politician and served as a public servant until 1992. In her later years, she was able to serve as the United States Ambassador to Ghana and Czachoslovakia. She also served on the board of directors for major organizations like the United Nations Association, the National Wildlife Federation, Bank of America, and even The Walt Disney Company. In 1998, Temple was honored at the Kennedy Center for her contributions to early film and American culture. It's safe to say that the world grew much kinder to Temple in her later years as opposed to her time as a child star.

The legacy of Shirley Temple is important to the film world and still remains a staple of Hollywood culture, but it's important that we do not look back on these times with rose-colored glasses. Recently, luxury retail giant Balenciaga released a campaign featuring very young children holding leather-clad fetish teddy bears, and it is a little too reminiscent of a time where this blatant sexualization of children was the norm, a time that unfortunately Shirley Temple grew up in. It is crucial that we do not let this behavior flourish anymore in our society.

God forbid any more Shirley Jane Temples.

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