Tuesday, February 11, 2014

On the Sunny Beach of Peppermint Bay

She was, as all the obituaries today have reminded us, famous in a way that in these days of debased notoriety beggars imagination.

While her films were rarely, in themselves, first-rate, she almost always was, truly talented and genuinely committed to whatever part (in memory almost always an orphan) she was assigned to that week (30 pictures in five years kept her on the go).

If something of the magic of it all evaporated by the time she hit double digits, her stardom was nonetheless of a curious quality shared by very few - Mae West, her polar opposite, among them, along with Chaplin, Garbo, Valentino, and possibly Bugs Bunny - in that the fame of her persona remained essentially intact years and decades after her ostensible retirement.  As a result, there were always, after 1943 or so, really two (at least) Shirley Temples: the first, eternal one, the perfect child who was, for reasons that still defy rational explanation, entirely lovable, rarely if ever irritating in the way most prodigies are; and then the actual person who had been that child.

That woman was first a sulky-faced teen too early married to a lout, and then, two decades later suddenly a rather jolly matron who to the surprise of all emerged as a force in Republican circles (although today her own politics, explicitly on the side of women and the underprivileged, would place her far outside her party's lamentable mainstream).  She served creditably as ambassador to Accra and Prague, the latter at a time of profound change that she ably helped her mission ride out with grace and benefit to U.S. policy.  All the while - at the UN, while arranging protocol at the State Department, or in her dignified retirement - she was shadowed by that other self ("the little girl," she called her) who was still doughtily facing down character-actor villains, charming Queen Victoria, and beguilingly dancing her way across a Fox sound stage.

Now, today, we are back where we were back then, somewhere in between The Bluebird and That Hagen Girl, when their paths diverged.  We have but one Shirley Temple and, possibly for the first time, she is all of a piece, at the same time the golden child and the genial old woman (forever as surprised as anyone at "the little girl" still being, in her way, as big a phenomenon as ever).

The little girl, in flesh and blood at least, is no more.  Even though we've had 70 years or so to get used to the idea, it's still a shock.  Of course, film being the most paradoxical of arts, she's with us still, and always will be.  Her good ship has finally sailed, off for what is, she always told us, a sweet trip, and we wish her well.


  1. Your writing is always on a high level, but this was extraordinary. Thank you.

    1. Thanks. I realized it with Fontaine (and Durbin, last year), but even more this week - these last few of the old guard are really going to be hard to lose...

    2. You're sending them off beautifully. The folks at TCM should take note and invite you on air.

  2. I concur with George. this was a lovely little memorial which helped to pinpoint the oddly deep feelings of loss I had upon hearing that she passed. While not a child of the depression, I still grew up watching her movies, while at the same time watching and hearing of her functioning in the real world as an equally likeable and effective adult. Thank you for this.

  3. I checked into your site yesterday thinking that you might comment on her.Today i see that it takes some thought and effort to say something of meaning.

  4. Lovely tribute. In a way it seems like she should be the oldest of us all. After all weren't our grandparents young when she was a child? It always was a bit startling to see her relatively young and vibrant under just recently. Of course that was because she was practically a baby when she started but still that was when sound was a mere five years old. When watching one of her early films it seems ancient and so she should be 185 not 85. So it was surprising today when I read of Sid Caesar's passing, an icon of decades more recent vintage, and read that he was six years older than she.

    A classy lady who was admirable in so many ways, not only not crushed by her fame but able to use it in so many constructive ways, if only there were more like her. There's not likely to be but that's what makes her unique.

    Happily Jane Withers lives on.

  5. Just caught up with this post -- by far the nicest, most insightful thing I've read since she passed.

    And yes, sad to see the old guard pass - but if I got through Elizabeth Taylor's demise I guess I can weather anything.

    Thanks for a lovely post.