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.