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Sunday, July 02, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Shirley Temple

Watching Shirley Temple kid-era pictures may have been akin to having your fingernails pried out with tongs, but she sure grew into some dish, and that’s the girl we celebrate today. The first time I saw Since You Went Away, I thought she was plenty alright, and it seemed odd that roving bachelor Joe Cotten didn’t cotton to her rather than aging matriarch Claudette Colbert --- but hold everything, Shirley was just sixteen (as in sweet), and Selznick was selling her accordingly. Toward concealing her comely attributes, he instructed studio torture specialists to strap down her expanding bosom (just as they had with  Judy Garland) and dress her out in kiddy ribbons. Some of this plays out like a WWII Lolita, but Shirley was a gal who just couldn’t help it. According to her excellent memoir, Child Star, there were any number of randy producers and execs who succumbed to her charms as well. For instance, here’s one that happened when she was twelve, and it was during her first interview with famed producer Arthur Freed. This was 1941, and Shirley was poised to sign with MGM after leaving Fox the previous year. They were sitting alone in Freed’s office when he suddenly "flourished his clothes" (exposed himself), to which S.T. responded with an attack of giggles. Freed hadn’t expected that. Needless to say, it cooled his ardor. Could this be the reason Shirley only lasted for one picture at Metro (Kathleen --- shown here)?

Turns out Shirley was really thirteen when she thought she was twelve. Her mother made the startling confession on her birthday. Just one more deception practiced upon her by caring parents (paging Jackie Coogan and Mary Miles Minter,). Shirley’s memories of the dressing rooms at Metro are sure an antidote to glamour blab earlier published. According to her, the place stank. Literally. "A locker-room odor", as she describes it. Critics noticed Shirley’s precocity in her next vehicle, Miss Annie Rooney (they classed her "between a paper doll and a sweater girl"), but co-star Dickie Moore, who bestowed her first screen kiss, found her plenty exciting company. So did a masher at the Hollywood Egyptian when Shirley and some of her girlfriends from school went to see I Walked With A Zombie . This guy had the same idea as Freed, only he figured on letting Shirley’s fingers do the walking. In a crowded theater, yet! Couldn’t he have just been satisfied to watch what must have been a stunning first-run nitrate 35mm print of I Walked With A Zombie projected on carbon-arc equipment? 

Growing (fast) Shirley spent the best teenage years of her life under contract to David O. Selznick. He first came on to her when she was 17, and again a year or so later. She started bringing a pack of dogs with her for office conferences (DOS actually "chased me around his desk"). It was a town full of "copulating tomcats", she said (by the way, the auto-bio was written longhand, so I’d say it’s her voice we’re getting). How could she get movies made with so many wolves nipping at her well-turned ankles? Besides Since You Went Away, they’re a mostly undistinguished lot. One good one was Fort Apache. It co-starred new husband John Agar, whom she unwisely married at age 17. He was but a child too (though in his twenties, at least), and boomer sci-fi mavens are more inclined to overlook much of "Sergeant Jack’s" (her appellation) misbehavior during their wedded lack of bliss. Having encountered an elderly Agar at fan shows, he seemed like the sweetest guy in the world. It’s true he dealt harshly with oversized tarantulas, but these were actions appropriate to the occasion. Maybe it was the brain from planet Arous that made him suggest a three-way with a drunken pick-up he brought to Shirley's bed. Anyway, things went kaput, but here’s a neat story Shirley tells. Remember the night they raided Bob Mitchum’s reefer party? Seems a detective friend of Shirley’s invited her along for the bust. She declined, only because she didn’t want to get tagged at the scene and risk bad publicity.

I should mention that Cary Grant tried to have Shirley fired off The Bachelor and The Bobby-Soxer after he walked in on her impromptu, and highly exaggerated, impersonation of him before an amused cast and crew. Selznick made her apologize. When she did, Cary graciously accepted and told her the mimic routine was actually pretty good. Another cast member was not so forgiving. Veteran Ray Collins, of Mercury Theatre and Lt. Tragg fame, blew lines to a point where Shirley finally said, "You’re too old to be working." "Bitch…," said he, "Dirty little bitch!" before storming off the set. Oh, and lest we forget the parents. Does it come as any surprise that, out of $3,207,666 in gross earnings for her years of stardom, Shirley ended up in 1951 with $89,000 --- half in cash and half in the value of her old "doll house" she’d lived in with Agar? Slippery explanations from parents and their bookkeeper couldn’t account for such massive loss, but Shirley’s own investigation revealed that her father had misappropriated the better part of the money she’d made with Selznick, in addition to the cash from Fox that had long since been frittered away. For the sake of family harmony, she let it go. Forgiving woman. As things turned out, she got by fine with (successful) marriage number two and retirement from features, though she would come back for television and The Shirley Temple Scrapbook. She was far and away the biggest child star in talking pictures, and seems to have enjoyed a stable adult life besides. How many others of youthful fame can claim that distinction?


Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I nearly laughed out loud at that 'totem pole' shot of the Fort Apache cast... looks just like that shot of all five Marx Brothers on the set of Duck Soup. Even better, Agar looks exactly like Zeppo!

11:51 AM  
Blogger convict 13 said...

Wonderful post once again. I love Shirley and enjoy even her very early movies, although I never have seen Baby Burlesque (and I don't know if I want to).

I have a copy of Since You Went Away, and yes she was excellent in that, I have another movie too which I can't quite remember the name of at the moment. It is a shame that she didn't make more movies in her late teens/early twenties, before her other very successful career.

In regards to Joseph Cotten, any chance of a blog on him in the future?

11:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love shirley's early films from 1934-1939.
they are great.
they don't make me want to pull my eyes out.
they are better.

12:52 AM  
Anonymous Alex said...

I've loved her ever since I first saw "The Little Princess". One of my favorite child stars. And a heck of a woman as an adult.

Brilliant post. I'm hooked on your Blog.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Poptique said...

Another eye-opening post, with an excellent Bachelor and The Bobby-Soxer anecdote alongside the more ribald titbits.

Great stuff!!

12:54 PM  

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