I’ve never been a fan of Shirley Temple movies. Her movies were forced on me by camp counselors and various other adults who figured her films were innocuous enough for a seven year old to watch. (Most of these adults were youth pastors, and back in the seventies and eighties, there were still conservative Christians who feared anything that had a swear word in it.)
As I grew older, I put her movies in my brain vault along with Laurel & Hardy and The Little Rascals. I have no desire to see any of those movies again, but I understand her cultural value. I mean, she has a drink named after her for chrissakes, and older Americans look on her with great fondness. I foresee Brian Williams memorializing her on tonight’s evening news, saying something schlocky along the lines, “the little girl who tap-danced into so many Americans’ hearts.” What I’m trying to illustrate is that I have no connection to or fondness for those movies, but that I am aware of the place she holds in the American psyche.
There was one day when I stumbled on a John Wayne/Henry Fonda movie called “Fort Apache.” I wasn’t particularly interested in John Ford films back then, and I was still politically conservative enough to frown at the name Fonda, but I was struck by the beauty of one of the characters. For the next hour or so I dreamed of what our children would look like–of course, most of my thoughts went into the making of those children rather than the actual children. After the movie ended, I went to my Videohound Golden Movie Retriever (this was the early days of the internet, so early that I’m pretty sure I had no idea what it was, and the only way you could find this sort of information was phone book-sized compendiums like the Movie Retriever, Roger Ebert’s annual Home Movie Companions and the Ephraim Katz Film Encyclopedia. I had all three.), and I saw that this babe, my future wife if I could have invented a time machine and made it happen, was none other than Shirley Temple all grown up.
Needless to say I felt a tremendous amount of guilt.
I never looked at her the same way again after “Fort Apache.” Maybe that’s why childhood stars have such a hard time finding success as an adult. Some of it also has to do with child actors not being very good when they get older. Children have an easier time pretending, and as we grow older and not so innocent we lose that ability. Or some of us do. It really all comes down to being able to lose yourself and disappear. Even as adults, some actors can’t pull this off, but they have a certain charisma that carries them through. I defy anyone to show me a Gary Cooper or John Wayne film where you are not aware that it’s Gary Cooper and John Wayne.
The point is that if you read this post without the context of “Fort Apache,” you’d assume I was a sick bastard, because you can only picture her as the little girl who tap-danced her way into your heart. But I’m here to tell you there were other movies.
Just don’t get me started on Natalie Wood.