THE DARK SIDE OF SHIRLEY TEMPLE

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With everyone  flapping their arms and clucking their tongues about Woody Allen and what he may or may not have done to assorted adopted children, it seems a proper time to put things in some sort of historical perspective.  Not to draw any kind of conclusions about Allen’s innocence or guilt, but simply to remind ourselves what kind of culture we’ve created. To do this, let’s trace backwards through an interesting chain of connections.

In 1973, Thomas Pynchon published what is considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever written, Gravity’s Rainbow. Now, among its myriad storylines and countless memorable scenes, one stands out among all the others as perhaps the most notorious. About halfway through the novel, we’re introduced to Bianca..

Without going into all the preceding narrative details, let’s just say Bianca is first described as “a knockout, alright, 11 or 12, dark and lovely…” She is in fact, if I am reading my contextual clues correctly, roughly 16, and makes her appearance during a drunken orgy scene aboard a yacht called the Anubis: “…{F}unseekers crowded eagerly around a cleared space where Bianca now stands pouting, her little red frock halfway up her slender thighs, with black lace petticoats peeping from beneath the hem…”

Urged on by her mother, Margherita, she sings “On the Good Ship Lollipop” to the horny crowd while performing a dead-on Shirley Temple impression. Her mother then demands she sing “Animal Crackers in My Soup.” Bianca refuses, and a reveler shouts “Super Animals in My Crack!”—a line which has stuck with me ever since.

What follows is a mother-daughter S&M performance for the crowd that’s disturbing, yes, but also hilariously over-the-top:

“Someone has provided Margherita with a steel ruler and an ebony Empire chair. She drags Bianca across her lap, pushing up frock and petticoats, yanking down white lace knickers. Beautiful, little girl buttocks rise like moons. The tender crevice tightens and relaxes, suspender straps shift and stretch as Bianca kicks her legs, silk stockings squeak together, erotic and audible now that the group has fallen silent and found the medium of touch, hands reaching out to breasts and crotches…”

The subsequent orgy, which essentially includes Shirley Temple, is really quite something.

Nitpicking academics and obsessives who concern themselves with such things to prove they’re smarter than you are  attribute the scene to Jules Siegel’s ex-wife, Chrissie, a friend of Pynchon’s back in the 1960s when Siegel and Chrissie were married. According to Siegel Chrissie and Pynchon ran off together. I can’t speak to the truth of any of that, or whether or not it in some way inspired the scene in question. What matters here is that Chrissie was apparently known for her pitch-perfect Shirley Temple impression.

In 1957, some 16 years prior to the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow, Mr. Pynchon took a course taught by Vladimir Nabokov while studying at Cornell. Two years earlier, Nabokov’s novel Lolita was first published in Paris. When it was finally released in the States, its portrayal of an older academic’s sexual obsession with the young Dolores “Lolita” Haze raised a bit of what you might call “a stir,”  To this day, nearly 60 years after its publication, despite being filmed twice and becoming such a part of the collective consciousness, the novel is still notorious and still regularly banned in certain circles. Funny thing is, when it was first released it was almost completely ignored. Nobody noticed or cared a whit about Lolita, and it might well have fizzled into quiet obscurity had Graham Greene not declared it one of the best novels of the year.

What makes that little literary tidbit at all interesting for our purposes here comes from a parenthetical note which appeared in a 2005 Village Voice article by Leland de la Durantaye concerning the difficulties Nabokov had getting the novel published and noticed:

“Greene exercised great influence, and some years earlier he had been sued by Shirley Temple’s parents and her studio for a review of Wee Willie Winkie in which he made reference to her ‘neat and well-developed rump.’”

Which finally brings us back to Shirley Temple proper, who died on February 10 at age 85. Nearly everyone who wrote a Temple obituary felt compelled to include some mention of her ability to raise the spirits of Americans suffering through the Great Depression. It seems, however, she may have raised a bit more than their spirits.

Two years before breaking it big with Little MIss Marker (1934), a then-four-year-old Temple got her start in the  Baby Burlesks series of comedy shorts. The shorts, produced by Educational Pictures, were designed to compete with the hugely popular “Our Gang” series. The difference here was instead of a cast of smart-alecky kids in childhood situations, the Baby Burlesks featured diaper-clad four and five year-olds playing adults in adult situations. Sometimes very adult situations. In Polly Tix in Washington (1933), Temple plays the titular Polly, a high-end prostitute who’s hired to convince a backwoods senator (also in diapers) to change his vote on the big upcoming castor oil bill. In that same year’s Kid ‘in’ Africa, she plays Madame Cradlebait. Just prior to that in Kid in Hollywood, she was a pee-wee Marlene Dietrich named, um, Morelegs Sweettrick. If you think those names were too clever and subtle for anyone to notice what was going on, in still another of the shorts a boy in diapers squeezes a cucumber, squirting out a white liquid which splots Temple in the face.

No, it was not her choice or decision to spend the first two years of her career feeding the fevered imaginations of child molesters by playing a four-year-old whore in diapers in a string of comedy shorts. The films were written and produced by adults with an eye on the bottom line, who sent them out to be enjoyed by millions of theater goers across the country. Today we watch these films with the same mix of horror and nausea many may now be experiencing when they go back to watch Woody Allen’s Manhattan.  At the time, however, nobody (including Temple’s parents) seemed to notice anything wrong or creepy about the Baby Burlesks. My only point being that though it may come out in different ways and be identified by different labels (“literature,” “art,” “low comedy”), as a nation we’ve always been a pretty creepy fucking bunch of perverts.

And it can all be traced back to that slutty little moppet, Shirley Temple.

by Jim Knipfel

  1. nickminichino reblogged this from chiseler and added:
    I wish the tone of this piece wasn’t so flippantly vile, because it has a handful of interesting historical tidbits,...
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  12. lawonderfulworld reblogged this from chiseler and added:
    Ooooh, booy
  13. skadoo3 reblogged this from chiseler and added:
    How horrid!
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