Shirley Temple's Earliest Movies Are Really Hard to Watch

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Feb. 11 2014 2:25 PM

Shirley Temple's Earliest Movies Are Really Hard to Watch

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This early Shirley Temple film, Kid in Africa, is part of the Baby Burlesks series that launched her career. Temple made eight Baby Burlesks and four “Frolics of Youth” shorts for Educational Films Corporation in 1932 and 1933, when she was 4 and 5. (Her real star turn was in Stand Up and Cheer, in 1934.) 

The Baby Burlesks were shorts, played before the main attraction. They satirized popular movies: What Price Glory?, The Front Page,  The Covered Wagon. The joke was that the actors were all under the age of 5. Historian John Kasson writes of the Burlesks: “The intended humor of these shorts, which seems exceedingly strained to modern viewers, rests on the difference between adult knowledge, desires, motives, and pleasures, and childhood innocence.”

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Often, as with Shirley’s costume in Kid in Africa, the children wore diapers with comically outsized safety pins. Names and key details of plots were awkwardly butchered to align to an infant theme (so, in Kid in Africa, the Tarzan character’s name is “Diaperzan”).

More than anything, the Burlesks leaned on sexuality to drive the joke home. In a review of one of her later movies, Wee Willie Winkie, novelist Graham Greene suggested that the movie sexualized Temple by eliciting an unchildlike seductiveness from the 9-year-old. (A lawsuit over this review temporarily derailed Greene’s career.) These Baby Burlesks, filmed four years earlier, were already doing something similar, for comic effect. In Kid in Africa, Shirley is a clueless missionary, who’s nicknamed “Madam Cradlebait.” In Polly Tix in Washington, Shirley plays a woman paid to seduce a lawmaker to influence his vote.

In its representation of both the “porters” and the “cannibals,” played by African-American children, the short is uncomfortably racist. Charles Lamont, the director, was cruel to all of his young stars. Shirley Temple Black recorded in her autobiography that he kept a soundproof box with a block of ice in it, and would threaten to confine naughty children within. But he was perhaps cruelest to the young black actors: Lamont strung a tripwire across the set at shin level to the children playing the “cannibals,” so that they’d fall down more effectively when “shot” by arrows.

The film was originally black and white, and has been colorized after the fact.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

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