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

promotemple

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

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.”

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

This Scene From All The President’s Men Captures Ben Bradlee’s Genius

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 5:38 PM Justified Paranoia Citizenfour offers a look into the mind of Edward Snowden.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.