Shirley Temple's Earliest Movies Are Really Hard to Watch

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

Jurisprudence

Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Culturebox

Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.