Saturday, February 28, 2009

What rôle models really meant

It didn't matter how many curls she had, Shirley Temple was always right, and she always got her way.  She was always more important than anyone else, and Rudyard Kipling was rewritten for her to be the hero(ine).  Like Erich Kästner's Emil, she was the clever one that saved the day.   And of course those other paper dolls that little girls of that cohort had came with coronation robes and other wonderful clothes.  And there were five of the Dionnes.  But Shirley Temple, more than anyone seems to have suspected, formed little girls to think that they (not their little brothers) were the important ones, the influential ones, the capable ones.  The little boys in Hollywood, until Roddy MacDowell, either were in backyard or street packs or wore funny costumes as Freddy Bartholomew did.
Of course, I do not mean the real Shirley Temple, of which we got a tiny glimpse only after the War when she married a soldier.  And I don't know why Elizabeth Taylor, even in "National Velvet", never made the same formative impression.  She was an object rather than a subject, somehow.  And when she began both she and we were already half grown.  Margaret O'Brien did start out as a little girl, but she wasn't heroic.  Natalie Wood was younger.
Of course, the War changed everything, too.  The bare-faced fantasy of the Shirley Temple movies gave way to that of Private Roger Young.   The paper doll princess gave real talks on the BBC.  The real Shirley Temple had, one supposed, a reasonably private experience of puberty.
Whether 1930s Hollywood products were wholesome or not I do not know.  One can argue all sorts of ways.