Daily Archives: April 23, 2008

On the occasion of Shirley Temple’s 80th Birthday — The greatest piece of film criticism ever written.

Wee Willie Winkieby Graham Greene
(From Night and Day, 28 October 1937.)

“The owners of a child star are like leaseholders –
their property diminishes in value every year. Time’s
chariot is at their back; before them acres of
anonymity. What is Jackie Coogan now but a matrimonial
squabble? Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has
peculiar interest: infancy is her disguise, her appeal
is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago
she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think,
went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain
she wore trousers with the mature
suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and
well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance; her eyes
had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie
, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy.
Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian
barrack-square; hear the gasp of excited expectation
from her antique audience when the sergeant’s palm is
raised; watch the way she measures a man with agile
studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of
love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood,
a childhood skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot
last. Her admirers – middle-aged men and clergymen –
respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her
well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with
enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of
story and dialogue drops between their intelligence
and their desire. ‘Why are you making Mummy cry?’ –
what could be purer than that? And the scene when
dressed in a white nightdress she begs grandpa to take
Mummy to a dance – what could be more virginal? On
those lines her new picture, made by John Ford, who
directed The Informer, is horrifyingly competent. It
isn’t hard to stay to the last prattle and the last
sob. The story – about an Afghan robber converted by
Wee Willie Winkie to the British Raj – is a long way
after Kipling. But we needn’t be sour about that. Both
stories are awful, but on the whole Hollywood’s is the

“Wee Willie Winkie” (USA, Twentieth Century Fox, I937)
Dir.: John Ford. Cast: Shirley Temple, Victor
McLaglen, C. Aubrey Smith, June Lang, Michael Whalen,
Cesar Romero, Constance Collier, Gavin Muir.