Shirley Temple And The Greatest Piece of Film Criticism Ever Written


Shirley Temple is 85 today.


Graham Greene has been dead for 22 years.

In 1937 the all-powerful Hollywood moppet and the noted British writer were embroiled in a media tsunami when the magazine “Night and Day’” for who Greene was writing film reviews published his take on Temple’s latest release Wee Willie Winkie. Both Greene and the magazine were sued by 20th Century Fox, Temple’s studio and the actress’ guardians. “Night and Day” was bankrupted and Greene fled to Mexico, where he found the material for his novel, The Power and the Glory (filmed by Wee Willie Winkie ’s directorJohn Ford as The Fugitive). When Greene’s film criticism was collected in the volume “The Pleasure Dome” the Wee Willie Winkie review was conspicuous by its absence.
A grave omission, for as it’s the only piece of film criticism that Hollywood in its infinite hysteria has ever pursued and won a lawsuit over it’s quite obvously the greatest piece of film criticism ever written.

And here it is!

Night and Day, October 28, 1937 The Films by Graham Greene

Wee Willie Winkie

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders — their property diminishes in value every year. Time’s chariot is at their backs: before them acres of anonymity. What is Jackie Coogan now but a matrimonial squabble? Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has peculiar interest: infancy with her is a 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 January 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 Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is a complete 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 — — 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 my 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 in 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 better.”

Was Graham Green “over the top” or “right on the money”? The Jon-Benet Ramsey of her day or merely a very talented child? Judge for yourself, for here in all it’s, uh glory is Wee Willie Winkie

And here’s Shirley with Buddy Ebsen in that Captain January tap-dance dance sequence Greene mentioned. (Pardon the colorization.)

Happy Birthday Shirley.

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