I am no doubt dating myself here, but when I was a wee lad there were two things on television on the rainy day Saturday afternoons of the early 1970s: Wonderfully cheesy horror movies starring either Dracula, Frankenstein or the Wolfman (and sometimes all three), and wonderfully sentimental Shirley Temple films, often co-starring Arthur Treacher (yes, that Arthur Treacher). Temple was a remarkably precocious child actress who always played adorable but plucky little girls who alternately disarmed the adults with her charm and chutzpah or outsmarted them when they tried to do her wrong.
Temple died last night at 85. Unlike today’s sociopathic child stars, she never turned into an asshole, despite being the biggest Hollywood star of her time. She retired from acting at age 22 and never looked back. She reinvented herself as globe-trotting diplomat. She served in the U.S. delegation to the United Nations from 1969 to 1974; she was U.S. ambassador to Ghana from 1974 to 1976, and U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992. A class act to the end.
The story arcs of her films invariably cast Temple in some epic quest to re-unite with a gone-missing Daddy, puppy, kitten or pony. She usually did a few song and tap-dance numbers along the way — this was, after all, back when the world seemed to always be on the verge of breaking out into a jaunty song. There would be a lot of drama along the way, along with some laughs and more than a few tears, but in the end you were guaranteed a schmaltzy but eminently satisfying happy ending.
The clip below is a perfect example. It’s from a film called The Littlest Princess, a wonderful slice of Hollywood Victoriana. Temple plays the daughter of a British soldier shipping out to Mafeking to fight off the heathens (i.e. the black people that had the temerity to live there in the first place). Being of some means, he’s enrolled Temple in a fancy boarding school run by a wicked witch of a woman. When her father goes MIA, and therefore can no longer pay his daughter’s room and board, the evil school mistress banishes our heroine to a dreary life of abuse and indentured servitude in the attic. But the titular little princess never gives up hope, or belief that her father will come back for her one day.
Sure enough her father does eventually return, but he’s suffered some kind of traumatic brain injury and sits catatonic in a wheelchair, waiting to ship out to a sanitarium. Because the evil boarding school matron has gone to fetch the police and have Temple arrested and thrown in debtor’s prison for some insubordination or another, the race is on to find her father before the coppers find her. And at the last possible minute she does! Not only that, but the sound of her tearful pleading somehow snaps him out of his catatonia and we all live happily ever after. Even grumpy old Queen Victoria is imperiously pleased. I still get a little weepy watching this all these years later. Because these kind of endings remain emotional catnip for children of all ages who ever lost a mommy or a daddy or kitty or a puppy or a pony, metaphoric or otherwise, but never lost hope. When my own father passed away when I was all of 10, I drew strength from her example. For that I am eternally grateful. Goodnight, Miss Temple wherever you are. — JONATHAN VALANIA