Saturday, February 15, 2014

Graham Greene's review of a Shirley Temple movie


We had a murder in this state several years ago. Two young men murdered a couple walking on the beach one night and then fled to Mexico. The murders were completely senseless. It turned out that they were trying to model themselves after Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the two murderers in In Cold Blood.

I thought maybe the killers wanted to set off into the world, but couldn't make themselves leave home without being wanted for murder. If they wanted to set off into the world and burn their bridges behind them, they should have run up some massive credit card debts. At least then they'd have something to show for it.

And then there was Graham Greene, the British author who took refuge in Mexico after writing a bizarre and libelous review of a Shirley Temple movie in the 1930s. Shirley and the studio successfully sued him and the magazine that published it. The magazine folded and Greene took off to avoid paying the judgement against him.

Here's what he wrote:
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.

My God. What was Greene thinking? Dimpled depravity?

He went on to write The Third Man and The Quiet American.

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