The Secret Life of Shirley Temple
She was a young, rising star in Hollywood complete with dimples, golden ringlets and a face that the camera adored. But family musicals and light comedies weren’t the first properties for the pint-sized talent, Shirley Temple. In the early 1930’s, under orders from her first studio, Education Pictures, and with permission from her movie-struck mother, donned a pair of high-heels, sheer tights, heavy makeup and tight fitting negligee-style clothes to become a child, depression-era working girl.
In around March of 1932, the film distribution company Education Pictures – which previous projects included a couple Mack Sennett shorts and countless other popular silent comedies – decided to capitalise on the success of several big budget, star-studded blockbusters. But without the finance nor the acting talent available to produce the films, the resolved to take a different route. Instead of feature length prints and established, mature performers, they would create a series of film shorts, all running about ten minutes long, spoofing or satirising particular personalities or films of the day. As an added bonus and to ensure they attracted both audiences and publicity, instead of established or even largely experienced actors, the creators choose to take the shorts further by making the entire cast children who would behave and somewhat dress like their older acting counterparts.
In this, it wasn’t difficult to find candidates, the series producer, Jack Hays, and director, Charles Lamont, sourced the performers mostly from Meglin’s Dance School in Hollywood where the children would be at least basically trained dancers and singers. Aged between 3 and 5, the dozen child-actors would wear top hats, diapers with over-sized safety pins, lingerie and, in some cases, a full black body of paint to become “The Baby Burlesks”. They included such actors as Georgie Smith, Eugene Butler, the tragic Dorian Samson and most notably classic film star Shirley Temple who featured in seven out of the eight shorts.
The first picture was the adorable ‘Runt Page’ released in April 1932 and is credited as Temple’s first film role. It was a spoof of the popular play ‘The Front Page’ – which later became ‘His Girl Friday’ (1940) starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell – a story about the hard-hitting and fast-pasted world of the newspaper industry. It had Temple playing journalist Lulu Parsnips, a satire of the popular and powerful Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons. This followed ‘War Babies’ (September, 1932), from the successful World War I film ‘What Price Glory?’ (1926), and ‘Glad Rags to Riches’ (February 1933) which featured a singing and dancing Temple as Victorian Era performer, La Belle Diaperia. Both films were less shocking then the few to follow but still employed exploitative themes, such as, children drinking from beer shaped mugs filled with buttermilk, sexualised dancing and clothes and heavily innuendo laden dialogue. Temple even commented in her autobiography that her performance in ‘War Babies’ was filled with “kootchy dances” and “international flirtation”.
The fourth, arguably the most remarkable and critically popular, was ‘Kid ‘in’ Hollywood’ (March 1933) a spoof of several Precode films detailing the perils and, alternatively, the heights of Hollywood and the film industry. Temple played an ex-beauty queen who has fallen on hard times and has to clean films sets to pay her way in L.A. She is soon discovered by pint-sized director Frightwig von Stumblebum (a.k.a director and maverick Eric von Stroheim) who makes her a star under the name Morelegs Sweetrick, a homage to screen legend Marlene Dietrich.
As the series became more popular and the adult inspiration feature films became more racy and cutting-edge with their content, so did the ‘Baby Burlesk’ producers with the plots for their final three shorts. ‘The Kid’s Last Fight’ (April 1933), ‘Polly Tix in Washington’ (June 1933) and, the last production, ‘Kid ‘in’ Africa’ (October 1933) crossed many boundaries in terms of race depictions, costumes, subject matter, political references and portrayals of organised crime. Most shockingly was Temple dressed in a black lace bra and undies being waited on by a baby-African American maid preparing to seduce a new, naïve senator in ‘Polly Tix in Washington’.
Also, not to exclude the even more scandalous and exploitative scenes in ‘War Babies’ of groups of baby “savages” painted completely black being shot with arrows by a group of “civilised” babies.
As the Precode era of revolutionary and purely adult-directed content concluded so did the niche and interest in the ‘Baby Burlesk’ series. The racy and controversial antics of its young performers no longer matched the audience that was going to the cinema. Not long after its demise Shirley Temple easily moved on to the collection of family-oriented films she is more widely known. Likewise, many of the other young stars also migrated to the more wholesome ‘Our Gang’ series that ran from the early to mid 1930’s. All of whom probably aiming to forget the group of notorious shorts they made in the beginning of their careers.
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