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The one where Shirley Temple plays an orphan


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The recent Shirley Temple Memorial Tribute on TCM caused me to reflect on Fox studio's 'winning' formula in all those Shirley Temple pictures.

 

Often, she played a loner character, wiser than her years, and usually without the benefit of parents or a traditional home. It works, maybe because it engenders a great deal of sympathy-- to think that such a precious child has nobody in this cold cruel world, well it's unthinkable. We want to protect her, root for her to find that Hollywood happy ending.

 

But there are dark serious undertones in these stories.

 

In BRIGHT EYES, the scene where James Dunn's character takes her up in the plane to show her above the clouds where her mother has gone is as eerie as it is comforting. It is like he is taking her into death to show her that her mother is at peace now. Of course, the plane comes back down to earth, and Shirley goes on with the rest of her life-- but it's a tear-fest, and how can even the toughest adult not crumble watching that play out on screen.

 

In STOWAWAY, there is equally disturbing material. When Robert Young's character goes into the bar to drink with Eugene Pallette, and she is left outside in the rain holding on to the dog. She hops into the back of the trunk to get out of the storm, but then she falls asleep and winds up transported on to a ship sailing for the U.S. What strikes me as disturbing here is that a man would leave a child alone that long, and then when he goes back to find her, and she is gone, he just accepts that she is gone. Wouldn't a responsible adult at least alert the authorities? Or try to look for her himself? He goes back to his privileged life and then of course bumps into her later on the boat.

 

Were there such children in the 1930s, in America, that were hopelessly abandoned like Shirley's characters were in these pictures made at Fox in the 30s? Was there a greater message the writers were trying to tell about the plight of homeless and orphaned children, with Shirley as the poster child for that?

 

Audiences at the time flocked to see these films. I don't think it was escapism. I think they wanted to see that if Shirley could survive these horrible circumstances, then maybe they could survive their own horrible circumstances, too.

 

Thoughts...?

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It's long been a joke of mine to tell people my favorite Shirley Temple movie is, "You know....the one where she plays an orphan!"

 

I really couldn't say with any certainty if any children suffered the hardships that Shirley's characters did in those days. It's true in many cases that they had to endure some indignities through no fault of their own, like illegitimacy, in which children were scorned because of the circumstances caused by their parents. In those times, umarried parents were looked down on, and the word "bastard" was a profanity and an insult. Today, there are many kids who are technically bastards, but people foist no blame for that on the kids, and don't even scorn the parents. Four people in my family have reached adulthood with their parents never marrying, or in a couple of cases, eventually marrying other people.

 

As for orphans, it's unclear to me why orphans were shown to be cruelly mistreated by people who ran ophanages. If it's an accurate depiction, then the why goes to what could possibly be the reason. Again, being an orphan is a circumstance beyong the child's control, and mistreating them is misguided. But maybe it's a consideration to bring back possibly some sort of state run and regulated orphanages, seeing as to how the current "foster care" system is rife with problems. There's certainly more abuse, sexual or otherwise, neglect and other cruelty attributed to it.

 

I never considered that Shirley Temple movies were trying to send some kind of message, or just what that message could be. Maybe the long term effect was that orphaned or illegitimate children no longer get blamed for their situations. Shirley would certainly have been the poster child for that.

 

Sepiatone

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Sepiatone, the Temple phenomenon came about during the depths of the Great Depression. There were many families, and many children, finding themselves homeless, hungry, etc. Some children were probably abandoned due to the stresses the parents were facing. Shirley probably brought a measure of reassurance with her ability to conquer the odds in her movies.

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>So if Shirley had come along at some other time, she wouldn't have become a star?

 

The time she came along helped her brief career, plus she was lucky that sound was in and she had a cute voice and could sing, dance, and remember her lines. People liked cute kids. I think fewer movie-goers today like kids. She could carry a film all by herself. She seemed to like working so she made a lot of films in a short amount of times and never seemed tired.

 

She made 42 films (including shorts) between the ages of 4 and 10.

 

Today, have you noticed that many actors let a lot of time go by in-between their films? So for modern cute kids, they can grow up before they've made more than about two or three films. So they can't become a child star for very long. In fact, one reason we don't have too many famous young female stars like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford is that stars today don't seem to make as many films each year. By the time they become noticed and then make their fourth film after that, they are old.

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Orphans are a major theme in Western folklore and mythology. A movie centering on an orphan strikes a deep chord in our common psyche. Casting Miss Temple as an orphan immediately induces the audience to identify with her as a heroine and sympathetic character. Her vulnerability arising from the lack of protectors adds to this.

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slaytonf wrote:

<< Orphans are a major theme in Western folklore and mythology. A movie centering on an orphan strikes a deep chord in our common psyche >>

 

Probably the reason "Annie" has lasted so long as a stage play.

 

No one gives a snitch, when you're in an orphanage!

Annie-Orphans.jpg

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Surprised Fox didn't adapt Little Orphan Annie for Shirley. It was already done in 1932 by RKO and again by Paramount in 1938, but none of those girls made it as memorable as Shirley probably would have done. Though which Fox contract star could have played Daddy Warbucks?

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Funny, I was just pondering this very subject recently.

Both Sepiatone & Arturo touched on interesting points:

 

>In those times, umarried parents were looked down on, and the word "bastard" was a profanity and an insult. Today, there are many kids who are technically bastards, but people foist no blame for that on the kids, and don't even scorn the parents.

 

>There were many families, and many children, finding themselves homeless, hungry, etc. Some children were probably abandoned due to the stresses the parents were facing.

 

How many stories have we heard about kids that left school to work at 10, 11, 12? This "leaving childhood" at a young age has been around until we passed laws prohibiting child labor.

Re: A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN where the father dies and the kids are expected to leave school for work instead of just assisting their parents. And GRAPES OF WRATH showing the desperation of families during the depression. Many teens felt it was better for their family to strike off on their own.

 

A "bastard" child could raise resentment in the abandoned mother by losing support from her family and jeopardizing HER survival.

 

Today, many children are "abandoned" for the grandparents to raise. My only issue with that is obviously the grandparents didn't teach their own children personal responsibility, so now the next generation won't be taught that either.

Our society progresses in one way and degresses in another.

 

I think Shirley's cuteness, talent & optimism made audiences sympathize & empathize. Their own life just couldn't be so bad.

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>I think Shirley's cuteness, talent & optimism made audiences sympathize & empathize. Their own life just couldn't be so bad.

 

I somewhat disagree with this statement. That implies they were using her films as escapist entertainment. And yes, the occasional song-and-dance numbers probably did help them forget their troubles. But something greater seems to be happening in Shirley Temple's early films. It is like the audience is relating to her character's circumstances and drawing strength from it-- that if she could pull herself up and find happiness again, so could they.

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> where the father dies and the kids are expected to leave school for work instead of just assisting their parents.

 

 

This happened in my step-Father's case. He quit school after HIS Father died in order to find some kind of work to help out his Mother and siblings. It was a family of seven kids, him being somewhere in the middle, and not the only one to leave school for the same reason. He was 14 at the time, and it was 1931.

 

Tiki, I found your indictment of Grandparents harsh and judgemental. It's not fair to assume that just because the son or daughter showed lack of personal responsibility doesn't mean there was never an attempt of it being taught as they grew up. As a parent, I know there are MANY things we try to drill into our kids' heads that they never hold onto, and sometimes resist to the point of distraction. There comes a time when they're at an age when their decisions and choices are their own, in spite of what parents try to teach otherwise. If you had better luck in this quarter, then I'm glad for you. But don't take it to mean that others never tried. As MY grandmother liked to say, "No one person should be considered the yardstick by which all others should be measured."

 

Sepiatone

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TopBilled wrote:

<< Though which Fox contract star could have played Daddy Warbucks? >>

 

J. Farrell McDonald, he was the tramp in "Our Little Girl" (1935).

j__farrell_macdonald___zenobia.jpg

 

or Guy Kibbee (Captain January), like McDonald worked for different studios. Lol Guy actually looks like Warbucks in this photo.

 

07-kibbee-william.jpg

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Interesting you mention J. Farrell McDonald. He costarred in the Paramount version of Little Orphan Annie (though the character names were slightly changed).

 

I think Guy Kibbee would have been ideal as Daddy Warbucks, with Shirley Temple as Annie.

 

And Helen Westley would have been perfect as nasty Mrs. Warbucks.

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The title of this thread reminds me of a story my late brother in law used to tell.

 

He was the manager of a record store in the 1970s and people would come in looking for "the song I just heard on the radio." If he asked for details he'd get answers like, "It was about love."

 

I often play a similar joke about FIXER DUGAN. I always say that it's Virginia Weidler's "orphan raised by the circus" movie and that every child star needed to have at least one of those.

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>Don't you mean Miss Hannigan?

 

In the original comic strip, especially when it was published in the 1930s, the female villain was Mrs. Warbucks. Daddy would go away on long trips, and Mrs. Warbucks would invariably send Annie back to the orphanage.

 

In the RKO version from 1932, May Robson plays the character but her name has been changed to Mrs. Stewart. I think Helen Westley would be a little meaner and less blustery than Robson.

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