The Disturbingly Suggestive Review Graham Greene Wrote of a Shirley Temple Movie That Nearly Led to His Imprisonment
This is part speculation, and part absolute truth, but in 1937, Shirley Temple starred in a film called Wee Willie Winkie directed by John Ford. Keep in mind that, in 1937, Shirley Temple was nine years old, but that didn’t stop literary master Graham Greene — in a film review for the magazine Night and Day — from making some very strange, very unseemly suggestions about Temple, her perception, and the kind of dirty old men that were allegedly fond of her “well-shaped and desirable little body.”
In fact, the Graham Greene review, which went as far as to call Temple a “totsy,” ultimately got him and his magazine sued by Shirley Temple’s guardians and 20th Century Fox. In the suit, Temple and the studio won £3,500 for the defamatory review of Wee Willie Winkie, and the magazine shut down.
The speculation part is that Graham Greene apparently fled to Mexico that year in order to avoid criminal prosecution for the film review. According to the autobiography of Greene’s close friend, the cinema pioneer Alberto Cavalcanti, papers were sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, but Greene was never arrested.
In either rate, he did go to Mexico, and that’s where he wrote his masterpiece, The Power and the Glory, so something positive came out of the scandal.
As for the review? It’d get Greene ran out on a rail in 2014. While it probably wouldn’t result in a libel suit, Graham would certainly be fired for it. It is … wrong. In fact, it almost sounds like a tongue-in-cheek review from The Onion.
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.”
Hat Tip: Sarah D (Thanks!)