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THE 'LOLITA' LIBEL CASE : Shirley Temple's 'Dimpled Depravity'?

June 22, 1986|CECIL SMITH

A few weeks ago, in San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico, I saw a theatrical performance at the local chapter of P.E.N., the writers fraternity, which was based on a most unlikely source--"The Smart Set Anthology." This volume, presumably long out of print, was a collection of the remarkable writing that appeared in Smart Set magazine during the two decades surrounding World War I when Willard Huntington Wright and later H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan edited it. You may recall that it first published some of the most illustrious writers of this century, among them Dashiell Hammett, Eugene O'Neill, Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and scores of others. And in this dramatic exercise, admirably devised by Erik Jendresen, most of them appeared, including Mencken, Nathan and Wright (also known as S. S. Van Dine, the mystery writer). Because Smart Set also published Maugham's "Miss Thompson" (later "Rain"), there was even an appearance by that immortal floozie.

I rather doubt that even so gifted a playwright as Jendresen could do anything with a new anthology of the writings that appeared in another famous magazine, Night and Day, which has just been published in England. Night and Day lasted less than six months; it began publication on July 1, 1937, and was gone before Christmas, folding on Dec. 23. It attempted to be a British New Yorker and a lot of illustrious Britons wrote for it, including Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Herbert Read, V. S. Pritchett, Malcolm Muggeridge, Stevie Smith and Christopher Isherwood.

But it was not the stature of its contributors that gave Night and Day an enduring fame. It was the widely believed report that Shirley Temple killed it.

She didn't, of course; like other literary magazines, mounting debts and poor circulation did it in. Shirley Temple contributed to its financial burden, however, inasmuch as the courts ordered the magazine to pay 3,500 in damages because its movie reviewer, Graham Greene, libeled her. Right. The same Graham Greene who is one of the towering figures of modern literature.

The question that has bothered critics and journalists for a generation is how the hell Greene did it. I mean, libeling Curlytop was like libeling the Statue of Liberty or Joan of Arc--it wasn't easy. Shirley at the time was at the height of her dimpled stardom, the No. 1 box-office attraction. Not only in America but in most of the world. Astonishing, that child. In backwater villages of China, peasants who spoke no word of English flocked to see her pictures, enchanted by her chubby presence, chirping "The Good Ship Lollypop" and doing her two-step with Bill Robinson. Her global appeal was mind-boggling.

But libel her Greene did (or so the courts said) with his review of "Wee Willie Winkie," which may well have been the worst picture John Ford ever directed. What I remember about it primarily was that it was difficult to follow because Ford shot it mostly in the dark, either to save electricity or to disavow his participation in it.

This anthology of the writings in Night and Day, just published in England with a preface by--guess who--Graham Greene, contains the offending review, along with a disclaimer stating that it is being printed as a matter of historical interest and with no intention of maligning former Ambassador Shirley Temple Black. With the same disclaimer and with the feeling that it might be valuable to such critics as Charles Champlin, Sheila Benson et al., here, in part, is the offending review:

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders--their property diminishes in value every year. Time's chariot is at their back; before them acres of anonymity. Miss Shirley Temple's case, though, has peculiar interest; infancy for 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 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 tart. Watch her swaggering stride across an Indian barracks square; hear the excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant's palm is raised; watch the way she measures a man with adult, studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep. . .

There's more, including Greene's dismissing the film, as well as the Kipling story from whence it came, as awful, but this portrayal of Temple as a femme fatale, a pre-Nabokov Lolita, must have been at the basis of the libel. What is bothersome is that anyone, even the courts, would take it seriously; it is so utterly preposterous. It's like a Harvard Lampoon of a review. That dumpy little Shirley with her fat legs and chubby, square body would remind Greene or anyone else of Dietrich is absolutely incredible--"dimpled depravity," my great aunt! Greene must have been kidding--pulling our leg.

Wasn't he?

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