Shirley and one of the most horrible libels

(AP Photo/File)
(AP Photo/File)

I was surprised that none of the obituaries of Shirley Temple mentioned Graham Greene. The curly cherub who charmed the world through the dread years of Depression was indirectly responsible for one of the Catholic-guilt-ridden novelist’s best-known if least well-written works.

In the 1930s, Greene was film critic of a small London magazine, Night and Day, of which he was also an editor. In 1937, he published a review of “Wee Willie Winkie”. In a passage which would read somewhat differently today, he declared: “Infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece…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 completely 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…Her admirers - 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…”

She was nine at the time.

Sued by the studio and Temple, Greene fled to Mexico - the trip that was to inspire The Power and the Glory. He wrote to a friend, “I found a cable waiting for me in Mexico City asking me to agree to apologise to that little bitch Shirley Temple.”

He refused to cough up, the case went to court where the judge described the piece as “one of the most horrible libels that one could well imagine” and ordered payment of £3,500 pounds. Greene chipped in £500, Night and Day went under.

Greene’s defenders today insist that the passage had a satiric purpose. If so, he was a bad judge of the way words fall on the ears of an audience. Which he wasn’t.

We are left to ponder a conclusion destructive of Greene’s reputation - although the fact that nobody seems to have brought the incident up in coverage of Ms. Temple’s death suggests that there’s no stomach in the literary world for looking the implications in the eye..