Monday, February 17, 2014

Shirley Temple: A life that deserves to be remembered

It is a measure of how short our cultural memory has become that the death of Shirley Temple went by with so little remark. I'm trying to remember when the death of a movie star who was as popular as she was in her heyday attracted so little public attention.

I heard in a radio interview a couple of years ago of a famous disc jockey who said that the normal span of popularity of a hip hop song was about a week. After that, he said, it was largely forgotten. It made me think of the fact that the Beatles "Hey Jude" spent 9 weeks as the number one song in 1968 and many more weeks than that on the charts. Of course, that wasn't normal, but it was not uncommon twenty or thirty years ago for songs to be popular for months.

Maybe this is a cultural anomaly, but I suspect it's not.

This extreme form of presentism seems more and more to characterize our culture. Not only the past, but even the future is a victim. Douglas Rushkoff calls it the "New Now" in a book subtitled, "When everything happens now."

What will future generations have nostalgia for if they can remember no past?

Many people who are immersed in the culture of today, where popularity waxes and wanes on a weekly or sometimes daily cycle, have a hard time understanding the longevity of older movie stars and musicians. They don't comprehend that before the digital revolution there were cultural trends that lasted, not weeks, not months, but even decades.

People of my generation had—and still have—longer cultural memories, and when we hear news like that of Shirley Temple having died, we get all nostalgic and start thinking about how the culture that our generation valued and the movie stars that we thought were so good and the musicians that we thought were worth listening to and literature that was so important to us is ignored and that pretty soon it will forgotten altogether because it won't be too many years now and all of us will have died and no one will remember us and our culture at all.

Have a nice day.

But back to Shirley Temple. She was probably the greatest child star, not only of her generation, but of any generation. She was not just popular, she was phenomenally, outrageously popular. No one hadn't heard of her. Of course, her popularity was at its height in the 1930s. But as someone growing up in the 1960s as I did she was still—despite the fact that she gave up acting early in her life—familiar to everyone and her movies were still frequently aired on television (which, those of us with cultural memories know, was the only way one could see old movies).

Shirley Temple was, of course, almost unbearably cute. But she perpetrated her cuteness on a nation at a time when it was okay to be cute—and innocent. We have forgotten that there was a time when simple innocence was not considered abnormal. It was taken for granted that innocence was a desirable thing. There was a time when people actually thought well of good people and wanted to be like them and our culture didn't conspire to undermine these sentiments.

Today such a person would be lampooned into oblivion on the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. "Animal Crackers in my Soup" would be turned into a striptease act on Saturday Night Live so we could all laugh at the naiveté of anyone who could perform such a routine with a straight face.

Our present culture just can't tolerate what appears to be pure, unadulterated goodness. Our literature (where books are still read) and our cinema invite us to tear down our heroes. We are taught by our culture to suspect anything that appears to be good, and so we are conditioned to look behind the veil of innocence that we know must hide an ugly reality underneath.

This is why modern storytellers have such trouble portraying a good character. I read somewhere that contemporary Disney animators had a much harder time making good characters more attractive than bad ones. This is not an entirely new problem, of course. Milton was criticized for the fact that, in Paradise Lost, his Satan was more compelling than any of the good characters. But the criticism Milton endured was precisely because this was the exception, not the rule.

It is now the rule.

We now think that we are not looking reality in the face if we think that goodness should be more attractive than ugliness. Evil and ugliness are somehow more real than goodness and beauty and not to comprehend this is seen as hopelessly naive. If you appreciate a simple story where the good guys win and the bad guys lose you must be some kind of rube just fallen off the turnip truck.

We now wander a cultural wasteland having to settle for television dramas like "Breaking Bad" or "Mad Men" or "The Sopranos" in which, compelling as they are in their own right, the good, when it is seen at all, is only seen apophatically: that is, through its opposite. We are becoming the moral equivalent of cave fish, with our moral vision still there, except it's not functional. We now spend so much time in the cultural dark that we have no tolerance of the light.

We are fast producing a generation in which cynicism and irony are the only recognizable modes of cultural cognition.

Of course none of Shirley Temple's movies are going to be mistaken for great cinema. But her early films were made during the Depression, when people who faced day-to-day hardships that we today could not even comprehend would go to movies to see something that would relieve their wretchedness, if only for an hour or two. And watching a wholesome, perky little girl sing and dance was like water from a cold well on a sweltering summer day.

They did it in droves.

They led lives of impossible poverty—and hungered for just a little goodness and innocence to lighten up a dark time. We lead lives of historically unheard of luxury and comfort--and watch cynical dramas that examine and sometimes exalt the underbelly of society.

There was a time when men were strong enough not to be repelled by innocence.

And there is an irony to our modern ironic nature that comes into play with cultural figures like Shirley Temple and it's this: That the goodness and innocence that we automatically want to see behind was actually genuine. Temple, as it turns out, not only portrayed a good and innocent little girl on the screen, but actually was one. And this person who was good and innocent as a child star grew up to be a good person in real life.

We find such a thing hard to believe in a time when our entertainment industry is dominated by the toxic likes Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus, but it's true.

I am reminded of the story Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt, about a young girl, Winnie Foster, who, discontented with her family, slips away from home one day in the late 19th century, and in a wood close by her house meets a young boy at a little pool of water at the foot of a giant elm. He looks young, but he is actually 104 years old. He has been drinking from the pool which contains water that will keep him young forever. Not only him, but his whole family, who take her away with them.

Winnie and the seemingly young boy fall in love, and he asks her to wait until she is 17 and drink the water too so they can be together—and seventeen, forever. Through circumstances, she is taken back home. But when he and his family, eternally young, return to her town years later to find her, they discover she has led a normal, happy life. They visit the cemetery and find a gravestone, carved with the words, "In Loving Memory, Winifred Foster Jackson, Dear Wife, Dear Mother, 1870-1948."

She was a good person who lived a good life, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Shirley Temple was almost trapped in her own way by her massive stardom as a child. But she couldn't remain young forever. She left Hollywood at the age of 21. She married (at the age of 17), but the marriage ultimately failed. Later, she married Charles Alden Black in a marriage that lasted 54 years. She became a businesswoman and a diplomat known to a later generation as Shirley Temple Black. She had children by both marriages, and ultimately grandchildren and great grandchildren.

She was a good person who lived a good life, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Her life deserves remembering—all of it, not just its beginning, even by those of us today who worship at the fountain of youth.

1 comment:

Art said...

We have forgotten that there was a time when simple innocence was not considered abnormal. It was taken for granted that innocence was a desirable thing. There was a time when people actually thought well of good people and wanted to be like them and our culture didn't conspire to undermine these sentiments.

These sentiments abound in the genre we know as Bollywood.