Movie poster of Best Foreign Oscar Winning Film, "A Separation" (2011). Directed by Asghar Farhardi
In the national news section of Houston’s official news website in an article entitled “Oscar Foreign Directors not Daunted by Kid Actors”, an award-winning director of Iranian films, Asghar Farhadi, talks on the troubles of working with his daughter in his current Oscar-nominated film, “A Separation.” Eleven year old Sarin Farhadi plays “an estranged Iranian couples child.” Sarin’s father Asghar says his daughter “was the most difficult person to work with on the film.” The article described Sarin to be “the biggest diva on the set.” While Farhadi humorously talked on the troubles of working with his daughter he also gave some insight when working with child actors. The article explained that he “doesn’t completely explain the plots of his movies to child actors “and believes the less they know the better they do. This, he explained, was probably why it was difficult working with his daughter. She was already too engrossed in the story of the film. In other words, she knew too much to be natural.
I chose this national news article particularly because of the director’s quotes on his experience working with child actors and the approach he takes when they are involved in his films. When reading this, I immediately thought of the Shirley Temple reading “Behind Shirley Temple’s Smile: Children, Emotional Labor, and the Great Depression.” There seems to be an overarching agreement between movie producers, directors, and those involved in film making in their belief that children are better on the big screen when they are “natural” and “innocent.” In the reading, Kasson includes a statement from Shirley Temple’s mother in which she states, “I want her (Shirley) to be natural, innocent, sweet. If she ceases to be that I shall have lost her-and motion pictures will have lost her too” (136). It seems likely that Asghar Farhadi would concur with this theory. With his daughter being an important child actor within his Oscar-nominated foreign film, his opinions, and that of Gertrude Temple seem closely connected. Just as the directors in Kasson’s article argue of the dangers of Shirley becoming “spoiled” and resulting in her innocence wiped from her smile, Farhadi seemed to be stuck in the same situation when his daughter became the “diva” on set.
Not only does this news article present a current view of a director’s approach and experience with child acting, but it creates a correlation between past and present ideals on children in film. It also bridges the borders between America and foreign countries when relating viewpoints of child acting.
In Glad Rags to Riches, Shirley Temple plays La Belle Diaperina. Diaperina is a showgirl in a night club that is stuck in a life she despises. The club owner wants Temple for himself, forcing her to perform until she marries him. She refuses and wishes that her sweetheart would save her. Her sweetheart, Elmer, just so happens to stumble into the poster for her act and realizes that he may have finally found his love. They find each other in the club during a very can-can like dance number, upsetting her boss. He kicks Elmer out of the club, but only until he comes crashing back in with police to arrest the horrible club owner. Diaperina and Elmer share a celebratory smooch and leave hand in hand to the Wedding March.
There are so many different things that toe the line “between innocence and flirtatiousness.” Temples character is burlesque dancer, in the first scene she is wearing a top hat and shiny black top/diaper. Immediately after her performance it pans to a boy clapping enthusiastically. Her boss is creepy, especially since he is played by a child, and in the final scenes is shown trying to force a kiss on Temple as she tries to get away.
I understand completely the idea behind the Baby Burlesks, it is funny to see kids imitate adults. This was something I still love in appropriate settings such as Little Rascalls. But Riches crosses the line, these are four year olds! Even if the child “goes through the motions of adult characters without…comprehending anything”(Kasson, 197), what does it say about the adults watching? Just because they don’t understand, we do.
The “Baby Burlesk” I chose was called “Kiddin’ Hollywood”, which is a play on words meant to represent both the actuality of the film (kids acting in Hollywood) as well as the critique of Hollywood’s fickleness which is the short’s underlying theme. In the film, a beauty pageant winner named Morelegs Sweetrick is rejected during a casting call for a Hollywood movie. She instead finds work scrubbing the floors around the stage. Her big chance appears when the prissy, diva of a leading female in the film- Freta Snobbo- refuses to come on the set. Morelegs lands the role, and impresses her castmates and director with her performance. Fame gets to her head too quickly though, and after wrapping up filming she rejects the advances of her budding costar in search of a “Rolls Royce and a maid”. She went from being a humble floor cleaner to Freta Snobbo herself. The movie, however, is a complete bust, and Sweetrick finds her aspiring film career grounded prior to takeoff. While wallowing in her own failure, her previously rejected costar returns for her, confesses his enduring love, and takes her hand in marriage.
The film does not satirize a prior work, rather instead choosing to satirize individual prominent figures in Hollywood at the time. Freta Snobbo is meant to represent actress Greta Garbo, who was renown at the time as being an odd figure, who frequently caused problems on movie sets because of her disdain for crowds and preference for being constantly alone. This made her come off as “snobbish”, hence the joke. Morelegs Sweetrick is meant to satirize actress Marlene Dietrich, who was known to pursue roles with an unheard of ferocity. If there was a role she desired, she would do everything in her power to get it.
This particular burlesque is a prime example of what John Kasson mentions in his text “Behind Shirley Temple’s Smile”:
“Shirley Temple’s early roles were perched ambiguously on the cusp between innocence and flirtatiousness.” (course packet, page 197).
The attire that Temple dons as “Morelegs Sweetrick” is meant to simulate that of a high class mistress. The name “Morelegs” is a reference to Temple’s legs, which is very inappropriate when used to refer to a child but would be much more common if used to refer to a woman of questionable morals in an adult film. The word “trick” is often used to describe sexual favors performed by a prostitute, and in combination with the word “sweet” the name as a whole was meant to be highly suggestive and an inside joke among adults. There is also the matter of the kiss; a long passionate kiss that, while appearing innocent between children, would be much considered much more risque among an older crowd. Finally, there is the matter of Sweetrick becoming a materialistic girl interested in the fancy things in life. This is evident when she flirts with her director after the closing of the film because in him she sees the possibility of a “Rolls Royce and a maid”. Love for money, a concept that is very adult.
The Baby Burlesk short film The Kid’s Last Fight featured Shirley Temple as the “girlfriend” of a boxer, Diaper Dempsey. The opening scene encompasses a classic Baby Burlesk scene in which lots of babies are in a gym training. Most of them are lifting weights and hitting punching bags. Shirley enters the room and immediately the attention shifts to her. She starts walking towards Diaper when, all of a sudden, Pop Skull McGee (the defending boxing champion and Diaper’s next opponent) grabs her by the arm, pulls her to him, and exclaims, “Hello cutie!” Shirley responds by slapping him and, subsequently, Diaper walks over and shoves him. Diaper then goes on to proclaim that he has never lost a fight when Shirley has been in attendance. After hearing this, McGee devises a plan to kidnap Shirley so that she cannot go to the fight. During the fight, McGee is putting a beating on Diaper. Shirley escapes her kidnapper and shows up in the middle of the fight. When Diaper sees her, he gathers the energy to knock McGee out. This Burlesk is a satire of Jack Dempsey, a legend in the boxing world.
After watching the Burlesk War Babies in class, we discussed the inappropriate innocence in the children, but the grown-up actions that they take. In The Kid’s Last Fight, there were not many overly inappropriate, sexually implicit actions taken. One could think that the way McGee grabbed Shirley and yanked her towards him was inappropriate, but it was not something that stood out very much. However, the more inappropriate or disturbing actions in this short film took the form of violence. The entire short was about the babies in a boxing match, beating each other up. While some people might be disturbed by that, it seemed like one of the more tame Baby Burlesk’s that I have seen.
Diaper Dempsey shoving Pop Skull McGee, Screenshot from Youtube
Recently, reality television has evolved to include children as entertainment to American viewers. Popular shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras,” and “Dance Moms” have received much criticism for the way children, mostly young girls, are being exploited. As Sarah Porter mentions in her blog about “Toddlers and Tiaras,” the amount of preparation for pageants is a lot of work and pressure for young girls. This is also seen in “Dance Moms,” which follows a group of girls ages 6-13 in the Abbey Lee Dance Company. The show highlights all of the hard work and pressures that it takes to be a successful dancer. The young girls in the show spend hours everyday at the dance studio practicing, and on the weekends compete in dance competitions all over the country. In recent controversy, actress Katherine Heigl, slammed the show “Dance Moms” for how it exploits young girls. Heigl mentions in her blog, “girls as young as seven were encouraged to dress provocatively and shimmy around stage doing a dance performance that could just as easily been a burlesque routine. I kept thinking all these girls were missing is a pole!” Heigl goes on to rant more about how Abbey Lee, the dance instructor for the young girls is too harsh with them and yells at them instead of encouraging them. Heigl insists that shows like “Dance Moms” encourage children to think that acting sexy is the best way to succeed, when instead children could be performing with age appropriate routines.
When reading Kasson’s article, “Behind Shirley Temple’s Smile,” I immediately thought of the girls on “Dance Moms.” Like Shirley Temple, the girls on “Dance Moms” are expected to always be at their best in performances and put in many hours to succeed. Also, they have in common the aspect of flirtatiousness in their performances. While people loved Shirley Temple long ago, it seems we are still entertained by the same themes today.
Below is a video of the Abbey Lee Dance Company performance, ‘Electricity’
The “Baby Burklesk” video, “Polly Tix in Washington” is the perfect example of what John Kasson is speaking about when he says that Shirley Temple’s early roles were, “perched ambiguously on the cusp between innocence and flirtatiousness.” (Kasson, 131) In the satire Shirley plays an expensive call girl hired to seduce a new congressman into voting for a new bill on Castor Oil. She is shown prancing around in a lace bra and expensive jewelry, and offering the baby congressman cake to persuade him. However, she winds up falling in love and almost getting herself killed until the baby congressman fights for her honor.
The video definitely makes a mockery of the children and their innocence. In the final scene, Shirley tells the only black child featured in the film, that prosperity is just around the corner, and the film concludes with him running around the corners of the street searching for it. It is also mildly disturbing that at an age where boys and girls typically think each other to have “cooties” they are playing prostitutes and fighting for love.
In class we spoke of contemporary examples of videos such as these, that use children to play roles they do not fully understand or ones pushed upon them by adults. One example we spoke of was “Pearl the Landlord,” and I was immediately reminded of the parodies done by children who reenact episodes of The Hills, Jersey Shore, and The Real Housewives of New Jersey. After watching these recent mockeries acted out by children, the ones Shirley Temple played in seemed slightly less disturbing.
Shirley Temple being taken by Cannibals in "Kid in Africa"
A part of the “Baby Burlesk” series, the ten minute short, “Kid in Africa,” released in 1933, parodies the “Tarzan the Ape Man” movies by telling the story of a young girl, played by Madame Cradlebait, who is determined to civilize cannibals in Africa. Starring Shirley Temple as a missionary, Madame Cradlebait, the short opens with the arrival of the young blonde followed by several young black children who play the role of her servants and carry her luggage (which reads, “Civilize the Cannibals or Bust!”). Shortly after finding a place to nap, Cradlebait and her servants are attacked by a group of cannibals, portrayed by more young black children wearing face paint, who eventually capture the missionary and put her into a giant pot to prepare her for supper. Luckily, the heroic Diaperzan hears Cradlebait’s cries for help and summons his elephant to ride to her rescue. Diaperzan scares off the cannibals and saves the missionary. Soon after, the jungle has been civilized and a town has blossomed, complete with a traffic controller and a filling station. Wearing dressy clothes, Diaperzan says he will play golf this afternoon, but Madame Cradlebait reminds him he must wash the dishes. The short ends with Cradlebait having civilized Diaperzan as well, as he wears a frilly, pink apron while being subservient to her.
Opposed to other “Baby Burlesk” shorts, Shirley Temple’s role in “Kid in Africa” is a lot less flirtatious, as John Kasson describes the parts she frequently plays. The only thing that stuck out in my mind as coming close to crossing that boundary was the costume that Temple wears, her khaki “diaper” is very short and shows a lot of leg. Other than that, “Kid in Africa” is very tame in regards to flirtatiousness.
I did, however, find evidence to support Kasson’s claim that the humor of these shorts relies on adult knowledge playing against childhood innocence. A young cannibal calls another to come eat the missionary, to which the line, “if there’s anything I love, it’s true missionary,” is said. I believe that this line is a reference to the sexual position by the same name, and would be a joke that only an adult audience would be able to understand. The humor lies at the child not knowing what he is saying.
This is the course website for Rebecca Onion's American Studies seminar at the University of Texas at Austin, convened during the spring semester of 2012. You can see the website for last semester's version of this course at this link.