Shirley Temple truly plays her part as Nell in the “Glad Rags to Riches” (1932) Baby Burlesk short film. Interestingly enough, this film was actually not a spin-off of another film. Shirley Temple stars as a dancer at the Lullaby Lobster Palace, and the nightclub owner baby, later called the Diaper Viper, is very discouraging even though she was cute and the audience (of babies) was amused. The Diaper Viper ignores Nell who says she cannot go on dancing, but he will not let her leave because he wants to marry her. She mentions that she wishes her sweetheart would come and save her. We later find out his name is Elmer. He shows up and through a humorous series of events, wins Nell over the Diaper Viper.
You really have to consider how long it took to film with a cast of so many small children. They probably had to rehearse the lines right before the scene was shot. I disagree with the notion that kids are not exploited during acting because the point is that they do as they are told. They tilt their head in a certain way or stand up at a certain line. But taking it a step further, these are not children acting as children. “The children literally go through the motions of adult characters without presumably, comprehending anything about the drama they are enacting.” (Kasson 131) Shirley Temple played Nell, whose age is up for interpretation, but she is old enough to have a sweetheart and to have men fighting over her.
A different exploitation well worth noting – the exploitation of women – is very present in this film. It is more an emphasis on making the woman a victim than making her flirtatious. Nell is so tired of her job and can’t go on but the Diaper Viper won’t let her go until she marries him, perhaps inferring that if Elmer did not save her, she may have married the Diaper Viper. Shirley may have learned from this and many other characters she portrayed, that men have power over women. Theoretically, in real life she could have quit and walked out but that is not an option it seems in this film. Shirley’s character is less flirtatious than the typical one described in Kasson’s “Behind Shirley Temple’s Smile.” Elmer proclaims, “Alas that I should find you in a state of inequity,” reiterating the idea that she is not being treated fairly and she says “please save me,” vocalizing her damsel in distress role, needing to be saved by a man.
A significant aspect of the film is the use of a darker child as the helper in Nell’s dressing room, addressing the still racist environment of the time. Women are still playing the roles of damsels in distress and flirtatious, but casting a film set in today’s time of a nonwhite person serving a white person would be unacceptable. There is also the use of a dog! Some comic relief (Relief from what? Or maybe just more comedy?) in a classic form, where the dog eats the ice cream held behind the back of a child. I’ll admit the film was entertaining, but just as some rap songs are derogatory towards women but still sometimes enjoyable, the themes of the film were not uplifting towards women.