Monday, June 25, 2012

The Innocent Turned Imperialist: Shirley Temple & John Ford by David Meuel

This week I'm pleased to welcome a guest post from a gifted writer on a fine actress, Shirley Temple. Her  acting career may have peaked well before she was an adult, but she remains surprisingly under-appreciated by many classic cinephiles, both for her childhood and young adult roles. All you really need to know was that Shirley was good enough for John Ford--twice! The author of this interesting analysis of this unique actress in the Fordian canon is David Meuel. David is a lifelong film enthusiast with a special fondness for the visual poetry and emotional power of John Ford's work. While David would prefer to live in Monument Valley, he lives in Silicon Valley -- San Jose, California, to be exact -- where he also works as a freelance writer for several high-tech companies. You can reach him at At the end of this post, links to other articles and some brilliant short fiction by him will be posted. I hope you will enjoy discovering his work, and re-discovering the powerful young lady who is the subject of this piece. - Moira Finnie
The Innocent Turned Imperialist: Shirley Temple in John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie and Fort Apache by David Meuel

Shirley Temple and John Ford? The pairing seems surreal. After all, she’s the precocious child star who won our hearts by singing The Good Ship Lollipop, and he’s the tyrannical film director who could make John Wayne cry. Yet, the pair made two very good films together, 1937’s Wee Willie Winkie and 1948’s Fort Apache. And one intriguing element the two films share is Ford’s use of Temple the child and then Temple the young woman. In both, she is a sweet, openhearted innocent who accompanies her one living parent to a remote military outpost in an alien land inhabited by “savage” Indians. Initially, she questions traditions and systems that are fundamentally imperialist, racist, and repressive. In the process, she has a humanizing effect on those around her. Ultimately, though, she becomes a part of these systems. The innocent—now transformed by the values of the societies in which she now lives—becomes an active participant in those societies and supporter of those values.
Philadelphia just after her arrival at Fort Apache

Temple’s characters, Priscilla in Wee Willie Winkie and Philadelphia in Fort Apache, are both highly curious individuals. And often their curiosity taps into key issues in the films. Before Priscilla arrives at the remote British outpost in India her grandfather commands she asks her mother that, if her grandfather were English, “why doesn’t he live in England?” One answer of course would be that, if England weren’t a colonial power, then, yes, he probably would live in England. Philadelphia has her share of questions too. She constantly asks what her role as “the colonel’s lady” should be and what she needs to do to play it correctly. Of the two Temple characters, it’s interesting that little Priscilla asks the bigger questions, questions about war and peace, questions that get to the heart of the story’s core conflicts. In contrast, Philadelphia’s main focus is domestic: she is angry that her father (Henry Fonda’s Colonel Thursday) doesn’t approve of her and Lieutenant O’Rourke (played by Temple’s then real-life husband John Agar) and openly questions and occasionally defies fatherly judgments based on classism and prejudice.
Mixing It Up: Priscilla talks with the imprisoned “enemy,” Khoda Khan, and Philadelphia goes riding with Lieutenant O’Rourke, much to her father’s chagrin.


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