HOMER MEETS SHIRLEY TEMPLE

At the last ICARG meeting in Amsterdam, we discussed the idea of setting up a joint research project that would demonstrate the value of our research and research methodologies to the Cinema Studies community. The subject for this joint project suggested at that meeting, and developed subsequently, was to develop a collective set of case studies focusing on the global circulation in the 1930s and 40s of the films and “stardom” of Hollywood child star Shirley Temple.There is a fuller description, taken from our application to the Rockefeller Foundation, below.What I’d like to do via this blog, and in anticipation of the discussion at the ICARG/HOMER day at the Ghent conference, is to gather some information about the current state of research projects, or possible research projects, into Temple. If you are working in the field of Shirley Temple studies, or planning to, or know of anyone else who is, or know of relevant resources, please post a post.

I’d also like to open up the discussion to consider other possible joint research projects, if anyone would like to make any suggestions.

The information and suggestions you provide will form the basis for a discussion at our meeting in Ghent in December.

THE GLOBAL SHIRLEY TEMPLE PROJECT

The aim of this collaborative research project will be to :

  • aid the group in organizing collective research methods that develop from working with the large bodies of material we are gathering;
  • help us to see unanticipated technical problems that might arise from our use of large datasets and our attempts to coordinate multiple databases;
  • lead to scholarly print publications which will demonstrate the resources that can be provided by consumption-focused database materials for scholars Cinema Studies, Urban History, Cultural Geography, and other fields.

The focus of our collective project will be the Hollywood child star Shirley Temple during the 1930s and into the 1940s. Our reasons for focusing on Temple are:

  • Her stardom—which was global in scope—was most pronounced in the mid- to late 1930s, a decade in which most ICARG projects have research interests.
  • Despite being Hollywood’s most popular box-office star from 1934 to 1938, very little academic research has been undertaken on Temple. There are fewer than five published academic essays in English, only one of which deals with reception.
  • Temple was among the first Hollywood stars to have her image marketed through a large-scale ancillary product industry, of dolls and children’s toys, clothes and beauty products. Little research has, as yet, been published on the international reach of this industry, although magazine coverage of Temple would suggest that her popularity was, indeed, international.
  • Some contemporary critics sought to explain Temple’s appeal by describing her as an icon of hope in the Depression in the US. The first (for a long time the only) academic publication on Temple, Charles Eckert’s essay “Shirley Temple and the House of Rockefeller,” elaborates this suggestion, emphasising her capacity to cross class boundaries and heal class divisions. One aspect of our project will consider whether such interpretations travelled across geographic boundaries, and to the implications of these findings for a more general consideration of the role that Hollywood’s stars and movies in the “Americanization” of other cultures. Several ICARG projects have started to explore this question using Geert Hofstede’s theory of cultural distance as an instrument for measuring the popular reach of Temple’s films across diverse cultures.
  • A consideration of Temple presents some significant methodological issues for the relationship between textual and historical analysis. Viewed from a present-day perspective, the movies present themselves as ripe for a psychoanalytically-informed analysis of the sexually charged relationships that Temple establishes with her leading males. There is, however, little or no historical evidence to suggest that her appeal was, as Graham Greene notoriously described it in his 1937 review of Wee Willie Winkie, to “middle-aged men and clergymen.” The success of the ancillary industries, indeed, suggests that her appeal was primarily to an older female audience. Temple might well, therefore, offer a limit case in considering the interpretive frameworks available to audiences at the time of a movie’s release.
  • Because the movies are open to interpretation, the project will have some appeal to textual analysts, and this distinguishes a project based around the reception of a star from one more clearly focused only on exhibition history. Consequently, a study of Temple is likely to appeal to Cinema Studies scholars who focus on textual analysis as well to scholars in Cultural History, Cultural Studies, and related fields.

The planned outcome will be an edited collection of essays focusing on the consumption of Shirley Temple’s films and star image around the world. This volume will have several important effects: First, it will be the first sustained scholarly work on this important but neglected figure. Second, it will be the first sustained scholarly work on a single figure and body of films as they circulated in the global economy and culture of cinema. Third, it will show new methods for analyzing and interpreting large amounts of information about the historical consumption of cinema in a global context. We hope, of course, that this volume with add to our knowledge of world cinema history. We also hope that it will serve as a demonstration of the scholarly benefits both of working with large datasets and of working in international collaborations, and will encourage other scholars to pursue similar projects, both in constructing and disseminating their own databases and in further analyzing and interpreting already existing ICARG databases.

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6 Responses to “HOMER MEETS SHIRLEY TEMPLE”


  1. 1 bestqualitycrab September 14, 2007 at 7:56 am

    Hi Richard,
    I’ve been collecting detailed data on Film Screenings in Lisbon 1932-34. This slightly precedes Shirley Temple’s glory days. But I also have info on the opening dates for all films screened in Lisbon in the 1930s and 1940s which might form a good empirical basis for thinking about Shirley’s diffusion into a specific non-English speaking territory. It would be interesting to get commensurate data from Brazil to open this up to looking at the Portuguese language markets.
    cheers
    Deb

  2. 2 Kate September 15, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    I’m very much in favour of this project, so I’d like to lobby for the inclusion of oral histories within the method, as we’re running out of time to infuse data-driven assumptions about the nature and scope of something we call “popularity” with the observations of people who were in the late 1930s audience.

    The audience you mention–older and female–isn’t directly available to us, which sends us back to diaries, personal and public correspondence, and press discourses. But members of the child audience of the late 1930s are still with us.

    The fact that they are in their eighties suggests some urgency to the project of collecting interviews on this topic, now rather than later.

    This doesn’t only give us access to the child perspective on a child star (although of course that’s interesting in itself). We have interviewed people in this age range who have an interesting recall of their parents’ viewing tastes, and I think would have something to tell us.

    Kate

  3. 3 karelq September 24, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    Bert Hogenkamp wrote hte follwoing article about the Shirley Temple Contest in Utrecht, The Netherlands, in 1936:

    Bert Hogenkamp, “A Curly Top, a Royal Engagement and a Local Bylaw: Cinema Exhibition and Innovation in Utrecht in 1936”, in: Film History 17.1 (2005).
    http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/film_history/v017/17.1hogenkamp.html

    From the introduction:
    In April Fool’s Day, 1936 more than 300 persons, almost exclusively mothers with their young daughters, crowded the Gebouw voor Kunsten en Wetenschappen (Building for Arts and Sciences) in the centre of Utrecht. They had responded to a newspaper advertisement placed by the local Flora Cinema which had called for Shirley Temple look-alikes to present themselves for a contest. The winner would be awarded a Shirley Temple doll, while her mother would receive the sum of 25 Guilders (a substantial amount of money at that time) in a savings account. Everyone was relieved that they were not being fooled when Is. Cohen Barnstijn, the owner of the Flora Cinema, turned up with four gentlemen: the jury consisting of the director of the Gerzon fashion store which was sponsoring the contest, a photographer and two journalists. The local newspaper Utrechts Nieuwsblad could not help but comment that ‘the majority of the contestants looked as much like Shirley as a flea resembles an elephant, although it needs to be said that there were some girls who really had something in common with the little American film star’. The newspaper considered the ‘special costumes’ that some mothers had made for their offspring an ‘eyesore’, nor was it particularly impressed with the ‘curly top wigs’ that some of the girls were wearing. At the end of a long afternoon, three girls received a Shirley Temple doll from the jury, while the mother of Anneke Mietendorff, the ultimate winner, was presented with the coveted savings account cheque. The contest was part of a publicity campaign for the new Shirley Temple film Curly Top that opened two days later at the Flora Cinema. Ironically, the three girls were not allowed to see that particular film – nor any other Shirley Temple film for that matter – as a local bylaw (Lichtbeeldenverordening) banned those under the age of fourteen from attending any film show within the municipality of Utrecht. Exception was made for ‘films concerning the subject of science, industry, agriculture and trade’, i.e. the kind of films that exhibitors were loath to screen (except on a Sunday morning for the members of an institute for adult education) knowing that they would make a loss.

    The fact that young people were not allowed to see the films of Shirley Temple, the very symbol of innocence, offered local cinema exhibitors an ideal excuse to reopen their campaign to have the regulation repealed. They had fought this measure ever since it had come into force in 1915. So it would be easy to see the 1936 campaign as just another moment in the decades-long exhibitors’ struggle to do away with the obstacles (entertainment tax was [End Page 139] another) that were preventing them from maximising the volume of their trade. Thus Is. Cohen Barnstijn who, apart from the Flora Cinema, owned another film theatre (soon to be followed by yet another) in Utrecht, informed the Mayor and Aldermen of the city in April 1936 that he was losing an estimated annual income of 30,000 Guilders as a consequence of the law. In other words, he was waiting for the chance to sell some 70,000 to 80,000 extra tickets. This was a struggle that might well be characterised as ‘defensive’. However, it is my argument that in 1936 a new factor came into play: innovation. The repeal of the ordinance became part of a larger strategy: to convince, if not the authorities, then at least the general public that the cinema in Utrecht was the most modern and superior form of entertainment. How the exhibitors managed to do this will be analysed in this essay.

  4. 4 overduin November 17, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    I’ve come accross a lot of Shirley advertisements when scrutinizing newspapers for the filmprogramming of 18 towns in the Netherlands between 1934 and 1936. To my asthonishment her films were sometimes only allowed for adults above 18. This was not unique as Bert Hogenkamp wrotes.
    So lots of information on advertisement strategies, reviews and number of screenings between 1934-1936.

  5. 5 Rose Theresa May 2, 2008 at 12:38 am

    I am a musicologist working on a book-length manuscript on Shirley Temple. Working title is “Shirley Temple: Sentiment, Song and Dance” My work on Temple consists mostly of historically informed textual analysis of the films, with special attention paid to the uses of music. If you could provide an email address, I would be happy to send a copy–pdf document–of a recent proposal outlining the project.

    Hope to hear from you,
    Rose


  1. 1 HOMER MEETS SHIRLEY TEMPLE « The Shirley Temple Project Trackback on December 14, 2007 at 11:04 pm

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