With her dimples and blond curls, Shirley Temple was the personification of childhood innocence. But when novelist Graham Greene, moonlighting as a film reviewer, noted a disturbing sexuality in the pintsize thespian, Temple and her employer, 20th Century Fox, sued Greene in a notorious libel lawsuit.
By the time she starred in “Wee Willie Winkie” in 1937, the 9-year-old Temple was the biggest child star of all time with “Bright Eyes, “The Littlest Rebel” and “Captain January” already behind her. Greene was a successful journalist, a rising novelist and the future screenwriter of “The Third Man.”
He had just jumped from the Spectator, where he was its controversial film reviewer, to the literary editorship of Night and Day, a nascent New Yorker-type weekly with a stellar list of contributors including Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Cyril Connolly and Stevie Smith. Green also took on the slot of film reviewer.
One of the first critics to address the sexualization of children in film, Greene had mused in the Spectator that Temple’s popularity rested on her “mature coquetry” and “oddly precocious body.” In his review of “Wee Willie Winkie,” where Temple plays a character sent to live with her grandfather in India, Greene described her as a complete totsy and noted Temple’s “well-developed rump” as she “swaggered” across the stage in short kilts.
The clincher was Greene’s description of Temple’s fan base: “Hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience … watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. … Her admirers — middle-aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body … only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”
Greene’s review did not appear in the United States, but Fox and Temple promptly sued for libel in England, claiming that Greene had accused the studio of procuring Temple for immoral purposes. Norman Sherry, the author of the definitive three-volume biography of Greene, says the suit also was prompted by stories claiming Greene believed Temple was a midget with a 7-year-old of her own.
By the time the case was heard before the King’s Bench in 1938, Night and Day had folded, and Green was off on his epic travels through Mexico, which resulted in his masterpiece, “The Power and the Glory.”
The case had little impact on libel law, but it was devastating for Night and Day. The Lord Chief Justice, outraged by the review, awarded Fox a not insubstantial £3,500 in damages (approximately $35,000 in today’s dollars) and directed that £500 was to be paid by Greene personally. While the libel suit was blamed for the death of Night and Day, Greene always insisted that the publication was done in by high costs and too little advertising.
In an era when Britney Spears is suing over sex tapes, the Temple suit sounds quaint. As to whether the suit would fly today, the answer is a definite maybe. Jay Dougherty, who teaches entertainment law at Loyola Law School, says untrue factual statements about a celebrity’s sexuality are classic grounds for libel, especially in Britain, where the libel laws are more favorable to the plaintiff.
More interesting is Fox’s libel claim against Greene, says Dougherty. A defamatory statement about a movie company — that it procured Temple for immoral purposes — would be actionable because it would harm its business.
When it comes to Hollywood and sex, nothing much has changed.