Shirley Temple as Philadelphia Thursday in John Ford’s FORT APACHE reacts to the sight of a cavalry officer having his ass spanked.
Very early in this smart, revisionist, conflicted western, our Shirl is shown reacting joyously, first to the sight of John Agar shirtless — her expression cycles through shock, fear, shame, and winds up on “This is great, and it’s totally not my fault that I happened to walk in and see this, so I’m going to enjoy it!” — and then to the sight of him getting spanked — expression saying “This is REALLY shocking — but fun!”
These non-prudish reactions make us like the smooth, creamy Philadelphia, but they also made me think that perhaps the reasons audiences didn’t embrace Shirley in adult roles was that she was sexual, while still using the same palette of performance that had been her stock-in-trade in the thirties. Here, she even does the adorable, momentary trying-not-to-laugh routine, which involves a tightening of the corners of the mouth as they attempt to hold back a smile — Shirley only ever holds back for an instant, and we know it must be a trick because she does it so often and so consistently in her kiddie performances, but it ALWAYS works — we smile too. Seeing this in an adult perf, the public might feel that she was tainting their memories of Curly Top, or that she was making visible the adult qualities that had always been a part of the child star’s persona. It feels wrong to say that Shirley Temple turns you on.
In the sense that she creates a cognitive dissonance, that she has one foot in an earlier age of film storytelling, Shirley might be the perfect star for FORT APACHE, a movie that succeeds in being iconoclastic and placing the US cavalry on the wrong side of the Indian wars, and does not quite succeed in frantically back-pedaling out of danger and leaving us with a comfortable printed legend, all our revered institutions standing proud and unblemished.
The ’68 Comeback Special will appear later today.