Thursday’s Child

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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 most beautiful tribute.

The ’68 Comeback Special will appear later today.

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11 Responses to “Thursday’s Child”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    Miss Thursday seems remarkably normal for the motherless daughter of a genocidal sociopath who is also, as we say now, “emotionally unavailable.”

    (It’s one of Fonda’s greatest performances).

  2. It makes really good use of Fonda’s sullen demeanour. I wondered how much time little Phil spent around him, growing up. If his military duties and her schooling kept them apart, it would explain why her twinkling persona hadn’t a chance to work its usual magic.

  3. “It feels wrong to say that Shirley Temple turns you on.”

    Graham Greene found that out the hard way, via libel courts, when he pointed out that many of her adult male admirers probably were turned on by her. Night and Day- where he published his opinion-closed down as a result.

  4. I think the end of FORT APACHE is much more complex for reasons that Joe McBride states in his work on Ford. Yorke is forced to pursue the official line but he seems far less “gung ho” than the occasion requires and shows contempt for the news reporters who swallow the official story “Correct in every detail.” By contrast he valorizes the ordinary soldier both past and present who will continue to sacrifice their lives for military glory. In many ways it is a condemnation of what we would today term “spin-doctoring” and is another revelation of the ambivalence structuring Ford’s work, namely the psychological costs of accepting a system that allows incorporation on the part of some groups at the cost of participating in the oppression of others via obedience to the system.

  5. I think it’s more complex still — since Wayne’s moments of irony and stiffness, where he doesn’t seem to believe what he’s saying, merge into the noble speech, and then he’s revealed to have picked up Fonda’s speech patterns (“Any questions?”) and his style of headgear. When he credits Fonda with improving the calibre of men in the cavalry, that can only be a reference to Fonda’s thinning the ranks of Victor McLaglans by getting them all massacred. It’s uncomfortable all over the place, for liberals as well as conservative audiences.

  6. Wholeheartedly agree in your assessment of the disturbing qualities of adult Shirl. When I first saw Fort Apache, my first thought was “She’s gorgeous!” and the next was, “Yeah, but she acts just like Shirley Temple!” Haven’t watched any of Temple’s kiddie work since I was a kid, so I don’t know if the disturbance would work both ways.

  7. Like H.L. Mencken, Ford offends everyone then. However, let us not forget Thursday’s one humorous line in the film, “Sergeant, pour me some Scripture.”

  8. The Temple effect does disturb both ways, I think. But it’s not like a big problem or anything. I would think little kids would still like adult ST, in the right role, the same way they liked Billie Piper on Dr Who — a grown-up who still seemed somehow like a kid.

    Part of what’s great about Frank Nugent’s script (apart from its careful concealment of its plot, and scenes that are nothing but layers of molten subtext bubbling underneath a crust of routine) is the way it gives Fonda a few points here and there. He’s the heavy for most of the movie, but still seems redeemable at times. Whether his final sacrifice constitutes that redemption is open to the viewer to decide.

  9. I pointed that out just the other day, Roger

    American culture is utterlypassive-aggressive when it comes its sexual obsession with pre-pubescent girls. it was no accident that Nabokov chose to use this fact as a lynchpin for his Great American Novel. Lolita is the American Dream — a little girl you can freely fuck but will never tell.

    Contrast this with the hysterical pearl-clutching surrounding Dylan Farrow and her allegation of being raped by Woody when she was 7 years-old. It is of course a revenge fantasy confected by her vicious mother in a vain attempt to deprive Cate Blanchett of the Oscar she so richly deserves.

    The adult Shirley is quite a nice actress. But as she’s no longer sexually desirable to America this adult performer’s career was short-lived.

  10. I’m an Air Force child resentful of the ‘gee it’s tough but ain’t it grand’ gloss Ford give to the army in his films, even when they’re emotionally on the mark. Bouncy new Ft. Apache dependent Miss Thursday goes to visit another officer’s wife (Anna Lee, I think), and drops a few hints about lacking niceties in her quarters. As Thursday is the daughter of the commanding officer. Lee knows this can’t stand, and says Thursday will be fixed up in a jiffy. Anna Lee’s solution: make the lowly Sargents’ wives sacrifice to help out the new arrival. You wouldn’t believe how the pecking order was enforced by the wives too. And they could be merciless exercising their petty power.

    As for Wayne’s speech, the real thing was more like what I caught a glimpse of in my father’s notes around 1968, an ‘official’ opinion statement on the Vietnam War, the hostile Russians, etc, that my father was basically ordered to believe and espouse.

    And I guess that’s why when I showed my boys FT. APACHE, I also pushed GALLIPOLI on them. They could make up their own minds about the military (in many ways my dad was a remarkable guy) but I got my message across when they were young.

    I understand all your arguments and analyses of the last Wayne scene, but its reason for being there delivering that exact message is obvious – in that Cold War year nobody was going to allow a film to diss the American military without contradicting itself before the THE END card. Great discussion, thanks.

  11. Well put. It took me a looong time to come to Ford’s cinema, precisely because the values he loves mean very little to me. In the end, his cinematic skills won out, even if what he’s pushing still doesn’t appeal.

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