Friday, March 12, 2010

Songs of Innocence: Part Two

There's probably no more enduring symbol of innocence in American pop culture than the curly topped moppet that is sometimes credited with getting us through the Great Depression. It's impossible to talk about the concept of innocence as character without discussing Shirley Temple. It's so prevalent through her movies that her characters hardly exist, becoming mere variations of the actress's public image.

However, what's interesting about her classic films, and often overlooked, is how the notion of the innocent child is subtly transformed. In films like Bright Eyes ('34), Our Little Girl ('35), and Curly Top ('35), her character is very conscious of manipulating the adults around her. This comes through with knowing glances to the camera, which are either: strokes of genius to create a wink to the audience; a simple leftover tactic carried over from stage performance into the early days of film; or possibly just bad child acting. Regardless, the affect is the same. The overshadowing innocence of the character is being tweaked. Granted, the character's intent is always pure and good, allowing the symbol to hold up, but there's a shift here to the kind of precocious characters that would follow in the future. In many ways, these are precursors to a literary character like Eloise who's line of decent runs straight through to current characters like Junie B. Jones--both of which are influences on some of my own characters like CatKid.

For me, this aspect is what makes these overly sentimental movies fascinating. In many ways, I believe Shirley Temple is one of the major influences on the development of children's literature. The version of childhood portrayed in her movies is one that appeals to a wide audience and her huge success as the preeminent child star certainly reached into all aspects of child entertainment.

On the surface, what we see in these movies is a child who symbolizes innocence. But under the surface, there is the shadow of experience looming as the child learns that innocence can be used to manipulate. In the William Blake sense, the child is entering that murky stage of being in-between the two worlds. I actually referenced this idea in my book Dirty Liar:

...I looked at him the way my mom showed me to just in case she was watching from the car. I would look at him with my eyelashes the way Shirley Temple did in the movie my mom showed me . . made my eyelashes go the way my mom said would make men do anything for you that you wanted them to do... Dirty Liar page 209

These earliest stages of experience are like taking baby steps from the shallow end of the swimming pool. It makes for fascinating characters. Many of my chapter book stories about these kind of characters, dealing with the concept every child encounters as realize that the world is grossly unfair toward them and finding funny ways to cope or control it. The great thing about this kind of character is that even from the point of view of experience, we always root for the child to win when we know in the end they probably won't. The great thing about Shirley Temple's movies, and the children's literature characters that follow in the footsteps, is that they do always come out on top.

(Check back next week as I continue the march toward Songs of Experience)

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