My Dad looked and sounded tough. Kids in the neighborhood stayed away from our house after he came home from work. They knew that tempting his wrath was like pulling Godzilla’s tail.
Dad’s dark looks and growly demeanor scared me too, but not as much as they scared my compatriots. I had an advantage. I had carefully studied Dad as he watched Shirley Temple movies.
Shirley was a kid star in the thirties. She had an adorable round face, curly hair, could sing and dance, sided with orphans and disabled children, and thawed the hearts of crusty old men. You didn’t want to be cast as her birth mother as your part would last about thirty seconds. (Your character might have good intentions, but rushing down the street to get a cake to your kid’s birthday party could get you run over by a speeding Studebaker.) Miss Temple would wander the movie world as a homeless child until an arguing couple or a misanthropic hermit adopted her. She would instill warmth and humanity in her new household and gradually coax her caretakers to take on more positive outlooks. She achieved miracles and changed hearts with thoughtful gestures and chipper song and dance routines. She relentlessly delivered the message that life is worth living if you make up your mind to greet each day with a smile.
But the sunny times only lasted so long. A misguided social worker sporting thickly-rimmed glasses and spinster clothes would steal her away, or a cruel governess would lock her in a cold garret and deprive her of necessities. These slashes in the tapestry of bliss usually occurred somewhere near the end of the second act. Shirley would cry out in tears as she was torn from the arms of a loved one: “Grandfather! Grandfather!” or “Captain, don’t let them take me away! Please Captain! Please!”
My father knew that Shirley would find a way in the third act to return to her improvised family. But he would start shaking at the shoulders during the traumatic scenes. He lowered his head, sniffled just a bit, and then retreated to the bathroom. He returned just in time to witness Shirley put a clever plan into action. He sat back and relaxed as Shirley rejoined Captain January or her Grandfather or her M.I.A. father in the last scene. Folks would burst into song as the little mop-top led everyone in a tap dance extravaganza down main street to celebrate yet another happy ending!
Dad’s mouth would twitch in a flicker of a smile as the camera zoomed in on Shirley Temple’s twinkling eyes. America’s sweetheart had ventured forward in time to win yet another victory, and Dad had given himself away.