In an era before producers established censorship guidelines, anything went in Hollywood, including films starring hyper-sexualized toddlers pretending to be prostitutes, drunks, and disparaged veterans.
The familiar cherubic face of the one and only Shirley Temple has captivated the hearts and imaginations of Americans for well over 80 years. With her trademark curly hair and natural charisma that earned her specifically tailored roles, Temple was, and perhaps still is, the quintessential child star.
Yet Shirley Temple’s Hollywood origins are perhaps seedier than many would ever know, particularly when held up to a modern standard. Temple herself would later refer to this first gig as “a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence,” but even she may also have to concede that without it, she may never have become a superstar.
This is the strange and unseemly story of Shirley Temple’s earliest role — in the Baby Burlesks.
Pre-Code Hollywood: The Wild West Era Of Film
In 1932, at the age of three, Shirley Temple signed a contract with Educational Pictures, a film distribution company founded in 1916 known primarily for brief comedies.
As film was still in its infancy as both an artistic medium and a business, rights, and protections for actors — and specifically child actors — had not yet been created. This was also during a time in Hollywood known as the Pre-Code Era. The Hays Code, so-named for the 1934 president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) William H. Hays, established a set of censorship guidelines for movie production based deeply in a conservative Catholic temperament.
Before this code, however, Hollywood writers and producers had the freedom to film basically whatever they wanted.
Enter the Baby Burlesks — a series of comedic shorts that featured a cast of toddlers performing satires of major Hollywood films and current events. Though the film appears to be a seemingly innocuous concept upon first discovery, the Baby Burlesks were anything but.
Inside The Baby Burlesks
The eight short films saw toddler stars dressed in hyper-sexualized adult clothing. Beneath that, they donned oversized diapers clasped with a safety pin. The costuming alone in these films are enough to raise eyebrows. When viewed through the lens of a modern movie-goer, it seems nearly impossible to glean where the comedy in these shorts actually is.
However, in an era where audiences were still easily pleased by the novelty of film, the Baby Burlesks likely seemed charming.
In the short “Polly Tix in Washington,” a four-year-old Shirley Temple is seen playing what is insinuated as a prostitute. Sent to “entertain” a senator (played by a fellow child-actor), Temple can be seen wearing a small bra while filing her nails in a manner meant to mimic the actions of a self-assured and perhaps world-weary mistress lounging in her boudoir.
Temple later enters the office of the senator draped in pearls, sashaying into the room with her hands resting firmly on her hips in a disturbing display of mock adult sexuality.
Temple then wraps her arms around the senator’s neck and plants two clumsy kisses on his lips. Of course, the sexual implications are lost on the children who appear in the film, children who were simply following the direction of the adults controlling them, namely, the film’s director and he who discovered Shirley Temple, Charles Lamont.
Lamont also directed another one of the total eight burlesques, entitled “War Babies,” which served as a spoof of the World War I era silent film, What Price Glory?.
The short once again featured Shirley Temple in the role of a prostitute, this time vying for the affections of army men, played of course by 3 – 5-year-old boys. Within the first minute of the film, Temple is seen in a purposely loose-fitting top that slips and falls down revealing her shoulders as she performs a caricature of a seductive dance.
She later trades kisses for lollipops, is repeatedly called “baby,” refers to an army man as mon cher Capitan, and even refers to herself as “expensive.”
The humor of the piece is once again intended to be derived from watching toddler-aged children unknowingly copy the behavior of fully grown adults, but it was perhaps also all to the detriment of the children themselves whose innocence was taken advantage of.
Unfortunately, the overtly sexual overtones that Shirley Temple and her fellow child-stars were forced to mimic over the course of Baby Burlesk wasn’t even the worst of it. Without regulations regarding on-set safety for actors, directors were able to employ various means of cruel and unusual punishment to maintain order on set during filming.
Cruel Working Conditions Onset
According to historian and author John Kassan, the conditions on the set of Baby Burlesk were less than glamorous and frankly, disturbing, particularly because due to the treatment of the film’s young and vulnerable cast.
“To threaten and punish uncooperative child actors, the director, Charles Lamont, kept a soundproof black box, six feet on each side, containing a block of ice. An offending child was locked within this dark, cramped interior and either stood uncomfortably in the cold, humid air or had to sit on the ice. Those who told their parents about this torture were threatened with further punishment.”
Naturally, Shirley Temple attempted to alert her mother of these frightening circumstances, only to be met with dismissal and an accusation that she had fabricated the entire tale.
In addition to this literal icebox of torture, John Kassan adds that:
“In a Tarzan film spoof, Kid in Africa, for example, he [Lamont] concealed a tripwire to fell the ‘savages’ played by African American children. In filming another scene, a terrified ostrich pulling Shirley and another child in a surrey careened wildly about the set before crashing into a wall.”
Besides the fact that hiding a tripwire to stun children is unethical in and of itself, the film Kin in Africa hinged on wholly racist themes, for instance, a group of white “good guys” were directed to shoot a group of “savages” portrayed by black children with arrows.
Temple later recalled Lamont saying that “This isn’t playtime, kids, it’s work.”
The Baby Burlesks In Retrospect
Indeed, each of the Baby Burlesk actors were forced to perform undue amounts of physical and emotional labor, and perhaps none more so than Shirley Temple herself, whose wide-eyed innocence served as the ultimate foil to the hyper-sexualized roles of older women she was guided into performing by the adults who surrounded her.
With the goal of lining pockets by turning a profit on the backs of children who had no way of advocating for themselves, Charles Lamont and his fellow co-conspirators at Educational Pictures helped to set a frightening precedent for the ways in which performers were treated in film for many years — at least, until, the invention of the Hays Code.
It has never been and likely will never be easy to be a child-star. The financial and emotional baggage that the most vulnerable performers are expected to carry in the industry has unfortunately wrought a number of broken souls as those young stars age. From Lindsay Lohan to the incomparable Judy Garland, the pitfalls of a life in Hollywood at a tender age appear almost unavoidable.
Luckily, an exploitative production like Baby Burlesks can be considered one less threat to the wellbeing of the young stars of today.
After this disturbing look at the ‘Baby Burlesk,’ refresh your palette with these wholesome images of stars when they were young. Then, flip through this gallery of the glamorous side of vintage Hollywood.