On The Hugh Hewitt Show last week, I made, like many other commentators, a rather obvious point about Shirley Temple:
She was the child star - so in other words, by the time she was 22, she should be on drugs, and her life's a wreck, and she's getting thrown in the celebrity wing of the L.A. County Jail like Lindsay Lohan or whatever. But she was a child star back when they were still reasonably sane.
But that's selling her short. What separates her from the likes of Lindsay Lohan & Co is not just the lack of post-child-stardom dysfunction, but the nature of the stardom itself: They can't do anything, and she could do everything - to a very high standard. She was a top-rank dancer, a great singer, and an affecting actress. Even in the early Thirties, as opposed to the Age of Twerking Skanks, it was hard to find anyone who did all three that well. Bing Crosby was a peerless singer and terrific actor, but not much of a dancing man. Fred Astaire was the greatest dancer of all time and a wonderfully charming singer but he rarely dug deep as an actor. And then there was Shirley Temple, who did all three, and so well that every child star since pales in comparison. She's not really a "child star" at all, so much as a star who happens to be a child.
I think the last time I had cause to mention Shirley Temple even en passant was in a Happy Warrior column last June, in which I mentioned Charles Ramsey, the black guy who rescued three white girls from their Hispanic kidnapper in Cleveland:
Interviewed live on Channel 5, he said, "Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway . . ." I thought that was a cute line, although, as the black columnist Larry Elder quipped, "What, you've never seen a Shirley Temple movie?"
Indeed. Shirley Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson are one of those iconic song'n'dance teams of the Depression, second only to Astaire and Rogers. But it's not just that she's white and he's black, or that she's a kid and he's a middle-aged man, but that he's so good and she dances to his level. 20th Century Fox liked to pair Shirley with adult dancing partners, mainly because no boy her age could look anything other than clumsy and amateur alongside her. But even grown-up dancers - Buddy Ebsen, George Murphy, Jack Haley - had trouble keeping up with a grade-school moppet. The dimples and curly blonde ringlets were cute, but there've been plenty of cute kids since - and no one close to Shirley Temple.
She sang a little bit of everything, from Stephen Foster ("My Old Kentucky Home", with Temple & Robinson tap-dancing up the stairs) to big band ("Swing Me An Old-Fashioned Tune" in Little Miss Broadway) to opera (a wacky chunk of Lucia di Lammermoor in Captain January). One of her loveliest musical moments is a duet with Alice Faye on the ballad "Goodnight, My Love" in Stowaway (1936). But, of course, that's not what comes to mind when we think of a Shirley Temple song. So for our Song of the Week tip of the hat to a truly unique star here's Shirley Temple's signature number, and its very close runner-up. I confess to a very mild preference for the latter:
Animal Crackers In My Soup
Monkeys and rabbits loop the loop
Gosh, oh gee, but I have fun
Swallowing animals one by one!
The music is by Ray Henderson, who was one-third of De Sylva, Brown and Henderson, the great musical-comedy songwriters of the Twenties ("Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries", "Sonny Boy", "Birth Of The Blues", etc). But by 1935 the team had bust up, and so for "Animal Crackers" Henderson was working with Ted Koehler, lyricist of our Song of the Week #60 ("Stormy Weather"), and Irving Caesar, lyricist of SOTWs #24 and 131 ("Tea For Two", "Just A Gigolo"). Caesar was long-lived, and I knew him a little in the last decade or so of his life - he died just before Christmas 1996 at the age of 101. Like Stephen Foster, whom we celebrated a few weeks back, Caesar was born on the Fourth of July - in 1895, on New York's Lower East Side. As with many of the immigrant kids in that teeming ghetto - Irving Berlin, the Gershwins - pop songs were his ticket uptown. For half a century, he had his office in Broadway's famous Brill Building, a holdout against the marauding rockers. Eventually, he retreated a couple of blocks to more anonymous accommodations. But no matter how extensively the lobbies and elevators were remodeled according to the latest fashion, behind Caesar's door everything stayed the same. You were back at Remick's or Mills Music, circa 1925: the sheet-music covers were quaintly dated, the faded photographs showed singers long dead, and the chairs had spittoons. Caesar himself held court from his BarcaLounger, the prototype recliner, puffing his cigar and singing obscure lyrics in a sort of lightweight Jolson, but with such animation that the BarcaLounger would rock back and forth until, by the 24th bar, he'd be fully reclined - a small, white-haired, bow-tied figure in a candy-striped jacket, prone, arms flailing, with only the cigar and rusty springs for accompaniment:
IIIIIIIII'm [puff, creak]
A little bit fonder of you [creak]
Than of myself [puff, creak]
He had stories for every song, and he liked to tell them. "'Swanee'? Wrote it in 11 minutes," he said the first time I met him. "Wrote it in eight minutes," he said the second time. When he insisted he'd written "Swanee" in one minute, I somehow knew it would be the last time I saw him. Yet, as far as I recall, there was no story behind "Animal Crackers In My Soup". It was just an assignment, for a Shirley Temple movie called Curly Top. His co-lyricist Ted Koehler had written the words to Harold Arlen's early hits ("I've Got The World On A String", "Let's Fall In Love"), and "Animal Crackers" doesn't sound his bag at all. But Caesar loved to sing the song. He warbled it to me from the BarcaLounger in his wheezy baritone:
In every bowl of soup I see
Lions and tigers watching me
I make them jump right through a hoop
Those Animal Crackers In My Soup...
Animal crackers were introduced in America as "Barnum's Animals" by the National Biscuit Company in 1902, adapted from a British original that had been around since the 1870s. The animals have varied over the years - I'm surprised Caesar didn't try to work in the musk ox, a species of cracker Nabisco has now made extinct. But the song does embrace both good and bad animals. My favorite moment in Shirley Temple's rendition is when she sings, rather fiercely:
When I get hold of the big bad wolf
I push him under to drown
Then I bite him in a million bits
And I gobble him right down...
Curly Top is set at the Lakeside Orphanage, the usual cheerless penitentiary for the pint-sized, but Shirley - the eponymous Curly Top - does her best to liven the place up. "Animal Crackers" is sung in the dining room, with Curly Top's big sister at the piano and young Miss Temple conducting her fellow orphans in an instrumental passage banged out with their cutlery. Halfway through, the trustees arrive for a formal inspection of the orphanage.
I don't know how often Shirley Temple reprised "Animal Crackers" in the years that followed, but Irving Caesar never stopped singing it. Indeed, it changed his life. He so enjoyed working with Shirley on Curly Top that he began writing educational songs for children. He had none of his own and never married. But, when Nabisco marked the 85th birthday of Barnum's Animals in 1987, they brought the then 92-year old Caesar over to F A O Schwartz's flagship New York store to sing the song with a bunch of kids who could have been his great-great-grandchildren. In the intervening years, "Animal Crackers In My Soup" became the song singers went to when they wanted to worship at the Shirley Temple without trespassing on her most sacred text. Anne Murray put it on an album, Barbra Streisand did it on a TV special, and Sixties sexpot Elke Sommer sang it to the Muppets. It's a very emphatic song - that's what makes it childlike - but in 1935 it never quite achieved the popularity of Miss Temple's hit of the previous year.
In 1934, Shirley was playing - what else? - an orphan in the film Bright Eyes. This was the first feature specifically written for Shirley Temple, and with her name above the title. She had one big number in the picture, and it had to land. The men hired to write it were Richard Whiting and Sidney Clare. (Whiting is the composer of, among many others, our Song of the Week #89, "Hooray For Hollywood".) Sometimes songs come easy, sometimes they don't. For Whiting, his Shirley Temple song was falling into the latter category. He sat at the piano, but the muse declined to descend. And then his own little girl Margaret, who was a couple of years older than Shirley, came home from school. Years later, Margaret Whiting told me this story, and, although it had the sheen of well-polished anecdotage, I like to think it's true. It was her custom, upon arriving home, to go into her dad's studio and sit at the piano and listen to his latest song - or the latest song from one of his Hollywood pals, like Jerome Kern or Richard Rodgers. This particular afternoon, she had a big sticky lollipop with her, and, when she sat down on the piano bench, her dad said, "Get away from me. You'll get that thing all over the piano and my music and the film script. And anyway who gave you that lollip..?"
And at that point he looked at his little girl holding the big sticky lollipop, and the light bulb went off in his head. He picked up the phone and called Sidney Clare and said, "How about a song called..?"
On The Good Ship Lollipop
It's a sweet trip to a candy shop
Where bon-bons play
On the sunny beach of Peppermint Bay
Lemonade stands everywhere
Crackerjack bands fill the air
And there you are
Happy landing on a chocolate bar...
It's such a visual lyric, and yet the film doesn't visualize it. Because it doesn't need to. Instead, the number's performed in a very claustrophobic setting - an aeroplane, with "Bright Eyes" (Shirley) wandering down the aisle singing to the other passengers in a number she apparently staged herself, complete with belly rubs for the line about how "you'll awake/with a tummy ache". But that wonderful world of Crackerjack bands on the beach at Peppermint Bay is conjured entirely by Miss Temple's spirited performance.
Margaret Whiting grew up to become a hugely popular singer of the very best songs, right from her earliest hits, like "Moonlight In Vermont". It's slightly befuddling to think the only song ever inspired by a magnificent interpreter of the most exquisite ballads should be "On The Good Ship Lollipop". It's an odd item, too, in the catalogue of her dad, who gave us "Too Marvelous For Words" and "She's Funny That Way". As for its lyricist, Sidney Clare, his biggest song is "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone". But ranking just beneath are "Good Ship Lollipop", for Shirley Temple, and the smoldering "You're My Thrill", for Billie Holiday. I've always had a yen to hear them switch songs - to have Shirley's take on "You're My Thrill", and Billie's on "Good Ship Lollipop". Maybe they're already doing a celestial medley.
One final note on Shirley Temple's musical contributions: Before "Lollipop", Richard Whiting and Sidney Clare's big idea for a Shirley showstopper was a lively number also with a shipboard theme, about "the rollin' rockin' rhythm of the sea". 20th Century Fox didn't think it right for their six-year-old star, and booted it from the picture. Whiting and Clare recycled their rejected Temple song in a low-budget Jack Benny movie a few months later, Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, and gave it to the Boswell Sisters. It was called "Rock And Roll", and the Oxford English Dictionary credits this as the earliest known use of the phrase. Which would make Shirley Temple the first rock'n'roll singer.
I can just about handle that. As long as we don't discover she also invented twerking.
~There's more about Irving Caesar, lyricist of "Animal Crackers In My Soup", in the book Mark Steyn's Passing Parade - and Mark celebrates Richard Whiting's classic "Hooray For Hollywood" and many other songs in his book A Song For The Season. Personally autographed copies of both volumes can be ordered at the SteynOnline bookstore.
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