Between the ages of 7 and 9, I was a Shirley Temple fiend. Come Sunday morning, I could count on curling up in front of the 14″ black and white TV to watch Shirley sing, dance and cry on cue. I knew all of her movies by heart. This was no feat, since they basically followed the same formula. Shirley is either an orphan, or becomes an orphan and is rescued from despair due to her adorable precociousness. I outgrew Shirley, and she outgrew acting and became a United States ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia (when that country still existed).
But the other night I returned to my childhood because TCM was broadcasting “Bright Eyes,” made 80 years ago, in 1934. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was again captivated by Shirley’s charm as she belts out “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” for a bunch of pilots that look like they’re about 40 (but are probably only 20), as a plane taxis back and forth on the runway. The plot in “Bright Eyes” follows the predicable trajectory:
When the movie starts, Shirley’s father, a pilot, is already dead. She understands he “cracked up.” Her mother has found work as a maid with a mean, rich family with a bratty little daughter. On Shirley’s birthday, her mother is run over by a car, and Shirley learns that her mother has “cracked up” also. Of course, the mean rich family wants to turn poor Shirley out on the street, and of course that doesn’t happen. If you want to know how it ends, download the movie, because what really hooked me into watching it all the way through were the little details that highlighted the innocence of 1934.
The movie opens with Shirley hitchhiking to the airport. Yes, there she is sticking out her 5-year-old thumb to get a ride. That scene is so out of whack today, not just because hitchhiking is passé, but because she is without any adult supervision. Just think about a time and place when we felt so safe that the motion picture industry could depict a working mother allowing her daughter to hitch a ride without any fear that it would be accused of promoting parental neglect.
When she arrives at the airport, she marches right onto the runway. No one bats an eye as this tot plants herself on the tarmac to watch pilots do loops in the sky. Would any pilot do a loop-de-loop in the sky today?
Later, when she decides to run away from the mean family, she climbs into the cargo hatch of the plane, and hangs out as the plane soars through the worst storm ever. No one was guarding the gate with orders to remove her shoes, and walk through a metal detector or body scanner. Those devices, invented to protect us from plane bombs and hijackings, were non-existent in those long ago days because the biggest fear in flying was a crack-up, not the notion that someone would want to blow up a plane.
But there was one thing in the movie that was familiar.The featured mode of transportation was an American Airlines plane. Somehow or other, with all the craziness in the airline industry American Airlines, unlike Pan Am and TWA, has managed to stay in the business of transporting passengers and freight through the air since 1934.