November 28, 2022

Shirley Temple Faced An Agonizing Punishment If She Misbehaved On Set

Once upon a time, hard lessons were learned under vastly different circumstances than they are today. The rules for divvying out certain punishments to discipline children were far more liberal in distant years past. For instance, you probably remember your grandfather saying something to the degree of, “Back in my day …” followed by some jarring anecdote about how his schoolteacher would give him a swift knock upside the head if he ever acted out of line. Hard to imagine that happening today without a brazen storm of lawsuits descending upon any educational facility that allowed such antics from their staff, but once upon a time, it was simply the way things were done.

Let’s look beyond the classroom for a moment into more lavish and enchanting settings that would seemingly never allow such barbarism toward children. The world of movie magic is where we often seek an escape from reality for a few short hours, but according to some, it’s not always so magical to behold when you’re right there on set. Ranker, quoting from Shirley Temple’s 1988 memoir “Child Star: An Autobiography” reports that the lovable little ball of curls who sang of animal crackers and all things cute and cuddly, was made to endure a repugnantly severe and unsavory punishment if she ever “misbehaved” while filming “Baby Burlesks” (1932). 

Baby Burlesks and War Babies

“Before she made her big Hollywood debut in 1934, at the age of 5, she starred in ‘Baby Burlesks,’ a very odd short film series that featured a bunch of toddlers in diapers acting out creepily grown-up plots,” Time reported in 2014. Temple was only three years old when she was cast in “War Babies,” which was one of the “Burlesk” series’ short films. While most moviegoers found it charming and innocent enough upon release, the slew of films that featured toddlers mimicking adult behaviors and mature relationships (Temple portrayed a sex worker named Charmaine) is actually wildly disturbing in hindsight. 

If the controversial subject matter of “Baby Burlesks” and “War Babies” wasn’t sufficiently troubling, the manner in which the film crew maintained order among its multitude of angsty toddlers waddling around set is enough to chill you (and them, quite literally) to the pallid bone (via Ranker). 

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Ice-cold consequences

“So far as I can tell, the black box did no lasting damage to my psyche,” Temple shared in her autobiography. By “black box,” she didn’t mean those surveillance devices they install on airplanes that document everything going on within the craft at all times. According to The Atlantic, the toddlers who starred in “Baby Burlesks” were subjected to a semi-torturous penalty if they acted out of line during the filming process. Their punishment entailed being sent to a small sound booth (aptly named the “black box” because of the dismal color of its walls) where they were forced to sit on a large block of ice in total isolation for an extended period of time. Pretty barbaric, by any standard whatsoever.

Imagine swooping by a film set at the end of the day to pick up your child star only to be told that he/she is currently perched on a massive slab of ice in a dark room somewhere. You’d probably be pretty furious, no? Later on, Temple referred to the practice and the entire “Baby Burlesks” project as a “cynical exploitation of our childish innocence” (per Ranker). Once upon a time, Hollywood’s philosophy of dealing with toddlers on set was simple and straightforward: Spare the block, spoil the child.