The Shirley Temple Show, a.k.a. Shirley Temple’s Storybook

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A few words about an interesting artifact the Countess and I watched last night, a 1961 episode of The Shirley Temple Show a.k.a Shirley Temple’s Storybookdevoted to an adaptation of Hawthorne’s masterpiece The House of The Seven Gables. Temple’s tv series ran from 1958 through 1961. Normally they presented adaptations of fairy tales; this is one of the few works of adult literature they produced.

My reasons for recommending it are many. One is simply that I love all Golden Age tv drama…it is just like theatre for the electronic age. I got to dabble in directing such shows at NYU and if there were any way to revive this now defunct method of producing for the modern era, I would be the first in line to participate. The magic, the surprise, the unpredictability of live theatre PLUS a mass audience: it’s the best of all possible worlds.

What makes this series cool is that it’s in color….the earliest example of color tv I have seen with the exception of some Ernie Kovacs programs. It is wild to see Golden Age tv in color…all the seams and artifice show up that much more, but to me that’s part of the fun. Perhaps this is an unintentional editorial comment, but it was a lot like watching BBC.

And the rewards of this particular episode lay in the casting. The 33 year old Temple herself plays Phoebe Pynchon. As anyone who has seen John Ford’s Fort Apache knows, the adult Temple was, while still fairly adorable, not the strongest actress. Like most of the rest of us, she peaked at about age two. If she is robotic however, it was only fitting that she should be cast opposite Jonathan Harris (Dr. Smith of Lost in Space) here in his glory as the villainous Judge. Needles to say, his performance filled me with so much glee I almost fell off the sofa. Also in the cast, Agnes Moorehead as Hepzibah (you can almost hear her saying “Eh, it’s a paycheck” as you watch her acting beside the vacant Temple); a young Martin Landauplaying 30 years older as the distracted brother Clifford; Robert Culp as the love interest Holgrave, and John Abbott (a character actor you will recognize in an instant) as Uncle Venner.

Really, why watch contemporary television ever again when there’s so much rewarding stuff like this to watch?

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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