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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Libel Case Involving Shirley Temple and Graham Greene

Yesterday Moira Redmond at her fine blog, Clothes in Books, put up a post about Shirley Temple Black and her autobiography, Child Star. In that post she referred to a review of a Temple movie by the author Graham Greene in Night and Day magazine in the 1930’s. The review resulted in a successful libel lawsuit against Greene, the publisher and the printer. In a comment exchange on why the lawsuit was lost Moira said I was needed to explain the legal issues. I take up the challenge in this post.

I found a copy of the actual review in Pajiba in an article by Dustin Rowles. Skilfully written it is obviously intended to be provocative from its opening sentence:

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders — their property diminishes in value every year.

The review continues in an overtly sexual manner describing Temple:
Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has peculiar interest: infancy with her is a disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece – real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel. In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant’s palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep.
It is clever but it cannot last – middle aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.
Temple was 9 when the review was written in 1937. The sexual descriptions of a child, far beyond innuendo, are offensive. Greene may have intended to be tongue-in-cheek but he has attacked the reputation of an innocent child.

The sexual implications culminate in the word “totsy”. In the blog spacebeer there is an explanation of the meaning of the word:

But back to totsy: what on earth does it mean? Where did it come from Well, I went to the source (the Oxford English Dictionary) and its earliest use of the term is by Greene in his 1938 book Brighton Rock: “The atmosphere of innumerable roadhouses, of totsies gathered round swimming pools.” In case you are wondering the word is related to the British slang term “totty,” which started as a diminuitive for “tot,” then gained the secondary meaning of a “good-time girl” and currently can be used for any group of “people (esp. women) collectively regarded as objects of sexual desire.”

(Lacking a subscription to the OED I rely upon the quote though the first use was obviously not in Greene’s book but in the review which was written in 1937.)

I consider calling a child a “good time girl” and “an object of sexual desire” an actionable attack on her character and morals. Her reputation has been defamed.

Twentieth Century Fox was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Its claim principally flows from the opening sentence which ties the film maker to deliberately making the 9 year old Temple a sexual object.

Greene in his book, Ways of Escape, described Twentieth Century Fox’s claim against him:

I kept on my bathroom wall, until a bomb removed the wall, the statement of claim – that I had accused Twentieth Century Fox of “procuring” Miss Temple “for immoral purposes” ……

The case report in The Times Law Reports which Greene published in Ways of Escape sets out the publishers settled the action admitting liability rather than proceed to a trial.

The case report stated:

On October 28 last year Night and Day Magazines, Limited, published an article written by Mr. Graham Greene. In his (counsel’s) view it was one of the most horrible libels one might imagine.

Counsel further described Night and Day as a “beastly” publication.

Counsel was Sir Patrick Hastings, one of England’s greatest barristers who was also involved with the stage including writing plays.

Counsel for the Defendants, including Greene, offered full apologies.

Damages were agreed at 2,000 pounds for Temple, 1,000 pounds for the film corporation and 500 pounds for the film company. It was recognized the damages were symbolic and not reflective of the actual libel.

Though the damages were modest for the companies, Greene who agreed to pay 500 pounds of the settlement, struggled to raise the money.

Lord Chief Justice Hewart rather ominiously asked if Greene was within the jurisdiction of the Court. His counsel said he did not know. His Lordship went on to say:

The libel is a gross outrage, and I will take care that suitable attention is directed to it.

Greene was already in abstentia, having fled to Mexico on a "writing assignment" before Court after hearing reports papers had been delivered to the Director of Public Prosecutions about the review.

I expect a libel action would be equally successful today for Temple but not necessarily Twentieth Century Fox.


  1. Fantastic, thank you very much Bill for binging us all the details. I'm going to add a link from my original entry so people can get the full legal lowdown. I knew I could rely on you. You have answered exactly my questions - was it libellous, and would it be considered so today? It was a very harsh review, and even to modern eyes (we think we are used to everything) it gives you a bit of a shock. Thanks again.

    1. Moira: Thanks for the kind words. It was interesting research. I cringed when I read the review.

  2. Bill - This is really fascinating! Thank you for laying all this out. I would have thought the review actionable too, but it's good to have an expert opinion. And don't get me started on the review itself...

    1. Margot: Thanks for your kind words. The comments of yourself and Moira left me smiling for the day. That review never is published in 2014.

  3. Pretty vile of Greene. Reminds me of a supposedly satirical underground newspaper at my college that routinely published libelous and disgusting things about people on campus. It was a combination of cheap vulgarity and juvenile bathroom humor but they used real people's names in their attempts at comedy. Big mistake!

    Even today reading something like this of Greene's makes my flesh crawl. That any adult would bother to read into images of Shirley Temple on film and sexualize them reveals a lot about the writer more than the movie studio. Interesting that right after this incident Greene wrote The Power and the Glory about a timorous and tortured Catholic priest who, among other things in his haunted past, fathered a little girl while serving in a Mexican parish. A little of Greene's Catholic guilt rising to the surface perhaps?

    1. John: Thanks for the comment. "Vile" sums up the review.

      Night and Day ceased publication after the article was written. I speculate that they were seeking some controversy in a desperate effort to save the magazine.

      I believe Greene wrote The Power and the Glory while in Mexico as he waited for life to settle down in England.

      If Greene was acting as a true Catholic he would have confessed his sin in defaming Temple rather than leaving the country.

  4. Very interesting, Bill. A little piece of history that I had never heard of until Moira's blog post.

  5. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. I also had not heard of Greene being sued over a review of a Temple movie until I read Moira's post.

  6. Bill,
    What a fascinating post! I was riveted, having never heard anything of the sort. Thank you for posting about it.

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

  7. Judith: Thanks for the kind comment. I appreciated hearing from you.

  8. Very interesting. I'd never heard about this case, either.

    1. Martin: Thanks for the comment. After reading about the case I am surprised it has not generated a book.

  9. Bill, I didn't know about this either. Thanks for writing about it so well. I wonder how Temple faced the situation at the age of nine?

    1. Prashant: Thanks for the comment. Thankfully Temple did not read the review when she was nine years old. It had no impact on her at that time.