Well-behaved children, however rare an over-protected species nowadays, are about as fascinating as so many slices of white bread. It isn’t until you have got something on them that they become even remotely interesting. What jam is to Wonder Bread is dirt to supposedly wonderful well-breads. If they’re simply wonderful, they are plain dull. You’re better off tossing sardines to a trained seal. Animals that do as they are told are invariably more engaging than docile offspring. I suspect that our enthusiastic response to the tricks performed by fair Lassie is really owing to our culture of laissez-faire; it is gratifying that we still can get pets to do what we dare not demand from our young. Obviously, I don’t have any kids to brag about, deserving or otherwise—which is why I get such a kick out of wicked children. Their mischief is one of those pleasures I refuse to feel guilty about.
Last night, I watched Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes (1934). Shirley is cute ‘n all, but it is Jane Withers who steals the show demanding a machine gun for Christmas, decapitating a doll, or playing train wreck, all the while manipulating her parents into doing exactly what she wants. Now, there’s a future executive.
These days, it takes nerves to get a Shirley Temple DVD past the checkout of your local supermarket. You are liable to incur the suspicion of fellow customers who might feel compelled to warn their parenting friends and neighbors about you. I buried my copies of Bright Eyes, Baby Take a Bow, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm under a few bottles of Chardonnay; better to be thought of as an alcoholic!
Whether we are facing another depression or not, Miss Temple would not have a career today; at least, she would not be surrounded by a bunch of aviators singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop” while rubbing her tummy and licking all sorts of oversized candy. Jane Withers, too, would have a tough time with her “Bad Seed” routine. The Children of the Damned are very nearly outlawed, what with all the gun-toting prepubescents we come across in the news. It is no longer acceptable to fantasize about wayward kids (or fantasize about kids, period); our culture has become altogether too infantile, permissive, and litigious for that kind of amusement.
On this day, 19 November, in 1948, syndicated radio and television critic John Crosby already wondered “Whatever Happened to the Bad Boy?” He argued Henry Aldrich to be a poor substitute for Huck Finn or Penrod, the latter now being all but forgotten. Crosby might have responded more favorably to Bart Simpson; but even Bart has long been overshadowed by his childlike father. We don’t have a problem laughing at the juvenile, provided the little rascals come to us in the shape of a Will Ferrell. To that kind of let’s pretend our youth-obsessed society can readily relate.
What Crosby rejected was the kind of naughty child that was too dumb to know any better. For juveniles like Henry Aldrich he could
see no hope whatsoever of future brilliance. Week after week, they get into one jam after another, always by accident, never by design. The trouble they see is a censored, respectable, passive trouble. They’re the victims. In Huck’s day somebody else was the victim.
Never mind the kind of pampered brats we see today and dread. Show me a black-eyed smart aleck who sets out to shatter our sentiments of childhood as a period of innocence, sweetness, and pastel-colored light. Just make it fiction.