Only the fetid mind of a Hollywood producer could conceive of casting the perpetually perky Shirley Temple in the role of a proto-feminist. In the 1949 dramedy Adventure in Baltimore, a twilight-of-her-film-career 20-year-old Shirley, a decade and a half removed from her dimply child-star apogee in The Little Colonel and Curly Top, appears as determined, free-thinking artist Dinah Sheldon, whose notions of modernity scandalize proper society in 1905 Baltimore.

Her crime: painting a portrait of buff boyfriend Tom Wade (played by Temple’s real-life husband, John Agar) in leopard-skinned caveman attire, a metaphor, she explains, for the oppressed working man. Widespread shock ensues: from Dinah’s knickers-in-a-twist art instructor, from huffy middle-aged Mobtown matrons in ornate hats. All of which makes life sticky for her level-headed pastor dad (Robert Young, already honing his relentlessly sensible paterfamilias role for the 1950s/1960s TV series “Father Knows Best”).

Somewhat surprisingly, Christopher Isherwood (his book The Berlin Stories morphed, in part, into the 1972 film Cabaret; more recently, his homocentric novel A Single Man was adapted for the screen) co-wrote the original story for this froth fest. “Let’s allow that the authors, Lesser Samuels and Christopher Isherwood, did not drain themselves of wit and wisdom in turning out the script,” the New York Times review sniffed at the time of the film’s release. “It sounds as though they were commissioned to write a ‘Life With Daughter’ in one day and scribbled it down on paper napkins while having tea and crumpets that afternoon. A chuckle or two over teacups is the brand of its merriment.”

“I don’t think it’s especially memorable,” concurs Marc Sober, media research specialist in the Humanities Department of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the longtime host of the Pratt central branch’s monthly Saturday-morning Film Talk series. “When they come to Baltimore at the beginning, you see a still photo of Mt. Vernon Place – that way you know that it’s set here. All you see of Baltimore is that one shot.”

Remove that establishing frame, and you’re in Anywhere, USA. Presumably, RKO Radio Pictures shot the entire movie on its back lot in Hollywood, which accounts for the fact that this fictional Baltimore looks remarkably rustic – and completely un-scorched — one year after the Great Fire of 1904 vaporized downtown.

Good luck seeking out Adventure in Baltimore. You can’t rent it from Netflix or Video Americain. You can’t borrow it from the Pratt. No clips on YouTube. You can’t even buy it from Amazon. Turner Classic Movies broadcast the film in April 2010 as part of a Shirley Temple marathon, so, perhaps, a plaintive e-mail plea to TCM might engender a return engagement. A look-before-you-leap caveat: Glimpse the trailer first.

Each month, “Baltimore Unearthed” will illuminate a semi-great cultural curiosity from the
city’s past.

2 replies on “Baltimore Unearthed: Shirley Temple Was Here (Sort of)”

  1. I saw that movie on TV when I was a kid…you know, in the years BC (before cable). Even then, I was well aware that that wasn’t really Baltimore. And I’m pretty sure I knew it was a lame script!

  2. I hate to reveal my age, but I saw this movie when it was first run in theaters. It was probably a Friday night and I took my date to the 7:00 o’clock showing at the Ritz, before the weekly dance at the American Legion Hut. Unfortunately, I remember the movie better than the date. The movie was a dud, can’t say about the date. Michael Yockel’s story is interesting, informative, and fun. I’m subscribing now.

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