Graham Greene, Shirley Temple and the sexualization of children: this week's episode gets its title from a very strange place.
Some weeks Mad Men gives me really juicy cultural things to write about, whether it be the time the Rolling Stones did a cereal commercial in the UK or how LSD used to be legal and popular with high society. This week the pickings are a little slimmer. There's a theme of Jewishness running through the episode that gets overt with Peggy's mom but is supported by a dinner at the Tower Suite/Hemisphere Club (a restaurant in the Time/Life Building that once barred Jews) and Don reading Bernard Malamud's The Fixer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Jew unjustly imprisoned in Russia whose main character comes to realize there is no such thing as an apolitical Jew.
But what was nagging at me was the episode's title. If you didn't look into it you might think the American Cancer Society's gala was called the Codfish Ball (it wasn't) or that it was a reference to Sally's fish entree. In reality it's a song from the 1936 movie Captain January, sung by Shirley Temple.
It's not a particularly great film - the ending is especially wishy washy uplifting studio nonsense - but the dance sequence for At The Codfish Ball, featuring Buddy Ebsen as Shirley's partner, is pretty great. The episode makes a small winking nod to this film by having Sally Draper served a Shirley Temple at the dinner.
But what else does it mean? I'm not entirely sure. In 1966 Shirley Temple was about to get political and run for Congress in California in 1967. She would run as a very conservative Republican and lose to an anti-war Democrat. Eventually she would be named an ambassador by Richard Nixon. Politics have been swirling at the edges of the show all season.
Temple has a strong link to cancer as well; in 1972 Temple had a radical mastectomy to defeat her breast cancer. At the time people simply didn't talk about these things, but she got very public about it in 1973. Temple was one of the pioneers bringing breast cancer into the public spotlight.
That doesn't feel right either. So I did more research and suddenly came across something that felt more in line with what happens in the episode (to an extent, anyway). 20th century titan Graham Greene roundly criticized Captain January because he felt it sexualized the young Temple. He wrote in Night and Day (in a review of her next film, Wee Willie Winkie, directed by John Ford):
"The owners of a child star are like leaseholders—their property diminishes in value every year. Time's chariot is at their back; before them acres of anonymity. Miss Shirley Temple's case, though, has a peculiar interest: infancy is her 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 completely 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 that is only skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot last. Her admirers—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."
That's strong stuff, especially for the time and directed at America's little sweetheart. Temple's parents and the studio didn't take it sitting down - they sued Night and Day for libel and won. The money was placed in a trust until Temple's 21st birthday, upon which it apparently went to charity.
To me this plays into Sally's dress-up moment... and perhaps contains some meta-commentary on the show itself (recall that Creepy Glenn is played by show creator Matthew Weiner's son. Read that first Greene sentence again with that in mind). Sally's season has been tinged with sexual awakening, going from seeing Megan's naked butt to catching Roger Sterling getting a blowie (and in this case Sterling is the Buddy Ebsen to her Shirley Temple). The Shirley Temple served to Sally takes on new meanings - she's a girl on the verge, about to 'spread her legs and fly away,' playing at drinking with the ultimate children's cocktail. There's a reason Lolita remains scandalous but popular: we're not comfortable with child sexuality, but we're obsessed with it, and have been for a long, long time.