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Baby Talk

March 18, 2014 | by

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A still from War Babies, 1932.

Since I wish to spare you the disappointment I myself experienced Sunday morning, I’m going to give it to you straight. Despite what the New York Times headline—“A Star Was (Recently) Born: A Play Boldly Casts Babies”—may imply, the current production of A Doll’s House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music does not feature an all-baby ensemble. The baby in question plays Nora’s youngest child, and merely makes a brief cameo, apparently sporting a sheepskin vest.

It’s not that I don’t understand the risks inherent in having a real baby onstage, or the novelty of going for verisimilitude in a role customarily played by a doll. But having had five seconds of imagining baby Ibsen, it was hard to go back. Those five seconds were some of the most glorious of my life.

Of course, there is something of a precedent for baby acting. (And I don’t mean the fact that I came of age in a time when boys in my elementary school still enjoyed quoting zingers from Look Who’s Talking! or Full House.) While the bulk of child actors are not preverbal, a notable exception is the Baby Burlesks of the 1930s, perhaps best known for casting a three-year-old Shirley Temple. The eight one-reelers were a sort of low-rent Our Gang, created by producer Jack Hays. In the words of Wikipedia’s anonymous scribe,

The eight films are satires on major motion pictures, film stars, celebrities, and current events,and are sometimes racist and sexist. Cast members are preschoolers clad in adult costumes on the top and diapers fastened with large safety pins on the bottom.

Here is one, 1932’s “War Babies”:

If you are wondering how they got all these toddlers to act so well, the answer is a lot of manipulation behind parents’ backs: allegedly, the adults in charge would make children who misbehaved sit on blocks of ice. In later years, Temple would describe the films as “a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence” as well as “the best things I ever did.”

My own brush with childhood fame was short-lived. Although I was a relentless little show-off who enjoyed performing a pidgin version of “The Queen of the Night’s Aria” to anyone who would listen—or not—apparently I was not cut out for stardom. I have a strong memory of accompanying my dad, at about three, to a photographer’s studio where he was having an author’s photo taken for a book jacket. In my opinion, I looked fantastic: I had put on my favorite dress, blue with a huge white tie-dyed heart across the tummy.

When we arrived, the photographer—to whom I took an immediate disliking—asked if I would pose, too. Would I?! But then came the catch: she wanted me to remove my dress and pose in this white silk scarf, which she for some reason referred to as “a garment.” I had never heard the word and instantly hated it. I guess she wanted to arrange it around me like a classical drapery.

Long story short, I threw a tantrum, howling over and over, “I don’t want to wear the garment!” In the end, I “compromised” with her—I don’t know why this seemed like a better idea—by declaring that I would pose in my underpants, but not in the garment. I remember thinking this was an elegant solution. The picture still exists: there I stand, glowering, in my cotton underpants. But dignity, I guess, intact. Had I known any Ibsen, I’m sure I would have quoted it: “I have another duty equally sacred … My duty to myself.”

I’m sure she was just dying to stick me on a huge block of ice.

 

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