All Photos Courtesy of Movie Star News
Teddy bears have been a part of Americana ever since Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt took his hunting trip in 1902 and extended a presidential pardon to a young cub. The little bear baby that Roosevelt spared became the stuff — if not the stuffing — of legend. President Roosevelt’s cub clemency inspired a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman, which, in turn, lit the spark for teddy bear mania.
Teddy’s mascot has never stopped being a popular and fantastic prop for posing. In this week’s Plush Life installment, I’m leading a stroll down memory lane so we can learn about two big-time stars who aligned with teddy bears (and their plush pals) during the early years of cinema.
What is “it” about the teddy bear that makes its inclusion in a photo so special and endearing? Most likely because it came about from an act of mercy and compassion — Roosevelt was a big-game hunter; he was not on a photographic safari — teddy bears are imbued with a sense of being fierce but faithful, grizzly but guileless, animalistic but humane!
Let’s face it: when it comes to “it” — that indefinable charisma and appeal — teddy bears have it in spades. So, it’s not surprising that the “It Girl” Clara Bow posed many times with bears, bunnies, puppies, and other stuffed critters. Bow had a very complicated life off-screen, but when she was seen on the Silver Screen, she held the audience in the palm of her hand.
Clara Bow struggled to find acceptance and peace of mind in her everyday real life, but her acting was incendiary and legendary. She was considered “savage and sexy,” “dangerous and indecent,” “a veritable man-eater” — these are actual adjectives used to describe her performances. Born in 1905, she came from a hardscrabble neighborhood in Brooklyn, where she was dragged up in poverty. She constantly got into squabbles and physical fistfights, and dealt with ridicule from other children about how thin and gangly she was.
Looking back on her early years, Bow once said: “We were so poor. I never even owned a doll, and we all had to share our one teddy bear. I was lonesome, frightened, and miserable. I cast my lot with the neighborhood boys and learned to play football, baseball, and box.” Once she gained cash and clout, Bow bought boudoir dolls, plush poodles, and other luxury items to festoon about her dressing rooms on set and her bedrooms at home.
Clara came from a troubled background, and freely admitted that she wasn’t afraid to cause trouble. In filmdom, her polar opposite had to be America’s smallest, yet biggest, movie star ever: Shirley Temple. Shirley Temple — whose face launched a million Shirley Temple dolls — was the preternaturally talented moppet who could tap-dance, sing, act, and negotiate six-figure contract deals. (She was putting the Art of the Deal into practice before it was even written.) Shirley was America’s sweetheart during the darkest days of the Depression, and her posing with teddy bears is more “cute quotient” than the average person can handle!
The fascinating thing about little Shirley is that her fame was monumental. No, beyond monumental, it was . . . Well, envision Kim Kardashian’s fame + Kate Middleton’s popularity + Michael Jackson’s influence, and then multiply it by 12! That’s how enormous the Shirley Temple juggernaut was. She had dolls, drinks, cocktails, and hairstyles named after her! Her childhood was a privileged but bizarre one. She was the little girl who could have anything she wanted because she could personally afford to buy everything she desired.
Thinking back on her youth, a grown-up Temple wryly said, “I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six years old. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.”
That puts her daily reality and far-reaching power into perspective, doesn’t it?
No wonder she posed so frequently with teddy bears. It helped to keep her in toddler/tot mode. As long as she was embracing a big overstuffed toy, she appeared like any other ordinary American girl. Albeit, one who was more popular than Mickey Mouse!