Temple, Shirley (1928—)

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Temple, Shirley (1928—)

Shirley Temple, Hollywood's quintessential child star during the 1930s and 1940s, became a diplomat in later years, serving as Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia and as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under her married name, Shirley Temple Black. But it is the diminutive smiling moppet with golden ringlets that most older Americans remember from the Saturday afternoon matinees of their own childhoods. Her unique appeal and immense popularity were without precedent and have never been equaled by the junior members of the Hollywood acting fraternity. The child star who acted, danced, and sang her way into the hearts of millions was the sun that shone through the clouds of the depression years. In a series of box-office smashes, Little Shirley Temple dispensed sweetness and light, beguiling her adult audiences and upstaging her adult co-stars in a series of films specially concocted to capitalize on her qualities. Decades before the rise of film-product merchandising, Temple's popularity gave rise to a profitable industry in Shirley Temple products such as dolls, cut-outs, and clothes, and her name has passed into the language as a synonym for cute, smiling, curly-haired, doll-like little girls—and even as the eponym for a non-alcoholic cocktail served to children and teetotaling adults.

Shirley made her first feature film appearance in 1932. She was awarded a special Academy award "in grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the year 1934," and was the number-one box-office attraction in the United States and Britain from 1935 to 1938. During this time her salary had risen to $100,000 per picture, but by the end of 1939, unable to keep advancing age at bay, her career began its downward slide. She was 11 years old.

Born in Santa Monica, California, on April 23, 1928, Shirley was taken to dancing classes at age three by an ambitious stage mother who later hawked around her daughter to various film studios. The child was first chosen for a series of one-reel movies called "Baby Burlesks," a quick stepping stone to her first small roles in features. In 1934, Fox Studios, needing a tot to perform a song and dance number in Stand Up and Cheer, engaged her at $150 per week. She made an immediate impact with the number, "Baby Take a Bow" and emerged with a Fox contract. Meanwhile, Little Miss Marker, the first film under a two-picture deal that Mrs. Temple had previously made with Paramount, was released several weeks after Stand Up and Cheer, and became a huge hit. Based on a story by Damon Runyon, it was this film—something of a classic and frequently remade—that catapulted the six-year-old Temple to stardom.

As little Miss Marker, little Miss Temple was paired with Adolphe Menjou, the smooth veteran of many a more sophisticated screen liaison. She played the daughter of a gambler who, in debt to his bookie, dumps his small daughter on the man as "security" and disappears. Menjou played the seemingly flint-hearted bookie who softens under the influence of the charming, loving child, reforms his ways, and embraces the role of surrogate father. With minor variations on its basic idea, Little Miss Marker established the formula for the subsequent string of mediocre films whose success rested on their star's tiny shoulders. Most of the stories were formulaic: a child, generally an orphan or, at the very least, motherless, is packed off by some inept or mildly villainous guardian to live with a reluctant relative. In double-quick time she melts the stony heart of whichever aunt or grandfather she has been inflicted upon, never wants to leave, is reclaimed for purposes of exploitation by the original caregiver and, after much phony but effectively plotted tension, is blissfully reunited with her loved ones.

Exploiting the success of her number in Stand Up and Cheer, Fox rushed her into Baby Take a Bow (Shirley as the daughter of an ex-con who straightens out under her sunny influence); then it was back to Paramount for Now and Forever with Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard (he a jewel thief, she his mistress and Shirley his motherless daughter); the year ended with Bright Eyes, in which an orphaned Shirley sang the hit song "On the Good Ship Lollipop." In 1935 she danced with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel; in Our Little Girl she succeeded in reuniting her two estranged parents; in Curly Top, a loose retelling of Daddy Longlegs, she sang another hit song, "Animal Crackers in My Soup" as she took control of her adoptive playboy-father's affairs, both professional and romantic.

And so it continued. Temple, remaining cute as a button, proved herself a real trouper, delivering her lines and dispensing wisdom to adults with unnerving authority and breaking effortlessly into song and dance with breathtaking ease. In Stowaway (1936), the eight-year-old impersonated Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and Ginger Rogersdancing with a Fred Astaire doll; the film version of Heidi (1937) suited her to perfection and won critical plaudits; Wee Willie Winkie the same year shamelessly changed the original Rudyard Kipling character from a small boy to a small girl. Directed by John Ford, the tale of a child who becomes the mascot of a British army regiment in colonial India was the most expensively produced of the Temple vehicles, with sentimentality taking second place to action. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), about an orphan who becomes a radio star, reprised Shirley's career and remains an excellent introductory film for those who have never seen her.

Neither her novelty nor her popularity faded until 1939 when her ratings began to slip after The Little Princess and Susannah of the Mounties. In 1940, with her asking price now $300,000, she starred in Maurice Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird, adapted by the author and filmed in color; it was the first Shirley Temple vehicle to lose money. At the end of the year, Mrs. Temple and the studio (now Twentieth Century-Fox), who had long had an uneasy relationship, agreed to terminate Shirley's contract. She returned to the screen via MGM, who did not know what to do with her and, after a feeble performance in Kathleen (1941), she went to United Artists and appeared in Miss Annie Rooney (1942). She disappeared for two years and came back in Since You Went Away (1944), a popular wartime family drama in which she played third fiddle to Claudette Colbert and Jennifer Jones.

The world had changed, and so had Shirley Temple, now 16. She was rejected by a disappointed public unable to accept her transformation from dream child to attractive but ordinary teenager, and ten more films between 1945 and 1949 (including The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer with Cary Grant), and marriage, at 17, to John Agar, only continued the downward slide. Two comeback attempts with television series in 1958 and 1960 failed to generate any enthusiasm and finally marked the end of her career. Divorced from Agar, she married TV executive Charles Black in 1950 and, as Shirley Temple Black, entered Republican politics during the 1960s. Her congressional bid was unsuccessful, but she was appointed a U.S. representative to the United Nations, became the American ambassador to Ghana (1974-76), then the U.S. Chief of Protocol and, finally, in 1989, ambassador to Czechoslovakia.

Described by David Thomson as not "just a child leading her life under adult shadows, but a Lilliputian moralist in ringlets, tap-dancing into your heart and then delivering the sententious message that sorts out confusion," Shirley Temple certainly had her detractors. There were those who found her unbearable, and those who noted the shortcomings in her singing and dancing. Novelist and onetime film critic Graham Greene was famously sued for a review in which he asserted that she was an adult masquerading as a child. But to most, she was the perfect antidote to reality in a difficult era, who later said of her career, "I class myself with Rin-Tin-Tin. At the end of the Depression people were perhaps looking for something to cheer themselves up. They fell in love with a dog and a little girl. It won't happen again."

—Robyn Karney

Further Reading:

Black, Shirley Temple. Child Star, USA. New York, Warner Books, 1989.

Hammontree, Patsy Guy. Shirley Temple Black: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Publishing, 1998.

Thomson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Windeler, Robert. The Films of Shirley Temple. New York, Citadel Press, 1995.

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