The light of the world shines a little less bright with the passing of Child Mega-Star, Ambassador, Cancer Survivor, Role Model… Shirley Temple!
Politics and show business…. “It’s certainly two different career tracks,” Shirley Temple Black said, “both completely different but both very rewarding, personally.” But… “Politicians are actors too, don’t you think?” she once said.
Video: Shirley Temple Festival - A variety of shorts from Shirley Temple’s early career
Among the shorts were “War Babies (1933),” a parody of “What Price Glory,” and “Polly Tix in Washington,” with Shirley in the title role.
By Marion Algier – Ask Marion
According to publicist Cheryl Kagen, ‘Shirley Temple, the dimpled curly-haired child mega-star who sang, danced, sobbed and grinned her way into the hearts of Depression-era moviegoers’, with impish antics and a quality of facial expressions, enviable by any actor, has died at age 85.
“We salute her for a life of remarkable achievements as an actor, as a diplomat, and most importantly as our beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and adored wife for fifty-five years of the late and much missed Charles Alden Black,” a family statement said.
Shirley Temple, a talented and ultra-enchanting entertainer who stole the heart of America and the world, was easily the most popular and most famous child star of all time. She got her start in the movies at the age of three and soon progressed to super stardom. Shirley was America’s top box-office draw from 1935 to 1938, a record no other child star has come near. She beat out such mega star grown-ups of her time as Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”
My mother was one of those young movie-goers who never missed a Shirley Temple film and could virtually recite every line. In addition to skipping church, for which she received punishment requiring penance on Monday from the nuns in Catholic school, she grew up in a one parent home with her mom, living in a small apartment over a movie theatre, where the soundtrack from the films that leaked through the floorboards lulled her to sleep most nights, but when it was a Shirley Temple film, she managed to stay awake and listen to the very end.
In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked the top 50 screen legends ranking Temple at No. 18 among the 25 actresses. She appeared in scores of movies that kept children singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop” for generations and stands as the supreme example that child stars do not have to fall apart; disappoint their fans; or turn to sex, drugs and cheap antics to show they have grown-up or to survive in the industry, in Hollywood lore or even to become an icon.
Temple is the gold standard for child actors! Her mother, Gertrude, worked diligently to keep her daughter from being spoiled by fame and was a constant presence during filming. And from the stories, Gertrude is the gold standard for parents of child performers. Having been one myself for a short time, it is a tough job if done right and we all sadly know what happens if it isn’t… the tabloids are full of examples! Shirley’s fans were interested in every detail of her life and every last golden curl on her head. Her mother was said to have done her hair nightly, but especially for each movie, in pin curls with every hairstyle having exactly 56 curls. Shirley’s father was an accountant by training and by all accounts Shirley had a happy and normal home life, as normal as her parents could make it and the people at the studio doted on her. Shirley Temple even had a drink named after her that remains a favorite for children and non-alcohol drinkers to this day.
Temple was the recipient of numerous awards and honors including the Kennedy Center Honors award and in 2006 when honored by SAG she said, “I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the lifetime achievement award. Start early”. Quite an achievement for someone who essentially retired from films at age 21. But looking back, she was actually credited with helping save 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy. Her films such as “Curly Top” and “The Littlest Rebel” saved them at the box office and put them back on the road to solvency.
Shirley was teamed-up with the great black dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in two 1935 films with Civil War themes, “The Little Colonel” and “The Littlest Rebel;” they made a total of four movies together. Their tap dance up the steps in “The Little Colonel” is a classic. Interracial teamings were unheard-of in Hollywood at that time, so these movies became landmarks in the history of film and dance. Shirley affectionately called her friend and dance partner, Uncle Billy.
“I didn’t have to look at Bill Robinson’s feet when he was teaching me to dance,” Temple recalled of her idol and mentor. “We had our mental symphony together, and he was a marvelous teacher, the greatest.” Robinson thought Temple the best living tap dancer for her age and was determined to make her the best in the world, teaching her strenuous routines without letting her know it was work or allowing her to become tired… a technique little Shirley’s mother had already perfected.
There is nothing but praise heard from people who worked with Shirley over the years and her list of memorable films is long with Heidi and The Little Colonel being at or near the top of many people’s personal list. Captain January where Shirley danced with Buddy Epson is one of my favorites! She won a special Academy Award in early 1935 for her “outstanding contribution to screen entertainment” in the previous year. She was always prepared, always cooperative and always a joy to work with was heard from all accounts.
The late Roddy McDowall, a fellow child star and friend once said. “She’s indelible in the history of America because she appeared at a time of great social need, and people took her to their hearts.”
According to “The Films of Shirley Temple,” a 1978 book by Robert Windeler, Shirley received more than 135,000 presents from around the world, including a live kangaroo for her 8th, really her 9th birthday… as the studio was attempting to keep her younger longer.
Director Allan Dwan (who directed “Heidi” and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”) told Peter Bogdanovich for his book ‘Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors’ that Shirley was “just absolutely marvelous, greatest in the world. ‘With Shirley, you’d just tell her once and she’d remember the rest of her life,” he said. ”Whatever it was she was supposed to do — she’d do it. … And if one of the actors got stuck, she’d tell him what his line was — she knew it better than he did.”
Shirley’s co-stars and directors called her “One-Take Temple” because her memorization of scripts–including everyone else’s parts–was photographic and her movements were usually perfect the first time before the camera as well.
After her years at the top it ultimately became more and more difficult for her and her producers to maintain that level. Among her later films were “The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer,” with Cary Grant, and “That Hagen Girl,” with Ronald Reagan. Several, including the wartime drama “Since You Went Away,” were produced by David O. Selznick. One, “Fort Apache,” was directed by John Ford, who had also directed her in “Wee Willie Winkie” years earlier. Her 1942 film, “Miss Annie Rooney” (now only available in VHS), included her first on-screen kiss, bestowed by another maturing child star, Dickie Moore.
Then the proposal to have her play Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” fell through. 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck refused to lend out his greatest asset, but the decision in the end might have ended her career and his cash flow with it. “The Little Princess” in 1939 and “Blue Bird” in 1940 didn’t draw big crowds and ultimately prompted Fox to let Temple go. After her film career essentially ended, Shirley concentrated on raising her family and turned to television to host and act in 16 specials called “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” on ABC. In 1960, she joined NBC and aired “The Shirley Temple Show,” and later took the stage in politics.
When asked she said that her greatest roles were as wife, mother and grandmother. “There’s nothing like real love. Nothing.” She was married to her husband, Charles Black until his death in 2005 at age 86 for 55 years. And in a 1996 interview, she said she loved both politics and show business. “It’s certainly two different career tracks,” she said, “both completely different but both very rewarding, personally.”
An interesting side note, it is said that Shirley Temple never allowed her children to watch her movies until they were in their teens because she didn’t want her fame to affect their lives or her relationship with them. She wanted them to have the normal childhood that she didn’t, even though she always said that she loved the movie period of her life. Once when asked about her thoughts when she saw herself up on the screen, she said it seemed like she was watching an old friend, but someone else.
Temple had married Army Air Corps private John Agar, the brother of a classmate at Westlake, her exclusive L.A. girls’ school, in 1945. He took up acting and the pair appeared together in two films, “Fort Apache” and “Adventure in Baltimore.” They had a daughter, Susan, in 1948, but Shirley filed for divorce the following year. She then married Black in 1950, and they had two more children, Lori and Charles. In her 1988 best-selling autobiography, “Child Star,” she describes meeting him. His parents had been missionaries and he had no idea who she was. It was one of the reasons she was initially attracted to him because she realized that if he loved her, it would be for herself and not for the fame or the illusion he thought he knew from the screen.
Temple made an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1967 and went on to hold several diplomatic posts in Republican administrations including Ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the historic collapse of Communism there and across Eastern Europe in 1989, under Bush 41. Richard Nixon appointed her as a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in the 1970s, and under Gerald Ford she was U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and then U.S. Chief of Protocol. She actually got her first ambassador appointment after Secretary of State Henry Kissinger heard Temple discussing Namibia at a party and, in her words, he was “surprised that I even knew the word.” During the administration of Ronald Reagan, her former co-star with whom she remained friends and was politically simpatico, Temple’s work was more low-key. She served as a State Department trainer, primarily conducting seminars for Ambassadors and their wives. She later sat on various boards boards of corporations and organizations including The Walt Disney Company, Del Monte Foods and the National Wildlife Federation.
In a 1999 Associated Press interview Shirley said, “My main job (initially) was human rights, trying to keep people like future President Vaclav Havel out of jail.” And within months, she was accompanying Havel, the former dissident playwright, when he came to Washington as his country’s new president.
Considering her background in entertainment an asset to her political career, she said, “Politicians are actors too, don’t you think?” she once said. “Usually if you like people and you’re outgoing, not a shy little thing, you can do pretty well in politics.” Shirley was admired by people wherever she went, both in the entertainment and political worlds.
And although she originally had to defend her appointment as Ambassador to Ghana, Shirley soon won people over and earned the respect of colleagues as well as world leaders.. In the end, Shirley Temple actually won praise in her diplomatic career.
“She is like a fresh breeze that has gently blown into our midst,” Saudi Arabian Ambassador Jamil Baroody said in 1969. “After I heard her speak, I realized that Shirley Temple has not rested on her laurels as a child movie star. She has emerged as a sincere activist and an exponent of youth and its aspirations.”
One can hardly imagine, looking back at the controversy of Temple’s original appointment, when we look at the circus that is presently going on in Congress with President Obama’s latest round of nominations for Ambassadors to several countries. The Ambassadors we choose are often not qualified, do not try to learn the customs, history, language or needs of the country they are assigned to in advance and some are not really interested in the real work and job of Ambassador, but rather the title, bestowed on them for political purpose or campaign payback reasons.
Notwithstanding the troubling auctioning of the embassies, there’s certainly room in our ambassador corps for non-career diplomats. Distinguished citizens have long represented the United States abroad with distinction: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in India; Mike Mansfield, Howard Baker and Walter Mondale in Japan; Jon Huntsman Jr. in China; and many others. Despite admitting he’s “no real expert on China,” Max Baucus, a trade expert and skilled legislator, brings other skills to the job. Our first ambassador to a unified Vietnam was ex-congressman and Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war Pete Peterson, under whom I had served when I was political counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi from 1997 to 2001. With his Hill contacts and credibility among U.S. veterans’ groups, Peterson would accomplish more in a phone call than any career ambassador could in a hundred cables back to Washington. But these men were eminently qualified and did not buy their ambassadorships.
Shirley Temple Black as Ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia, as well as her work in her other diplomatic posts, should be included in this list.
If you haven’t read Child Star, it is a must read, but somewhat difficult to come by these days; perhaps now they will republish it!?! And if you are a parent with young kids, really kids of any age, or are grandparents, you need to own a collection of Shirley Temple movies and have them watch those instead of most of today’s programming or as an alternative to video games!! They were my kids’ favorites as they were mine. And I believe that a new crop of children just watching Shirley Temple’s movies and learning about her life… about a life well lived, would make a difference in both their lives as well as America’s future!!
To steal from Bush 41, you were a point of light, Shirley, that will be missed!
Additional Books and DVD’s: