Shirley Temple Sold the Idea That a Cute Kid Had the Cure for the Great Depression

by David Thomson | February 11, 2014

photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A child has died, and that often undermines the adults left behind. Now, Shirley Temple Black did not herself cling to childhood. She was 85; she had had breast cancer in 1972 and underwent a modified radical mastectomy. She had told the public about it at a time when movie stars were not always that forthcoming. In everything, she did honorable public service, and kept the word and the idea of celebrity wholesome. She lived in a grand but nice home in Woodside, California, down the peninsula from San Francisco. She had been happily married to Charles Alden Black, who came from the world of naval intelligence and great family wealth. They had a son and daughter, and they were married over 50 years. Black died in 2005. By then, Shirley Temple Black had been a representative to the U.N. General Assembly and ambassador to Ghana (1974–6) and Czechoslovakia (1989–92). She was a Republican, but she had been in charge of arrangements for Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. 

So she was a decent, respectable, public-spirited old lady, a pillar of several establishments, and perfectly behaved. At which point, we can note that she was four years older than Elizabeth Taylor, and seven and six years behind Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. They were all child stars once, and had famously untidy lives. Mickey lives still, and he was working recently, with eight wives so far. (Mick has always been a law unto himself, and I hope he is still known to young people.) But in the business of being a child star, the three of them together could not match Shirley Temple. Starting aged three, and then until 1940, Shirley made four or five films a year, some of them shorts, but mostly big pictures—Stand Up and Cheer!; Little Miss Marker; Baby Take a Bow; Bright Eyes; The Little Colonel; The Littlest Rebel; Captain January; Poor Little Rich Girl; Dimples; Wee Willie Winkie; Heidi; Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm; Little Miss Broadway; The Little Princess; Blue Bird, and many others.

Four years in a row, 1935 to 1938, in what are now called the golden years, she was the top box-office draw in the world, and she was the asset that kept her studio, Twentieth Century Fox, alive. Young teens can still go into smart restaurants and ask for “a Shirley Temple,” without knowing who that girl was. But that is the last gasp of a pioneering marketing campaign in the ’30s to offer her “style” to America—dolls, clothes, merchandise, and the far more pervasive notion that a cute kid could look after the world. And the world to which Shirley ministered was the one going through Depression and wondering when the nations would get back to world war. 

That is not to detract from her uncanny prowess. She could read a line and carry a scene as though she was playing hopscotch; she was known as a phenomenon who could execute long, elaborate takes on her first try when adults were floundering around. She sang. “On the Good Ship Lollypop” in Bright Eyes, and she danced with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in The Little Colonel. It wasn’t just that those routines were classically expert and cute; it’s not easy to think of a black-man-white-girl on screen rapport before (or for decades after) Shirley and Bojangles. It is just a mistake of fate and a black mark against the studio system that Shirley and Fred Astaire never once went across a glassy floor together.

This prowess was uncanny, and co-workers regarded Shirley Temple with awe. But it’s not the most important thing about her. Shirley did play with children on screen, though sometimes they seem to regard her as just too precious and clean. She was in her element with grown ups. She never patronized them. She assumed they had worthwhile (if often foolish) lives of their own, and their own understandable, neurotic tendencies. But she comforted them; she straightened out their tangled lives; in a neo-parental way she cheered them up. You have to see this regime to believe it. But then perhaps you can realize how far—amid troubled times—Shirley told America, OK, fellows, just try it my way. Of course, she coincided with the new empire of Disney, and later in life she would serve on the Disney board. She never made a Disney picture, but she is central to the emerging wisdom (to be endorsed later on by James Dean and Elvis) that kids really understand life, so go with their flow. This can be painted as a very pretty picture, but there’s a down side to it all—that growing up may be not just a waste of time, but rather Un-American.

So, it’s good to remind ourselves that Shirley Temple had her wild years. By the late 1940s, she might have played Veda in Mildred Pierce. No, that’s not right. She was too nice. Still, in Since You Went Away, she was a teenager, with Jennifer Jones as her sister and Claudette Colbert as her mother. She became a part of the John Ford family—in his 1948 movie, Fort Apache she played “Philadelphia Thursday,” the belle of the outpost. That’s how she met and married a hunk actor, John Agar. It didn’t turn out well. He was a drunk and he beat her, but they had a child, and Shirley got custody after the divorce. In the ’50s, she hosted Shirley Temple’s Storybook on television, and there was also a pilot for a series that never made it.

Shirley Temple earned a fortune for herself and the studio, but she killed a small magazine in Britain in the process. Tongue in cheek, a film critic had suggested that Shirley was a very nubile nine-year-old and too cute to be true. The writer was Graham Greene, and the magazine was sued out of existence. He had the germ of a point: Shirley was in a world of her own. There was a moment after her Fox contract ended that Metro Goldwyn Mayer thought of putting her with Rooney and Garland, who were certainly maturing by 1941. But then the bosses had second thoughts. Shirley had no comfortable teenage affect. She was made for consoling and jollying up downcast adults. We still need her.

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