Remembering Shirley Temple

Illustration for article titled Remembering Shirley Temple

That dimple. That smile. Those curls.

Shirley Temple Black has died at the age of 85. Chances are, even if you've never seen one of her films, you've heard of her, or the drink named after her. She was not just a child star but the biggest child star, America had ever seen. As the New York Times reports:

From 1935 to 1939 she was the most popular movie star in America, with Clark Gable a distant second. She received more mail than Greta Garbo and was photographed more often than President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Illustration for article titled Remembering Shirley Temple

(Accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from Jamie Lee Curtis at the 2006 Screen Actors Guild Awards.)


She won an honorary Academy Award at the age of 6; earned millions (in the 30s!) before she hit puberty, and retired from acting at the age of 22. Later in life, she became a prominent Republican fundraiser, a diplomat, and supported the Vietnam war. She was also a breast cancer survivor who held a news conference from her hospital room and encouraged women to speak openly about breast cancer, and not to "sit home and be afraid."

But the Shirley Temple most of us will remember is the Shirley Temple who was a staple in my life when I was a kid, with The Little Princess and Heidi being the main vehicles through which I came to adore her. What mattered was her singing, tap dancing, shaking her ringlets, and being relentlessly cheerful in the face of gloom.

Illustration for article titled Remembering Shirley Temple

In 5th grade, my class at PS 145 watched Heidi in the auditorium one day it was too rainy for recess. I was already very familiar with Temple, and the movie. I knew her affect on me. But it was amazing: A bunch of tough, jaded New York City pre-teens literally whooped, cheered and clapped when Heidi was rescued from the folks who kidnapped her. Her allure wasn't just that she was ridiculously adorable; she had a way of being happy, calm and collected while the grown-ups wasted time frowning and being frustrated. Her Depression-era films usually had a super simple message: Smile, sing a happy song, tap dance a little, and you'll get through it. For me, as a kid with ringlets and tap shoes, it seemed like Shirley Temple held all the secrets to joy. Saying goodbye to her is actually just saying goodbye to that sweet, innocent part of my childhood, when I really did believe that merriment can save the day, that grinning solves problems, that a little song and dance is all you need to cheer everyone up and turn things around.

Images via Getty.

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This is from the NYT obit and it literally made my jaw drop...

In 1932, Shirley was spotted by an agent from Educational Pictures and chosen to appear in “Baby Burlesks,” a series of sexually suggestive one-reel shorts in which children played all the roles. The 4- and 5-year-old children wore fancy adult costumes that ended at the waist. Below the waist, they wore diapers with oversize safety pins. In these heavy-handed parodies of well-known films like “The Front Page” (“The Runt Page”) and “What Price Glory” (“War Babies”), Shirley imitated Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and — wearing an off-the-shoulder blouse and satin garter as a hard-boiled French bar girl in “War Babies” — Dolores Del Rio.

When any of the two dozen children in “Baby Burlesks” misbehaved, they were locked in a windowless sound box with only a block of ice on which to sit. “So far as I can tell, the black box did no lasting damage to my psyche,” Mrs. Black wrote in “Child Star.” “Its lesson of life, however, was profound and unforgettable. Time is money. Wasted time means wasted money means trouble."

It gives you a scary look into the scary world of early Hollywood, and a pretty clear idea of why so many child stars, especially from that time, became hapless and fucked up adults. Hat's off to Shirley, who not only kept it together, but thrived.