Shirley Temple, nation’s original child star, offered an escape through film - The Buffalo News
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Shirley Temple, nation’s original child star, offered an escape through film

LOS ANGELES – She was the child star to end all child stars – a box office sensation during one of the great ages of film and an inspiration to millions during the Depression.

She was Shirley Temple, the curly-haired icon of an era, who died Monday evening in her home in Woodside. She was 85 years old.

A little engine of energy, compassion and outreach, Temple was a preternatural dynamo, not a mere child star, but a sensation – and not just a sensation but a huge part of America’s hopeful narrative during a dark, difficult time.

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt once put it, “As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.”

As an actress who made her first film at age 4 and broke into stardom at age 6, Temple is the rare case of a performer who outlived the vast bulk of her audience.

But at her height – she was the No. 1 box office star between 1935 and 1938 – there was nothing like her. Fans counted the curls in her hair (56) and merchandisers capitalized on her fame. There were Shirley Temple dolls and cobalt blue Shirley Temple dish sets. There was even a Shirley Temple drink, a non-alcoholic concoction involving ginger ale and grenadine with, of course, a cherry on top.

To many, she was a symbol of spontaneous goodness. In her films, all those who came into contact with her unstudied radiance had to smile, no matter how encrusted with grief, despair or life’s other barnacles.

The audience reacted in the same way. Indeed, if you take a look at her movies, you may be appalled to find that this child juggernaut has the same effect even in an age more cynical.

As for the films, they blend together: Something about an orphan. Or maybe the grandfather dies. Or somebody needs bucking up. But Shirley comes to the rescue. She becomes somebody’s reason to live, or to wake up, or to do good – and somehow good gets done. Today, these films are watchable only for her, but the same could be said of many star vehicles from the golden age. Temple starred in escapism in the purest sense, and Americans ate it up.

It was Temple’s luck – and not her fault – that she happened to arrive on the scene just as the censors were cracking down on Hollywood.

A month after the release of Temple’s breakthrough in “Little Miss Marker” (1934), the Production Code cleared the field of all sophisticated entertainment. Goodbye fallen women, goodbye gangsters who got away with it. Say hello to Shirley Temple singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”

Even today, Temple’s child performances are a marvel. You never catch her acting. Sure, she had some stock gestures, mannerisms that she relied on to beguile viewers: She would stick her bottom lip out, or scrunch her face up, or put her hands on her hips to indicate decisiveness. But it’s as if there is no camera there, and she has simply been told to cut loose and be herself – or to “sparkle,” as her mother used to instruct her before the director called “Action!”

This little miracle, this pint-sized Mother Teresa in tap shoes, really did seem to be joyous, a fountain of happy childhood. And it’s true that Temple avoided the pitfalls of other child stars in later life. Temple’s mother, Gertrude, a constant presence during filming, worked to keep her daughter from being spoiled by fame. Years later, Shirley said that her mother had been furious when a director once sent her off on an errand and then got the child to cry for a scene by frightening her. “She never again left me alone on a set,” she said.

Born in Santa Monica, Calif., Temple was 3 years old when she debuted in the 1932 Baby Burlesks, a series of short films in which tiny performers parodied grown-up movies, sometimes with risque results. Temple received her first big notice in 1934 for her “Baby Take A Bow” number with James Dunn in “Stand Up and Cheer!”

Among her hit films were “Curly Top,” “Stowaway,” “The Littlest Colonel” and “The Littlest Rebel.” In the latter two, she teamed with the great dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and her dance with him up the steps in “The Littlest Colonel” – at a time when interracial teamings were unheard of in Hollywood – became a landmark in the history of film dance.

By the end of the 1930s, her popularity began to fade. There was a proposal to have her play Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” – Dorothy, after all, was supposed to be a little girl – but, in a happy accident of film history, 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck refused to lend her out and Judy Garland landed the role. A year later, Fox let her go.

As a teenager, she made a handful of films – including “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” – and she was pretty and had a pleasant screen presence. But the indefinable aura of genius that she had as a child seemed to leave her.

As she moved into her teens, she literally outgrew the movie business – audiences would not accept her in more mature roles – and Temple made her last film, “Mr. Belvedere Goes to College,” in 1949.

A decade later, she briefly returned to Hollywood to narrate and sometimes star in fairy tales on what was originally called “Shirley Temple’s Storybook,” a successful show that aired on television from 1959 to 1961.

It prompted one critic to write that it proved once again that Temple “could, if she wanted to, steal Christmas from Tiny Tim,” Anne Edwards wrote in the 1988 biography “Shirley Temple: American Princess.”

In the late 1950s and 1960s, her films were widely shown on television, introducing a whole new generation to her work. She retired from the entertainment industry by the early 1960s to raise a family. Temple had one daughter with actor John Agar, whom she married in 1945 and divorced in 1948. She had two more children with Charles Black whom she married in 1950. Black died in 2005 at age 86.

In 1967, she made an unsuccessful bid as a Republican candidate for Congress. After Richard Nixon became president in 1969, he appointed her as a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. In the 1970s, she was U.S. ambassador to Ghana and later U.S. chief of protocol.

She then served as ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. A few months after she arrived in Prague in mid-1989, communist rule was overthrown in Czechoslovakia as the Iron Curtain collapsed across Eastern Europe.

“My main job (initially) was human rights, trying to keep people like future President Vaclav Havel out of jail,” she said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. Within months, she was accompanying Havel, the former dissident playwright, when he came to Washington as his country’s new president.

Like President Ronald Reagan, she considered her background in entertainment an asset to her political career. “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.”

In 1972, she underwent surgery for breast cancer and issued a statement urging other women to get checked by their doctors. Her 1988 autobiography, “Child Star,” was a best-seller.

In 1999, the American Film Institute ranking of the top 50 screen legends ranked Temple at No. 18 among the 25 actresses.

In 2006, she received the lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actor’s Guild: “I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the lifetime achievement award. Start early,” she said.

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