Shirley Temple: More Than a Pretty Face

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Uri Klein
Uri Klein

In the history of cinema, no other child-actor ever matched the popularity of Shirley Temple, who passed away on Monday at 85 years old. Even though her career took off in the 1930s and she left the film industry by the late 1940s, her name is still almost universally known. She was a symbol, an idea – and there’s even a virgin cocktail named for her. Her baby-like voice, at least in her early films, her round face with plump cheeks, curls and the almost constant smile that lit up her face will never be forgotten. In America, there are many who still worship her like an idol.

Film lovers cannot help but ask themselves what would have been if Temple had been given the role of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” as then-MGM head Louis B. Mayer had wanted. Twentieth Century Fox, which employed Temple, refused to lend out their highest-grossing star to MGM, not even in return for Clark Gable. Mayer was forced to give the part to Judy Garland, who was six years older than Temple.

Between 1935 and 1939, Temple was the highest-grossing star in America. Her likeness spawned an entire industry of merchandise from dolls to lunchboxes, and in 1935, she even received an Oscar for her special contribution to film; the statue was specially designed, on a smaller scale, just for her.

I began to watch movies as Temple was near the end of her film career, and I only saw her early work much later. I was shaken by the sentimentality of her films, and the sweetness she exhibited, but I also could not help but notice her talent. She knew how to act, sing, dance, and proved herself at just four years old. What made Temple the biggest star of the 1930’s was her doll-like appearance (for years, American mothers styled their daughters after Temple) and the resilience and optimism she displayed in her films.

Shirley Temple receving the Screen Actors Guild's Life Achievement Award in 2006. Photo by Reuters

Temple, born in 1928 in Santa Monica, California, had become a superstar by the mid 1930s (after appearing in many short films and smaller roles in features). Her stardom coincided with the lowest points of the Great Depression, and in most of her roles, she was seen facing life’s fateful pitfalls with brave determination. She wished America a better future, and the fact that she was a young girl only made the message stronger. “Little Miss Marker” (based on a story by Damon Runyon), “The Little Colonel,” “The Little Rebel,” “Curly Top,” “Dimples,” “Heidi,” “The Little Princess” and “The Blue Bird” were the biggest films of the 1930s, and the songs she performed were hits. Her most famous song, “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” came from the 1934 film “Bright Eyes.”

Shirley vs. Graham Green

One of the more bizarre tales of her career involves famous British author and screenwriter Graham Green (“The Third Man,” “The Quiet American”), who worked then as a film critic, and wasn’t very fond of Temple. In his critique of the film “Captain January,” he wrote that the eight-year-old Temple’s “popularity seems to rest on coquetry,” and “on an oddly precocious body as voluptuous in grey flannel as Marlene Dietrich’s.”

Later, writing about the film “Wee Willie Winkie,” Greene wrote that Temple aroused the desires of middle-aged men and clergymen. Twentieth Century Fox filed a libel suit against Greene and the paper he worked for, which was settled out of court for 3,500 pounds.

Shirley Temple greets then-U.S. President Bill Clinton during a 1998 reception at the White House. Photo by AFP

America followed the young Temple into adolescence, and saw her get the first onscreen kiss in the 1942 film “Miss Annie Rooney.” Although her films continued to be successful, she was no longer the great attraction she was as a child. Some of her films from the 1940’s are actually better than her earlier work. These include John Cromwell’s 1944 “Since You Went Away,” in which Temple has a supporting role as a daughter, alongside Jennifer Jones and Claudette Colbert, in a typical American family dealing with the hardships of World War Two.

In 1945, Temple married actor John Agar, which shocked America. According to an autobiography she published in 1988, the marriage was abusive, and the two divorced in 1949, after having a daughter. In 1950, she married naval officer Charles Black, and changed her name to Shirley Temple Black. They had a son and a daughter, and were married until Black’s death in 2005.

During the late 1940’s, Temple decided to retire from film and turned instead to politics. She was an activist for the Republican Party, and unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1967. President Richard Nixon appointed her as a representative to the United Nations General Assembly in 1969, and President Gerald Ford appointed her ambassador to Ghana in 1974. She served in other positions in the American government, and was responsible for organizing the inauguration ceremony for President Jimmy Carter. In 1989, President George Bush appointed her ambassador to Czechoslovakia.

Once in a while she would appear on television, sometimes on children’s shows or in guest appearances on other programs, but her acting career never took off again, and perhaps she wanted it that way. In any case, she had an extraordinary career and life, and when the American Film Institute compiled a list of the greatest female stars in film history, Temple was ranked number 18.

Shirley Temple. Always smiling.Credit: AFP