She lifted the hearts of an entire nation when it was at one of its lowest points in history. She later went on to serve her country in diplomacy abroad. She was, really, the first woman who could claim to have been America’s Sweetheart, and she claimed that title with her singing, dancing, and acting before most children would finished the first grade. Her staying power lasted at least long enough for our family to grow up on her films, 40 years after they were made.
And now Shirley Temple Black belongs to the ages:
From 1935 through 1938, the curly-haired moppet billed as Shirley Temple was the top box-office draw in the nation. She saved what became 20th Century Fox studios from bankruptcy and made more than 40 movies before she turned 12.
Hollywood recognized the enchanting, dimpled scene-stealer’s importance to the industry with a “special award” – a miniature Oscar – at the Academy Awards for 1934, the year she sang and danced her way into America’s collective heart.
After she sang “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in “Bright Eyes,” the song became a hit and the studio set up Shirley Temple Development, a department dedicated to churning out formulaic scripts that usually featured the cheerful, poised Shirley as the accidental Little Miss Fix-It who could charm any problem away.
Her most memorable performances included four films she made with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a black dancer 50 years her senior and a favorite co-star, she later said.
They were first paired as foils for cantankerous Lionel Barrymore in 1935’s “The Little Colonel,” in which 7-year-old Shirley tap dances up and down the staircase, remarkably matching the veteran Robinson step for step.
Here she is in Bright Eyes performing her signature song:
Normally the passing of a film star of that era of natural causes would not be news, but this was no ordinary film star, either. Shirley Temple became an icon during the Depression of hope and optimism, and her cultural impact during that period and for decades afterward cannot be overestimated. She had a remarkably long career for a child star in an era when they were even more disposable than today. One of my favorite performances of hers came in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer when Temple was nearly 20, playing the starry-eyed teen who becomes infatuated with Cary Grant — a marvelous screwball comedy that also starred Myrna Loy, and well worth the time to track it down.
Shortly afterward, Temple left acting behind for marriage and family life. The LA Times article has all of the details of her post-celebrity life, the highlight of which for her was her three years as US Ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989-1992. She was there for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain across eastern Europe.
Temple never seemed at ease with her former life, but never seemed to need to reference it, either. The fortune she made as a little girl had disappeared before she got out of acting, but as the Times notes, she never seemed to resent it. She had moved on to live a full life, even while the rest of America remained in love with our national sweetheart — generation after generation.
Rest in peace, Shirley, and Godspeed. Thank you for all the lovely memories and your service to the country.