Shirley Temple Black, Screen Darling, Dies at 85

Shirley Temple Black, who as a dimpled, precocious and determined little girl in the 1930s sang and tap-danced her way to a height of Hollywood stardom and worldwide fame that no other child has reached, died on Monday night at her home in Woodside, Calif. She was 85.

Her publicist, Cheryl Kagan, confirmed her death.

Ms. Black returned to the spotlight in the 1960s in the surprising new role of diplomat, but in the popular imagination she would always be America’s darling of the Depression years, when in 23 motion pictures her sparkling personality and sunny optimism lifted spirits and made her famous. 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.

The little girl with 56 perfect blonde ringlets and an air of relentless determination was so precocious that the usually unflappable Adolphe Menjou, her co-star in her first big hit, “Little Miss Marker,” described her as “an Ethel Barrymore at 6” and said she was “making a stooge out of me.”

When she turned from a magical child into a teenager, audience interest slackened, and she retired from the screen at 22. But instead of retreating into nostalgia, she created a successful second career for herself.

After marrying Charles Alden Black in 1950, she became a prominent Republican fund-raiser. She was appointed a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969. She went on to win wide respect as the United States ambassador to Ghana from 1974 to 1976, was President Gerald R. Ford’s chief of protocol in 1976 and 1977, and became President George H. W. Bush’s ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989, serving there during the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

After winning an honorary Academy Award at the age of 6 and earning $3 million before puberty, Shirley Temple grew up to be a level-headed adult. When her cancerous left breast was removed in 1972, at a time when operations for cancer were shrouded in secrecy, she held a news conference in her hospital room to speak out about her mastectomy and to urge women discovering breast lumps not to “sit home and be afraid.” She is widely credited with helping to make it acceptable to talk about breast cancer.

A statement released by her family said, “We salute her for a life of remarkable achievements as an actor, as a diplomat, and most importantly as our beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and adored wife for fifty-five years of the late and much missed Charles Alden Black.”

Shirley Jane Temple was born in Santa Monica, Calif., on April 23, 1928. From the beginning, she and her mother, Gertrude, were a team (“I was absolutely bathed in love,” she remembered); her movie career was their joint invention. Her success was due to both her own charm and her mother’s persistence.

In “Child Star,” her 1988 autobiography, Mrs. Black said her mother had made a “calculated decision” to turn her only daughter into a professional dancer. At a fee of 50 cents a week, Mrs. Temple enrolled 3-year-old Shirley in Mrs. Meglin’s Dance Studio.

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.”

“Baby Burlesks” was followed by five two-reel comedies and a year of casting calls and bit-part auditions, which garnered young Shirley half a dozen small roles. By Thanksgiving 1933 she was growing older. She was 5½, and in the previous two years she had earned a total of $702.50. Her mother did the sensible thing: she shaved a year off her daughter’s age. Shirley would be shocked to discover, at a party for her 12th birthday in April 1941, that she was actually 13.

Her career began in earnest in 1934, when she was picked to play James Dunn’s daughter in the Fox fantasy “Stand Up and Cheer,” one of many films made during the Depression in which music chases away unhappy reality. She was signed to a two-week contract at $150 a week and told to provide her own tap shoes.

Within an hour of completing her song-and-dance number “Baby, Take a Bow,” she was formally placed under contract to Fox for a year at $150 a week. The studio had an option for seven more years and would pay Gertrude Temple an additional $25 each week to take care of her daughter.

In its review of “Stand Up and Cheer” (1934), Variety called Shirley Temple a “sure-fire potential kidlet star.” She made eight movies in 1934 and moved from potential to full star in February, when Fox lent her to Paramount for “Little Miss Marker,” based on a Damon Runyon story.

Playing a child left with a bookie (Adolphe Menjou) as a marker for her father’s gambling debts, Shirley reforms a gang of gamblers, bookies and horse dopers. She would play a similarly wise and maternal miniature adult, dominating the adults around her and solving their problems with unbounded optimism and common sense, in most of her films.

She brought peace to a British regiment fighting rebels in India in “Wee Willie Winkie” (1937) and to white men and Indians in “Susannah of the Mounties” (1939). She was frequently cast as an orphan, the better to show adults how to cope with adversity: her father committed suicide in “Little Miss Marker”; her aviator father crashed and her mother was killed by a car in “Bright Eyes” (1934); she was the sole survivor of a shipwreck in “Captain January” (1936).

“People in the Depression wanted something to cheer them up, and they fell in love with a dog, Rin Tin Tin, and a little girl,” Mrs. Black often said in appraising her success.

It is no surprise that Shirley Temple dolls were the best-selling dolls of the decade (and are valuable collectibles now). In many of her films she was a living doll, adored by entire groups of men: aviators in “Bright Eyes,” a Yankee regiment in “The Little Colonel” (1935).

No Shirley Temple movie was complete without a song — most famously “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and “Animal Crackers in My Soup” — and a tap dance, with partners including George Murphy, Jack Haley and Buddy Ebsen. But her most successful partnership was with the legendary African-American entertainer Bill (Bojangles) Robinson. She may have been the first white actress allowed to hold hands affectionately with a black man on screen, and her staircase dance with Mr. Robinson in “The Little Colonel,” the first of four movies they made together, retains its magic almost 80 years later.

Shirley Temple Black, Screen Darling, Dies at 85 by Aljean Harmetz

New York Times

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

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