With her trademark curls, frilly dresses and an irrepressible twinkle in her eye, Shirley Temple became a Hollywood icon. Little girls dreamed of being like her and adults came to think of her as own of their own, sort of a silver screen surrogate child.
Shirley Jane Temple was born in Santa Monica, California, on April 23, 1928 to banker George Temple and his wife Gertrude, a retired dancer. Gertrude immediately projected her own ambitions onto her only daughter and by the age of three, young Shirley was taking dance classes at Meglin’s Dance School in Los Angeles and was an immediate standout. She managed to catch the eye of Charles Lamont, a casting agent for Educational Pictures, who visited the school looking for new talent, and was signed to a contract.
For the next four years, Shirley worked at Educational, making a series of short subject films and performing walk on roles in several longer films. In 1933, she appeared opposite James Dunn in “Stand Up and Cheer!”. Afterward, she was signed by 20th Century Fox and cast opposite Dunn once again in what would become her breakthrough roll in “Bright Eyes” (1934). In the film, Shirley would first perform one of her trademark songs, “On The Good Ship Lollipop.” The bright confection would cheer the hearts of a country suffering through the Great Depression and a bona fide star was born…at the tender age of six!
In a country starved for any kind of reprieve from bread lines and joblessness, little Shirley Temple represented the ultimate shelter from the storm. Audiences of all ages embraced the bubbly little girl, whose mother carefully fixed her blonde hair into exactly 56 ringlets for each film performance. After “Bright Eyes”, Shirley moved on to another hit with “Curly Top”, where she debuted yet another trademark song, “Animal Crackers in My Soup”.
Shirley quickly became one of Fox’s most lucrative performers, making no fewer than 20 films over the next decade. In that time, she starred opposite almost every big name star at Fox, including Cary Grant, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Buddy Ebsen and many more. Some of her most memorable performances were as the little dance partner of the legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. She appeared with Robinson in “The Little Colonel” (1935), “The Littlest Rebel” (1935), “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” (1938) and “Just Around the Corner” (1938). The sight of the little blonde girl and the black actor dancing together was controversial for its time, but they proved to be some of Shirley’s most beloved roles and she and Robinson would remain close friends until his death.
In 1935, Shirley was awarded a special Juvenile Performer Academy Award. The then six year old was the youngest performer ever to receive the Award, a record which would stand for 40 years, until 10 year old Tatum O’Neal became the youngest performer to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Paper Moon”.
By 1940, Shirley was losing her appeal as a child star but the intrepid 12 year old continued to work, leaving Fox and freelancing with other studios including MGM and Paramount while going to school at the Westlake School for Girls. In 1942 she had her first onscreen kiss in “Miss Annie Rooney” and she scored several more hits over the next few years with “Since You Went Away”, “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” and “Fort Apache”.
In 1945, the 17 year old fell in love with actor John Agar and they were married on September 19th of that year. Three years later, Shirley gave birth to their daughter, Linda, and the next year she and John were divorced. By this time, now a young woman of 21 and single mother, Shirley decided to retire from the movie industry.
She moved on to a life which included another marriage, to Charles Black, which would last from 1950 until his death in 2005 and would see the birth of two more children, Charles Jr. and Lori. She also became active in politics, running unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives in 1967 and serving as Ambassador to Ghana from 1974-76 and later as Ambassador to the Czechoslovakia from 1989-92. In 1976, she was named the first female Chief of Protocol of the United States.
She returned to Hollywood briefly in the late 50’s and early 60’s, where she tried her hand at TV, hosting “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” and “Shirley Temple Theater”. Neither show lasted more than a season and soon Shirley had moved on to her burgeoning political career.
From beloved child star to much admired U.S. diplomat, Shirley Temple Black has left a mark on both Hollywood and her country which few can match. No other child star has ever sparked the kind of mania created by Shirley, whose likeness appeared on everything from dishes to look alike dolls at the height of her popularity. To this day, the mere mention of her name still brings a smile to the faces of so many fans, all of whom were overjoyed to see her make a rare Hollywood appearance when she accepted the Screen Actor’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. The heartwarming smile and familiar twinkle in her eye remain even at 80…part of a legacy which may never be duplicated and will certainly never be forgotten.
# Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.