During the prime of her then-unprecedented stardom, from age 6 to 11, Shirley Temple was a living example to all the little girls (and boys) of how to move through the world: with effervescence, good cheer, a song on the lips, and a tap dance in the toes. Were the grown-ups having problems? They’d sort themselves out and, if not, a little child would lead them. Even the Great Depression seemed to buckle before her steel-belted optimism.
From a modern vantage point, though, with the announcement of Shirley Temple Black’s death Monday at 85, she represents a different example: a lesson in how to be famous while retaining one’s sanity, humanity, and perspective. This matters very much in a culture in which public attention, more than ever, is a cheap commodity easily obtained and to which our celebrated children respond by flipping out.
Not for her the OUIs and paparazzi meltdowns, deranged tweets, and dead-eyed mug shots. Temple chain-smoked in her late teens and, at 17, married the first man who came along; that appears to be as rebellious as she got. (The husband was Army Air Corps sergeant John Agar; the marriage lasted four years. Her second marriage, to California businessman Charles Black, lasted more than a half-century.)
Times were different then, and the great film factories kept their talent on a short leash while working them hard: Temple turned out 24 films during her peak six years of 1934 through 1940. Yet it’s worth remembering that her fame eclipsed almost all earlier models, and still she turned out shockingly normal. She was and remains as iconic as Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Mouse, two other early movie stars who quickly became the property of the public imagination and who roll on in the culture.
When people heard she’d died, many were probably surprised that she was still alive, because the woman herself, with all her diplomatic accomplishments — she served as ambassador to Ghana in the 1970s and Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution of 1989 — and high-profile Republican fund-raising activities, had long ago receded behind the eternal, dancing, black-and-white tot.
Like Chaplin and Mickey Mouse, she possessed vast monetary value. Temple’s fortunes dictated those of her employer, Twentieth Century Fox, and the profits from movies like “Curly Top,” “The Little Colonel,” and “Stand Up and Cheer!” quite literally saved the studio from going under in the early 1930s. As Temple herself noted in her 1982 autobiography “Child Star” — both an enjoyable read and a marvel of fiscal probity — “During 1936, almost 90% of reported corporate net profits were attributable to earnings of my four most recent films.” As with Clark Gable at MGM and Mae West at Paramount, the studio rode out the Depression on her back.
That meant that when Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck heard that Temple had lost a tooth on the set one day, he panicked and ran out of a meeting with “Grapes of Wrath” author John Steinbeck. It meant that when grown-up costars forgot their dialogue and the kid — who had entire scripts memorized — fed them their lines, they had to grit their teeth and take it. (“We hated her for that,” said Alice Faye.) It also meant that Zanuck held no illusions about the half-life of a child star’s popularity. He shaved a year off Temple’s age to make her appear more of a prodigy — the actress didn’t find out until she was a teenager — and told her mother, “The less she changes, the longer she lasts.”
At the peak of Shirley-mania, during the first half of the 1930s, she was the popular culture’s living doll, easily available for purchase in tie-in form. In addition to actual Shirley Temple dolls sold by Ideal — there were 13 different models — you could buy Shirley berets, overcoats, hair ribbons, headbands, soap, dishware, sheet music, sewing kits, pocket mirrors, paper tablets, playing cards, anklets, and barrettes.
She promoted GE model kitchens, Packard automobiles, insurance, Wheaties, flour, Grunow Teledial radios, and Quaker Puffed Wheat. She was the perfect product spokesperson, for how could a child be accused of faking enthusiasm?
If the tie-ins weren’t enough, you could turn your own daughter into Shirley — a bull market in tap-dancing lessons and curling irons was one result — or you could try to make one. Temple’s father, George, was repeatedly propositioned by women hoping against genetic hope to spawn their own child star. Temple herself was the subject of numerous kidnapping threats, and the perpetrators invariably turned out to be young men and women, bored and maybe a little resentful about their own vanished innocence, wanting only to be seen by an audience of millions.
That audience could turn ugly. During a 1938 appearance at Boston’s Public Garden, 10,000 fans turned out to greet Temple, breaking through police barricades and rushing the 10-year-old star.
Wrote Temple in her autobiography, “As we approached, a sea of arms were upthrust, waving like tentacles, and from this packed humanity rose a pulsing cacophony of screams and reverberating growls. . . . Down came the ropes, wooden barricades tipped and we were swallowed by the crowd’s advance. . . . I suddenly saw only a mosaic of arms and faces, mouths gaped open and shouting. Hands reached up to claw along my bare legs, tug at my shoes, and pull at my dress hem.”
Afterward, she asked her mother, Gertrude, why people behaved like that. “Because you make them happy,” Gertrude replied, and, honestly, she was right. If it is asking a great deal of a child to process such a paradox — the savagery of mass love, the blunt simplicity of the emotion behind it — it says a lot about Temple that she rose to the task. “A fundamental fact of life began to sink in,” she wrote later. “No matter its brilliance or how remote its location, any star can be devoured by human adoration.”
There’s a famous line from a William Carlos Williams poem — “the pure products of America go crazy” — that has been much-used to explain the flame-outs of our entertainment idols, from Elvis Presley to Marilyn Monroe to Kurt Cobain. As a blanket statement, it explains (or pretends to) the youthful stars who appear to have gone off the rails in recent decades: Macaulay Culkin and Lindsay Lohan, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus. Growing up in public is the hardest performance of all. Judy Garland and Michael Jackson would be the first to tell you that.
Yet Shirley Temple escaped — and this, I’d hazard, is her gift to the culture, after we’ve put the DVDs of “Poor Little Rich Girl” and “Wee Willie Winkie” back on the shelf. The talented yet uncomplicated confidence that made her so delightful onscreen was, in large part, who she was in life. All celebrities are conscious projections of the ordinary people playing them, and certainly Shirley learned how to “do Shirley” over the years. But because she started so young, because she was encouraged and protected by supportive parents — not perfect, just loving — because she had the temperament or luck to have an inviolable sense of herself from early on, she may be the one movie star who really was as we saw her.
Because of that, she survived. At 16, with her popularity waning and her movies earning less and less, Temple happily left Fox and its studio schoolroom to enroll in a private Los Angeles high school. “Tears came to my eyes,” she wrote. “I looked at all those girls and knew I was one of them.”
As if she had ever been anything else.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr. This article includes material drawn from the author’s book, “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame.”