It’s unlikely that cinema will ever see another child star with the transcendent popularity of this irrepressible, gold-ringleted moppet, whose unflappable presence made her the most beloved box-office draw of Depression-era America. Shirley Temple, born in Santa Monica, California in April of 1928, was enrolled in the well-known Meglin’s Dance School while still a toddler and instantly displayed the abilities that were to make her a household name. A talent search at the school led to little Shirley being noticed by B-movie studio Educational Pictures, who featured the pint-size actress in their “Baby Burlesks” shorts, which featured her mimicking popular film stars of the day.
After making her feature debut in a minor 1932 drama, Red Haired Alibi, Temple was signed in 1934 by Fox Film Corporation (which would become part of 20th Century-Fox the following year). It took her just one number to walk away with the patriotic musical Stand Up and Cheer, and the studio found a talent who would single-handedly lead it into the black over the rest of the decade. Shirley sang and danced her way into audiences’ hearts with two more Fox musicals that year: Baby Take a Bow, with James Dunn and newcomer Claire Trevor, and Bright Eyes, which co-starred Dunn, Jane Darwell, and fellow child talent Jane Withers. It was in Bright Eyes that the precocious powerhouse performed what would become her signature song, “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”
Along with these films, Temple was loaned out to Paramount for a pair of popular 1934 efforts: Little Miss Marker, based on a Damon Runyon story, found her left in the care of bookie Adolphe Mejou, and she was the daughter of con man Gary Cooper in the meoldrama Now and Forever. It’s been reported that when she and “Coop” first met on the set, he asked Shirley for her autograph. This isn’t that surprising, because by the mid-’30s little Shirley was perhaps the most- marketed Hollywood star this side of Mickey Mouse, with dresses, paper doll books, cereal bowls, soap, and dozens of other items bearing.her name or likeness, including a best-selling doll. There was even a children’s cocktail created in her honor, consisting of ginger ale, orange juice and grenadine, topped off with a maraschino cherry, and aptly named a “Shirley Temple!”
The Little Colonel, her first of four films in 1935, had Shirley playing peacemaker between her ex-Confederate officer grandfather (Lionel Barrymore) and her mother (Evelyn Venable), who married a Yankee. It also featured her first on-screen pairing alongside tap dancer supreme Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who performed the classic “staircase dance” with Temple (an idol of hers, Robinson would appear with her in three more pictures for Fox). Joel McCrea was Shirley’s preoccupied doctor dad in Our Little Girl, while Curly Top, which cast Shirley as a plucky orphan who acts as matchmaker for her big sister, featured one of Shirley’s best-loved tunes, “Animal Crackers in My Soup.” It was one of two movies in which she’d co-star with ’30s heartthrob John Boles, the second being the Civil War tearjerker The Littlest Rebel. This heartstring-tugger had Southern belle Shirley and her guardian, plantation slave Robinson, going all the way to Washington to convince President Lincoln to spare Temple’s Confederate officer father from the firing squad. 1935 also found the seven-year-old superstar receiving a special juvenile Academy Award for her work and putting her hand and footprints in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
For 1936, Fox showcased Shirley in the sentimental favorite Captain January, as lighthouse keeper Guy Kibbee saves the girl from a boating accident that drowns her folks and the two lead a happy life with their salty pals until a truant officer interferes. Among the great songs is Shirley’s delightful dance routine with Buddy Ebsen, “At the Codfish Ball.” Poor Little Rich Girl, in which wealthy businessman’s daughter Temple is lost en route to boarding school and looked after by vaudeville duo Alice Faye and Jack Haley, was her next hit, and she played a street performer cared for by rapscallious grandfather Frank Morgan in turn-of-the-century New York in Dimples (Temple’s dancing for the latter was arranged by her frequent screen partner Robinson). The movie posters for Stowaway proclaimed that little Shirley Temple “speaks and sings Chinese!,” as the ward of a group of murdered missionaries in China who hides in an ocean liner bound for America. Along the way she’s adopted by Robert Young and Faye, and filmgoers were treated to Shirley’s impersonations of then-popular entertainers Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor! The film marked her first of three films in which she’d appear with oh-so-dignified character actor Arthur Treacher.
In 1937, Wee Willie Winkie found orphan Shirley in colonial India with granddad C. Aubrey Smith and playing mascot to British troops in her own pint-sized uniform. Veteran actor Victor McLaglen co-stars in the Kipling-based adventure, well-suited to the talents of director John Ford but with plenty of teary sentiment for fans of the dimpled darling. Probably her most treasured film is another ’37 release, Heidi, starring Shirley as the little Swiss orphan girl who reaches the heart of gruff grandfather Jean Hersholt and teaches a crippled girlfriend to walk again in this classic version of Johanna Spyri’s novel.
Although it’s not really based on Kate Douglas Wiggin’s classic story, 1938’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm tells the tale of a child who goes to live with her aunt and is discovered by her talent scout neighbor, and has become a must-see for Shirley Temple fans. Little Shirley, co-starring with Randolph Scott and Jack Haley, is reunited with Bill Robinson and sings a medley of songs that includes “Good Ship Lollipop.”Another big film for Shirley in 1938 was Little Miss Broadway, where–as the perky charge of a group of vaudevillians (among them George Murphy and Jimmy Durante) living in a boarding house–she helps them put on a variety show to pay the rent and even wins over landlady Edna May Oliver. After all, who could resist Temple’s renditions of “Be Optimistic” and “When You Were Sweet Sixteen”? And when her architect father loses his job, it’s up to little Shirley to talk a miserly tycoon into creating new jobs to help out Depression-riddled Americain the winning musical tale Just Around the Corner, co-starring studio favorites Bill Robinson, Charles Farrell, Bert Lahr and Joan Davis. 1938 also marked the fourth year in a row that the now-10-year-old Temple was the top box-office star in an annual poll of theatre owners by Quigley Publications. It would, however, prove to be the last.
The year 1939 may now be as well known for a part Shirley didn’t get as for those she did. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wanted the child actress to play the lead role of Dorothy in its lavish Technicolor musical adapation of The Wizard of Oz, but Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck was reluctant to loan her out for the project. Temple nonetheless made a colorful splash on the the big screen that year in The Little Princess, the warmly remembered tearjerker which cast her as a waif in Victorian England whose father (Ian Hunter), a soldier in the Boer War, is reported killed in action. As she endures harsh treatment from her school’s headmistress, Temple continues to hold out hope her father is alive and even meets Queen Victoria along the way. Later in ’39, the adventure tale Susannah of the Mounties proved once again that the surest kiss of death in movies was to play Shirley Temple’s on-screen parents. It’s an Indian attack that does the deed in this great frontier action saga, and the perennial orphan is adopted by rugged R.C.M.P. Randolph Scott — she even teaches Randy to tap dance!
The second of three screen versions of the Maurice Maeterlinck fantasy about a brother and sister searching for a magic bird of happiness in a dream kingdom, 1940’s The Blue Bird is a glorious Technicolor production uniting Temple with favorite movie villainess Gale Sondergaard and co-stars Nigel Bruce and Spring Byington. The film, which some saw as Fox’s answer to MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, was the now-adolescent actress’ first box-office dissapointment for Fox. In her second 1940 release, Young People, filmdom’s pluckiest orphan finds herself parentless once again, until retiring vaudevillians Jack Oakie and Charlotte Greenwood adopt her. The family moves to a small town that doesn’t take to “show folk,” but Shirley sets out to change their feelings. Like The Blue Bird, Young People failed to score with moveigoers, giving audiences the idea that little Shirley wasn’t so young–and, maybe, not as adorable–as she once was (although any serious Shirley Temple fan would, of course, disagree). Whatever the reason, Fox and its perennial top talent parted ways after that.
By the early ’40s, Shirley’s childhood had passed, and so, perhaps, had her vogue. A one-year tenure at MGM–who thought about teaming her with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland–produced only the comedy/drama Kathleen, where 12-year-old Temple again plays Cupid, trying to get widower dad Herbert Marshall and psychologist Larraine Day together. She acquitted herself well as an ingénue in efforts such as 1942’s Miss Annie Rooney (where she received her first on-screen kiss, courtesy of Dickie Moore) and as Claudette Colbert’s teenage daughter in David O. Selznick’s stunning 1944 WWII homefront epic Since You Went Away. In an interesting side note, Shirley made history in 1935, when, at the age of 6, she was the youngest presenter in Academy Award history, giving the Best Actress statue to Colbert for her role in It Happened One Night.
She proved her dramatic acting skills in 1944’s I’ll Be Seeing You, with co-stars Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten, and was well-received in the 1947 comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, where her teenage title character fell head over heels for playboy Cary Grant. That Hagen Girl, also from ’47, brought her together with Ronald Reagan, with whom she maintained a warm personal friendship, supporting him in his bid for the presidency. Even though John Ford’s 1948 frontier saga Fort Apache, also starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Shirely’s then-husband John Agar, showcased her as an all-grown-up Shirley Temple, she never re-attained her former heights in Hollywood. After such efforts as The Story of Seabiscuit and Almost a Bride (sometimes known as A Kiss for Corliss), she pulled the curtain on her movie career in 1949. Years later, when discussing her years in Hollywood, she stated, “I’m not too proud of the movies I made as a grownup except for That Hagen Girl, which nobody remembers but which gave me a chance to act.”
Shortly after divorcing Agar in 1950 (the couple had a daughter), she was wed a second time, to Navy intelligence officer and businessman Charles Alden Black, and had a son and another daughter with him. The show business bug came calling back for Shirley, though, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, as she starred in her own syndicated children’s program, Shirley Temple’s Storybook, and made guest appearances on several variety series. By the mid-’60s, her attentions turned to politics (she was a staunch Republican, thanks perhaps to old friend Ronald Reagan) and diplomacy, and the former movie moppet–now known as Shirley Temple Black–would run unsuccesfully for Congress, serve as a U.S. representative to the United Nations, and be appointed as the country’s ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia under presidents Gerald Ford and George H .W. Bush, respectively. Along the way she would also write a 1972 autobiography, aptly titled Child Star, and become one of the first celebrity spokespeople against breast cancer after talking about her own mastectomy. On February 10, 2014 Shirley passed away from natural causes, at the age of 85, at her home in the central California town of Woodside. Her days before the camera were a distant memory, but Shirley will forever remain the ever-youthful dancing, singing sweetheart to her legions of fans around the world.