When the Academy Awards salute heroes next month on ABC, they can save a whole segment for Shirley Temple.
Her precocious gifts amazed, amused and inspired the country in the 1930s.
Even President Franklin Roosevelt understood her importance. “During this depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles,” the president said in 1935.
Shirley Temple Black died at 85 Monday night at her home in Woodside, Calif.
She was a real-life heroine for lifting the country’s spirits. She projected professionalism, optimism and enthusiasm. No child star in Hollywood history ever had such impact, and she proved that child stars can thrive after their film careers are over.
When Temple Black received the Kennedy Center Honor in 1998, Jack Lemmon called her “a timeless star”‘ who “cheered up a nation and became part of the American spirit.”
When the Oscars saluted winners from the past 70 years in 1998, the thunderous cheers for Temple Black were a pleasant surprise.
They remembered her. They might not remember her movies, but her importance as a symbol transcended any single movie.
Her singing transformed “Animal Crackers” and “On the Good Ship Lollipop” into popular ditties. Her dancing dazzled when she worked with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Her acting confounded veteran co-stars.
“You’ve heard of chess champions at 8 and violin virtuosos at 10. Well, she’s Ethel Barrymore at 6,” Adolphe Menjou said.
“She was a nice kid, with a really wonderful mother and father,” Alice Faye said in 1987. “We all liked her. But she was brilliant. She knew everyone’s dialogue, and if you forgot a line, she gave it to you. We all hated her for that.”
But the public loved her. She was the top box-office draw from 1935 to 1938.
Her movie titles capitalized on her style: “Bright Eyes,” “Curly Top,” “The Littlest Rebel” and “Dimples.” In one of her best movies, “Wee Willie Winkie,” she worked with director John Ford.
Her popularity faded as she became a teenager, but she continued to appear in notable films: “Since You Went Away” (1944), “The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer” (1947) and “Fort Apache” (1948, again with Ford).
“There was an elfin perfection about her,” David Thomson writes in “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.” “Once she grew older, it was replaced by an unremarkable teenager. The public was bewildered at the loss and rejected her.”
Yet she moved on, succeeding as a diplomat and inspiring the country with her frankness about battling breast cancer.
Maybe Alice Faye touched on the key: Temple Black had wonderful parents. In 2001, when Shirley’s life became an ABC movie based on her autobiography, “Child Star” was a valentine to her mother, Gertrude.
In reviewing that movie, I wrote: “The movie celebrates Shirley’s successes and examines her inevitable slide. When she lost ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to [Judy] Garland, Fox gave her ‘The Blue Bird,’ a ponderous fantasy that bombed.
“But resilient, levelheaded Shirley bounced back, and the movie concludes with the teenager starring in the 1944 war drama ‘Since You Went Away.’ There’s far more to Temple’s story, but ‘Child Star’ gets at her indomitable essence, a feat that can be attributed to Temple Black’s serving as a consultant.”
Indomitable and heroic — that’s a great legacy for anyone. Add Hollywood’s greatest child star, and you get an idea of how important Shirley Temple Black was.
By Hal Boedeker