By Shirley Hawkins
Shirley Temple Black, inarguably the most famous child star of all time, passed away Monday at the age of 85.
“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 of fifty-five years,” said a statement released after her passing.
Born in Santa Monica to an accountant and his wife, Shirley was only 3 years old when her mother put her in dance school, where a talent scout spotted her and got her in “Baby Burlesk,” a series of short movies with child actors spoofing adult movies.
In 1934 she appeared in the film “Stand Up and Cheer!” and her song and dance number in “Baby Take a Bow” stole the show. Movie goers flocked to see her in “Little Miss Marker” and “Bright Eyes” – which featured her signature song “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” In 1935 she received a special Oscar for her “outstanding contribution to screen entertainment.”
The bubbly, curly haired tot won millions of hearts with her singing and dancing, becoming America’s top box-office draw from during the Depression years of 1935 to 1938, a record no other child star has come near, according to the Associated Press. She beat out such grown-ups as Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford.
Her immense popularity prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to say that “as long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.
“When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, 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,” Roosevelt said.
She teamed with the great black dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in two 1935 films with Civil War themes, “The Little Colonel” and “The Littlest Rebel.” Their tap dance up the steps in “The Little Colonel” became a landmark in the history of film dance.
Some of her pictures were remakes of silent films, such as “Captain January,” in which she recreated the role originally played by the silent star Baby Peggy Montgomery in 1924. “Poor Little Rich Girl” and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” done a generation earlier by Mary Pickford, were heavily rewritten for Temple, with show biz added to the plots to give her opportunities to sing. She caused audiences to cry when she appeared in “The Little Princess.”
She won a special Academy Award in early 1935 for her “outstanding contribution to screen entertainment.”
“She’s indelible in the history of America because she appeared at a time of great social need, and people took her to their hearts,” the late Roddy McDowall, a fellow child star and friend, once said.
Temple was credited with helping save 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy with films such as “Curly Top” and “The Littlest Rebel.” She spawned look-a-like dolls and dresses, and even had a drink named after her, the “Shirley Temple,” a cocktail of ginger ale and grenadine, topped with a maraschino cherry.
She made some 40 feature movies, including “The Little Colonel,” “Poor Little Rich Girl,” “Heidi” and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” in 10 years, starring with big-name actors like Randolph Scott, Lionel Barrymore and Jimmy Durante.
Temple was only 17 in 1945 when she married for the first time to actor John Agar, who would eventually appear with her in two movies. Their five-year marriage produced a daughter.
In 1999, the American Film Institute ranking of the top 50 screen legends ranked Temple at No. 18 among the 25 actresses. She appeared in scores of movies and kept children singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop” for generations.
Among her later films were “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer,” with Cary Grant, and “That Hagen Girl,” with Ronald Reagan. Several, including the wartime drama “Since You Went Away,” were produced by David O. Selznick. One, “Fort Apache,” was directed by John Ford, who had also directed her “Wee Willie Winkie” years earlier.
Her 1942 film, “Miss Annie Rooney,” included her first on-screen kiss, bestowed by another maturing child star, Dickie Moore.
Her career waned by the time she turned 21 and she retired from films.
In 1950 she wed Charles Black in a marriage that lasted until his death in 2005. She and Black had two children.
Black’s interest in politics was sparked in the early ’50s when her husband was called back into the Navy to work in Washington, but she attempted to make a comeback with two short-lived TV series, “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” in 1959 and “The Shirley Temple Theater” a year later.
She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in California but stayed in politics, helping raise more than $2 million for Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign.
She was later named to the United States’ team to the United Nations. “Having been a film star can be very helpful on an international basis,” Black once said. “Many people consider me an old friend.”
The Screen Actors Guild gave her its 2005 Life Achievement Award, and in her acceptance speech posted on the group’s website, she said: “I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award: start early!”
In 1974, Ford appointed Black ambassador to Ghana and two years later made her chief of protocol. For the next decade she trained newly appointment ambassadors at the request of the State Department.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush made Black ambassador to Prague – a sensitive Eastern European post normally reserved for career diplomats. Black had been in Prague in 1968, representing a group fighting multiple sclerosis at a conference, when Soviet-bloc tanks entered to crush an era of liberalization known as the “Prague Spring.”
President Gustav Husak did not seem daunted by the prospect of a U.S. ambassador who had witnessed the invasion. He told her that he had been a fan of “Shirleyka.”
In 1972, Black was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She publicly discussed her surgery to educate women about the disease.
Black is survived by her children, Susan, Charlie Jr., and Lori, her granddaughter Teresa and her great-granddaughters Lily and Emma, the family statement said. It said private funeral arrangements were pending.