Titan of the Twentieth Century

I had prepared another column to kick off my new blog, but learned that Shirley Temple had passed on last evening. The news hit me hard because every second I’ve been on the planet, I’ve been sharing it with Shirley Temple. Shirley Temple was a given, and now she’s not.

For anyone around my age (whatever that may be), Shirley Temple is half moppet and half cliché. My generation knows what an icon she was during the Depression. The generation behind mine is vaguely aware that once there was a child star named Shirley Temple. The generation after that hasn’t a clue what power the letters S-H-I-R-L-E-Y T-E-M-P-L-E wielded on a theater marquee from 1934 through 1938. This knee-high kid, around three-feet tall at her most popular, made tens of millions for 20th Century Fox and became the first personality, real or imagined, to have her likeness and adorable little self spun off into all manner of product, from the highly profitable Shirley Temple Doll to paper dolls to coloring books, magazines, writing tablets, record albums, and more. Whatever Shirley Temple was selling, people lined up to buy.

Then came this unwelcome thing called adolescence. As Shirley neared it, she started to grow and the cute factor reduced from a million to about, well, zero. I guess audiences experienced letdown that she dared be biological, and then betrayal that Fox continued to wardrobe this suddenly gangly 11 year old in little-girl dresses and force her to affect the time-tested pout and delivery. Boy, it must have been awkward for the masses, for Fox, and for Shirley and her mother, to spend years beating back the fame monster—and then to be dismissed by Fox and on the outside, hearing nothing but crickets.

Unexpectedly, puberty was kind to Shirley. Very kind. She re-emerged working for Selznick in 1944, and then made pictures here and there through the 1940s and became a hottie, which produced a new paradox: Wouldn’t any guy be a dirty old man for thinking the recent-moppet sexy?

With nothing left to prove in pictures and caught as she was in that purgatory of grown-up child star, she walked away from Hollywood at 21 and aspired to matrimony and motherhood. What a life she went on to live! In 1972 she experienced breast cancer and moved right past it, saying, “I have much more to accomplish before I am through.” She justified that pronouncement by becoming U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and then U.S. Chief of Protocol. She wrote her autobiography, Child Star, in 1988 and earned a SAG Life Achievement Award in 2006.

My own brush with Shirley Temple came in 1989 when I requested an autograph by mail. She was at that time akin to the Soup Nazi of autographs. If you followed certain protocol and sent a still photo and return envelope, you stood a reasonable chance to get something back. I did, and I did, a bold signature on a still of tiny moppet Shirley riding the shoulders of Carole Lombard. Shirley Temple Black read the signature, along with the year. When I first held it in my hands I could feel the weight of history, of greatness, but then I went back to taking Shirley Temple for granted, secure I guess in the knowledge she would always be around. After all, wasn’t she just a child star, so really, how old could she be? Well, old enough, I guess, because now she’s moved on, and we are left to reflect on a titan of the Twentieth Century. In fact, the littlest titan of all.

ST-autograph

2 comments

  1. Hi Robert,

    It’s great to see you back from your Fireball rush and into blog action again. The Errol and Olivia blog was a great run while it lasted.

    Shirley Temple, with whom I grew up watching her in her television series, Shirley Temple’s Storybook (very vague memories there) as well as movies, a little dancing moppet with her remarkable on -screen chemistry and clicking heels with Bill Robinson, will always be a positive memory for me. Don’t get me wrong, first and foremost, I was always into Flynn and Cagney and Cooper films as a kid.

    Still, I have those fond memories of little Shirley as an orphan (what else?) being torn away from grandfather Jean Hersholt in Heidi. “Grandfather, grandfather,” the poor litle moppet would yell as (“Boo! Hiss!) nasty Mary Nash tried to keep her separated from the old gent. That sled to a lot of snow and sled chases. That film always got to me the most of the Temple films.

    And to think that this little girl was such a box office powerhouse for six consecutive years, ranking as Number One for four of them consecutively (1935-38). The years of Mutiny on the Bounty, Modern Times, Lost Horizon and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, among so many others, Shirley was riding at the top of the heap in popularity above all of them.

    Who knows how much history would have been rewritten if Darryl Zanuck had not refused to loan her to MGM for Wizard of Oz (for which all Garland fans can be grateful, as well as Oz lovers, too, I suspect).

    And through it all, while it’s my understanding that Shirley’s mother could be a bit of a test for those around her, Shirley herself was apparently a charming, unaffected little girl to those who got near, though her childhood could hardly have been normal.

    One thing, though, about the childhoods of a lot of kids in the 1930s at the movies – Shirley Temple was a very large part of them.

    You must be very pleased with that Temple autograph, Robert, and to have it on a photo taken with that most delectable joy that was Carole Lombard – yet another special bonus.

    In any event, Robert, it’s great to see you in fine blogging form once again.

    1. Thank you, Tom. I guess your comment and others lead me to believe that part of taking Shirley for granted was not appreciating her impact on succeeding generations. She really was something.

      As noted in the About Me section, and thanks to your archiving, I’ll be reposting classic columns from the Errol & Olivia blog from time to time, including the comments of our many great contributors.

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