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Shirley Temple Black: 1928 - 2014

Shirley Temple Black: 1928 - 2014

Shirley Temple Black, the one-time child star whose precocious acting ability, cheery demeanor and innocent face made her one of the biggest draws of the 1930s, died on Monday night at her home in California. She was 85.

From the age of six to ten Shirley Temple was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. While the rest of the nation was mired in the Great Depression Shirley Temple sang and danced her way through it in films such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Little Miss Marker, Heidi and The Little Princess.

Shirley Temple was born on April 23, 1928 in Santa Monica, California, the third and youngest child (and only girl) of George Francis Temple, a bank teller, and Gertrude Krieger, a supremely willful stage mother (Temple dedicated her autobiography to her). Her parents noticed an innate sense of rhythm and extroverted presence as early as eight months in Shirley. She was put in acting classes by the age of three and was starring in a series of cloying shorts in 1932 and ’33, as well as assaying bit parts in larger films.

It was her performance of “Baby Takes a Bow” in 1934’s Stand Up and Cheer, a film that debuted in May, that thrust her into prominence. She was obviously a natural in front of the camera with a wide range of talent. She could sing. She could dance. She could act. Fox signed her on and, by the end of the same year, which also held the hits Little Miss Marker and Bright Eyes (where she famously sang “On the Good Ship Lollipop”) and several other roles, Shirley Temple was a star. A mere nine months after Stand Up and Cheer hit screens, in February of 1935, she received a special “Juvenile Award” at the Oscars “in grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the year 1934.”

For the next few years the public couldn’t get enough of her. Exhibitors named her the top box-office attraction of 1935 (when she sang “Animal Crackers” in Curly Top) - 1938. A non-alcoholic drink was named after her (a mixture of ginger ale and grenadine) and a cottage industry sprang up around her likeness including dolls, coloring books, and dress lines. She tapped alongside Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, in The Littlest Rebel, starred in John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie and several Allan Dwan films, Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. (Graham Greene’s review of Winkie, where he accused Temple of being an adult impersonating a child, and where he impugned the motives for older men’s attraction to her, caused such an uproar that Night and Day, the magazine in which the review was published, shortly thereafter was bankrupted and folded.)

Temple was the natural pick to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz but Fox wouldn’t loan its star out so Judy Garland got the role. It was a turning point in both their careers.

As she matured, Hollywood and the audience, now veterans of World War II, and seemingly unable to reconcile the fact that the cherubic star had become a comely young woman, looked elsewhere. Temple was no longer the compliant child but a willful ingénue. After two flops she canceled her contract with Fox and moved over to MGM but fared no better there.

At 17 she wed fellow actor John Agar but the marriage fell apart five years later. Temple, now divorced with a child, lost her interest in movie-making. The audience too moved on. She became a cautionary tale in many circles, an example of the loose morals and bad ends destined for Hollywood types. Her talent agency, MCA, unceremoniously dropped her and Temple’s meteoric career was over. She wasn’t yet 21.

Later life included several quickly-canceled variety shows but she attained a second act as a public figure and politician, even running for office in the vacant Republican seat in her congressional district. In 1968 President Richard Nixon appointed her as the US representative at the United Nations and she became an ambassador to Ghana from 1974-1976. She later also held the post of US Chief of protocol and ambassador to Czechoslovakia (appointed by President George H.W. Bush).

Shortly after her divorce from Agar Shirley Temple met and married Charles Black, a TV executive. They were married for 55 years, until his death, and had two children together.