Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Classics: A Retrospective of Shirley Temple By Lauren Ennis

The face that even FDR couldn't resist
The 1930’s were a time of great hardship and sacrifice in which people around the globe were forced to struggle each day in order to survive. During the bleak atmosphere of this decade, cinema stood out as a shining example of the joys that still remained possible, if only within viewers’ imaginations. While many films of this era strove to remind viewers of the nobility of sacrifice and eventual payoffs of hard work, many others sought to provide viewers with an escape into a simpler, more innocent time and place. One of the most successful stars of this era was a mop-topped little girl who knew how to bring out the sparkle in even the dreariest of surroundings and the hope out of the even the hardest of hearts; Shirley Temple. Between 1932 and 1949 Temple was featured in forty-three feature films and fourteen short films, many of which she received top billing for. Today, she is remembered as much for her ability to avoid the common vices of former child stars as for her acting talent, and is considered a true Hollywood success story.

Shirley Temple was born on April 23, 1928 to homemaker Gertrude Temple and banker George Temple in Santa Monica, California. Almost as soon as she could walk and talk, her mother began encouraging her to perform and she was enrolled in the prestigious Meglin’s Dance School (the same performing school where Judy Garland received her start in entertainment) in Los Angeles at age three. During her first year at Meglin’s, she was spotted by casting agent Charles Lamont of Educational Pictures. Although she was still a shy child, Lamont saw Temple’s potential and cast her in the satirical short series Baby Burlesks. While the series was scrapped after its few films were criticized for being exploitive (its child actors mocked pop culture by utilizing adult attire and dialogue), Temple was provided a contract with Educational Films that led to her being featured in a series of advertisements and bit parts in feature films. Following Educational Films’ declaration of bankruptcy in 1933, she signed with Fox Films and was cast in her breakthrough film, Stand Up and Cheer the following year. By 1934, she had starred in three feature films and was honored as the first child actor to receive a Juvenile Oscar for her performance in the 1934 comedy-drama, Bright Eyes in 1935. For the next two years, she starred in a series of family friendly films that proved to be equally successful critically and commercially.

While Temple was a consistent box-office draw throughout her childhood, her career began to decline as she matured into adolescence. In 1937 she became embroiled in a libel suit when British writer and critic Grahame Greene accused her films of being too provocative for a nine-year old actress, and suggested that Fox Films was profiting from films that promoted pedophilia. Both Fox Films and Temple’s parents sued for libel and won, providing Temple with a substantial settlement that was placed in a trust until she reached age twenty-one. Rather than use the settlement funds for her own benefit, she chose to donate the funds to charity where it was put to good use as the basis for the building of a youth center in England. Following the trials of the lawsuit, Fox realized that it would need to adjust its scripts in order to accommodate Temple’s age. Although she was listed as one of the top stars to ‘deserve their salary’ in the Hollywood Reporter in 1938, her films received mixed reviews throughout the late 1930’s, leading her parents to buy out her contract in 1940.

She spent the remaining years of her film career under contract at MGM Studios. MGM initially hoped to recapture her childhood success by casting her in the Andy Hardy films opposite fellow juvenile actors Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. After screentests proved that she would be incompatible with the song and dance pair, Temple was removed from the franchise and spent two years out of the limelight. During her semi-retirement, she pursued academic and extracurricular activities and assumed the life of an average teen. In 1944, producer David O. Selznick signed her to a four-year personal contract and cast her in the war-time hits Since You Went Away and I’ll Be Seeing You. Despite the success of both films, Selznick became distracted by his efforts to promote the career of his girlfriend (and later wife), actress Jennifer Jones, and left Temple’s career largely unattended to. After a series of mediocre roles in the mid to late 1940’s Temple decided that she had gone as far as she could with her acting career and officially retired from films in 1950.

While she worked on several television products throughout the 1950’s, Temple put her talents to greater use in the political arena. During the 1960’s, she became actively involved in the Republican Party and ran for Congress in 1967. Although she lost the election to the more liberally minded Republican, Pete McCloskey, she was appointed as a representative to the 24th United Nations General Assembly by President Richard Nixon in 1969. She continued to pursue a successful career in politics throughout the next three decades and was appointed Ambassador to Ghana (1974-1976), first female Chief of Protocol of the United States (1976 to 1977), and United States Ambassador to Czechoslovakia (1989 to 1992). In her adult life, she successfully transitioned from child actress to career woman as she championed conservative causes for three decades while simultaneously serving on the board for nine corporations.

Proof that growing up does not require drugs, nude scenes, or a shaved head
Unlike many child stars, Temple maintained a stable and productive personal as well as professional life. She met Army Air Corps sergeant John Agar in 1945 and the couple were married two years later in 1945. The marriage produced one daughter, Linda Susan, who was born in 1948. Temple filed for divorce from Agar in 1949 and received custody of Linda. She met her second husband, US Navy Intelligence officer Charles Alden Black in 1950 and the two were married later that year. The couple had two children, Charles Alden Jr. and Lori, and the marriage lasted fifty-four years until Black’s death from complications related to bone marrow disease in 2005. Temple was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1972 and was forced to undergo a radical mastectomy in 1973. She used her fight against cancer as an opportunity to raise public awareness, announcing that she had undergone a mastectomy via television and radio and conducting an interview detailing her illness with McCall Magazine. She died on Monday, February 10, 2014 of natural causes at age eighty-five. She reportedly died at her Woolside, California home surrounded by family.

Whether in her optimistic performances or political crusades, throughout her two careers, Shirley Temple Black was a woman who worked towards making the world a better place. While many former child stars lash out in attempts to prove that they are ‘grown up’, she instead chose to take the truly adult approach and went on to pursue personal and professional ambitions outside of acting. Although she maintained a positive outlook on her childhood success, she refused to let herself be defined by an image that she had long since outgrown, and successfully forged her own path independent of the ‘mop-top’ persona of her Hollywood years. She remains a reminder that child stardom does not have to be synonymous with adult despair and a positive role model that today’s stars could learn from.  

A true class act


  1. Ahh...a simpler time. When chasing the "Hollywood Dream" meant living a life of success and prosperity, and did not lead to debt, drug addiction, and premature death.

  2. Except for the whole Fatty Arbuckle thing...other than that, good times