Shirley Temple (1928 – 2014 ) charmed as a child star in the 1930s, she and went on to become one of our nation’s top diplomats in posts that included Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, and she also served as Chief of Protocol of the United States during the Cold War. A conservative Republican, she was open-minded enough to be in charge of arrangements for President Jimmy Carter‘s inauguration. I cannot imagine that she would have been a MAGA, or even recognize today’s GOP.
In 1935, Temple met with Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt after being invited to their home, where Eleanor, bending over an outdoor grill, was hit in the First Lady butt with a pebble from a slingshot that Temple carried everywhere. Her films generated hope and optimism during the Great Depression, and FDR said:
“It is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.“
Temple began her film career at three years old in 1932. Two years later, she achieved international fame in Bright Eyes, a feature film designed specifically for her talents. She received a special Academy Award in February 1935 for her outstanding contribution as a juvenile performer in motion pictures during 1934. Her signature song, On The Good Ship Lollipop was introduced in the film and sold 500,000 copies of sheet-music.
20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck focused his attention and resources upon cultivating Temple’s superstar status. She was the studio’s Number One star. She beat Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper and Crawford at the box-office. 19 writers, known as the “Shirley Temple Story Development Team”, made 11 original stories and adaptations of the classics for her projects. She received an average of 16,000 fan letters a month, and for her eighth birthday, fans sent her 167,000 presents.
Temple capitalized on licensed merchandise that featured her wholesome image; the merchandise included dolls, dishes, and clothing. Making $1,250 a week at 6 years old, Temple worked in 46 feature films and shorts before she turned 13.
After the success of her first three films, her parents realized that their little Shirley was not being paid enough money. To gain control over the corporate unlicensed use of her image and to negotiate with Fox, Temple’s parents hired lawyer Lloyd Wright. In summer 1934, her salary was raised another $1,000 per week, and her mother’s salary was raised to $250 per week, with an additional $15,000 bonus for each film finished. Temple’s original contract was for $150 per week ($2,960 in 2020 dollars). Her salary at Fox had the purchasing power of $1.85 million (in today’s money) in a decade when a quarter could buy a meal. Cease and desist letters were sent out to many companies and the process was begun for awarding corporate licenses.
Fox touted her as a natural talent with no formal acting or dance training. The studio told the press that she had taken two weeks studying at a dance school to explain how she knew stylized buck-and-wing dancing.
Most Shirley Temple films were inexpensive to make. Even with songs, dances, and sentimental and melodramatic situations, they were still made with little artistic production value. Her film titles were her best marketing tool and include Curly Top (1935) and Dimples (1936) , plus her “little” pictures such as Our Little Girl (1936), The Little Colonel (1935) and The Littlest Rebel (1936). Her characters were often fixer-uppers, reuniting her estranged parents or helping move along the romances of young couples.
Her box-office popularity waned as she reached adolescence. She appeared in 14 more films from the ages of 14 to 21. Temple retired from film in 1950 at 22 years old.
No other star from Hollywood’s Golden Age appeared in more racist films than little Shirley Temple. There was an inside industry joke that a Temple picture was incomplete without at least one Black performer. The films are totally cancelable today: in War Babies (1932) African cannibal children capture her and drop her in a cauldron. In Little Miss Marker, a chorus rides on stage flats pulled by Black kids in harnesses. In The Littlest Rebel, Temple asks her slave, played by the great Black entertainer Bill (Bojangles) Robinson what it means to “free slaves”, and he responds: “I don’t know what it means myself“. Then Temple gets in blackface and shares an apple with Abraham Lincoln (Frank McGlynn).
Robinson was the one who taught Temple to tap dance. In real life, they became good friends. Temple:
“Robinson walked a step ahead of us, but when he noticed me hurrying to catch up, he shortened his stride to accommodate mine. I kept reaching up for his hand, but he hadn’t looked down and seemed unaware. Fannie called his attention to what I was doing, so he stopped short, bent low over me, his eyes wide and rows of brilliant teeth showing in a wide smile. When he took my hand in his, it felt large and cool. For a few moments, we continued walking in silence. “Can I call you Uncle Billy?” I asked. ‘Why sure you can’, he replied… ‘But then I get to call you darlin’.” It was a deal. From then on, whenever we walked together it was hand in hand, and I was always his “darlin‘.”
After Robinson was signed, it was decided that he would perform his famous stair dance with Temple. Robinson liked the idea, but he quickly realized that he could not teach his complex specialty dance to a seven-year-old actor in such a short time. Instead, he taught her to kick the face of each stair-step with her toe. After watching her practice his choreography, Robinson modified his routine to mimic her movements, so that it appeared on film that she was imitating his steps. The scene is a classic.
As far as I can tell, Robinson and Temple were the first interracial dance partners in Hollywood history. The scene was controversial in its time, and it was cut out in the American south along with all other scenes showing the two making physical contact.
Robinson carried pictures of Temple with him wherever he traveled. According to Temple:
“Bill Robinson treated me as an equal, which was very important to me. He didn’t talk down to me, like to a little girl. And I liked people like that. And Bill Robinson was the best of all.”
Temple’s 500 page memoir titled Child Star (1988) is now out of print—don’t ask to borrow my copy.
Here’s a favorite passage:
“Any film stage properly lit becomes a veritable crisscross of unseen light beams. These soon became my secret tools for correct positioning. Realizing that my facial skin was sensitive to subtle differences in emission of heat from various combinations of light beams, I came to correlate and memorize the patterns of heat and action established during rehearsal and used this knowledge to maintain correct changes of position during filming. What I recalled was a rehearsed pattern of heat. My knack involved sensing the difference between a patch of skin on my forehead and a cooler area on my cheek, so I could even sense if my head was held in the right position.”
In 1940, Temple starred in two big fat flops at Fox: The Blue Bird and Young People. Her parents bought out the remainder of her contract. Her bungalow was renovated and all traces of her time at the studio were gone.
MGM signed her with plans to team her with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Meeting with producer Arthur Freed, he exposed his dick to her. When Temple laughed in response, Freed threw her out and ended their contract before any films were produced.
In 1944, David O. Selznick signed Temple to a four-year contract. She appeared in two 1944 wartime hits: Since You Went Away and I’ll Be Seeing You. But then, Selznick became obsessed with Jennifer Jones and lost interest in Temples’ career. Temple was then lent to other studios.
Her messy 1949 divorce meant the public could no longer see her as “America’s Sweetheart”, and she made no more films. She discovered that her father had spent almost all of her savings. Temple:
“For reasons some may find inexplicable. I felt neither disappointment nor anger.”
Temple’s final credits rolled in 2014. A smoker for 70 years, she was taken by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at 85.
Shirley Temple endures; nearly a million DVDs of her work were sold last year.
She will also be remembered for a drink designed to supposedly make kiddies look grown-up while dining out. During her diplomatic career, Temple told reporters that everywhere she went people couldn’t resist serving her a “Shirley Temple”. Her signature cocktail was a nonalcoholic mix of 7-Up, grenadine syrup, orange juice and a maraschino cherry that was created in the 1930s by the Brown Derby Restaurant in Hollywood.
The drink, it seems, has a shelf life as long as her films. That’s because it is girly pink and has long embodied glamour for girls and girly-boys. Real boys and little lesbians ordered a “Roy Rogers”, essentially a Shirley Temple with Cola. Now we have a name for such drinks: mocktail. They’ve evolved from kid-friendly to sober-adult versions like the “smartini” and the “virgin mary” or “virginritas”. But the original mocktail will always be the Shirley Temple. But, just by adding a shot of vodka, you’ve got a “Dirty Shirley”.
Temple was quite proud and protective of the drink that bears her name. She twice went to court to defend the drink against companies attempting to use her name to sell a bottled version.