Former child star turned public servant Shirley Temple Black passed away peacefully Monday night from natural causes. She was 85.
Temple is best known for her film work from the ’30s. She started her career in showbiz at the age of three but became a superstar and pop culture icon at six. Her films – in which she often played the role of an optimistic, wide-eyed, wise and maternal miniature adult, who seemed to be able to solve any problem with her unique brand of common sense – served as the perfect form of escapism during the Great Depression. According to the Hollywood Reporter her films were filled with boundless optimism and an uncanny ability to melt the hardest hearts. President Franklin Roosevelt said her films helped keep the country together during the Depression and famously said “As long as we have Shirley Temple, we will be alright.”
From 1935-38 she was the biggest box office draw, even more so than Clark Gable. She is credited with saving the then newly formed 20th Century Fox studio from bankruptcy. Temple was so important to the studio that 19 writers, known as the Shirley Temple Development Team created original stories and adapted the classics for her.
At the age of six she received an honorary Oscar for her work in film, making her the youngest person to ever receive an Oscar statuette.
She was so iconic that she was the subject of a Salvador Dali painting and had a drink named after her, which interestingly enough she did not care for the drink.
Temple was also one of the first stars to benefit from merchandising. Shirley Temple dolls were the highest selling doll of that decade.
Some of her more well-known films include “Bright Eyes,” which was the first film specifically crafted for her talents and includes her signature song “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” “The Little Colonel,” which features the famous staircase tap dance sequence where she performed alongside her frequent collaborator Bill “Bojangles Robinson,” and “Curly Top,” which includes her other famous song “Animals Crackers in my Soup.” Before the age of 13 she had started in 46 films.
“People in the Depression wanted something to cheer them up, and they fell in love with a dog, Rin Tin Tin, and a little girl,” Black said regarding her success.
When she started aging film roles became less and less frequent. After the failure of “The Blue Bird” her parents bought out the rest of her contract at Fox and she went to a private school. She did appear in a few other films during that time but did not have much success and she officially retired from film in 1950 at the age of 22.
In 1958 she returned to the entertainment industry as the host and narrator of a children’s television anthology series “Shirley Temple’s Storybook.” Each episode was an adaptation of a popular children’s story. While popular the series faced problems such as amateurish sets, lack of proper special effects and no regular time slot. The show was reworked in 1960 as “The Shirley Temple Show” however it was cancelled a year later due to competition from shows such as “Maverick” “Lassie” “Dennis the Menace” and the Walt Disney anthology series. She did appear on some other shows, such as “The Red Skelton Show,” and starred in a TV pilot that never saw the light of the day. However she ended up leaving the TV industry as well.
After television she pursued a career in politics. She unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1967. In 1969 President Richard Nixon appointed her as a representative to the 24th United Nations General Assembly. President Gerald Ford appointed her the US ambassador to Ghana in 1974 and also made her his Chief of Protocol. From 1989-1992 President George H.W. Bush appointed her ambassador to Czechoslovakia.
“I have no trouble being taken seriously as a woman and a diplomat here,” Black said after her appointment as US ambassador to Ghana in 1974. “My only problems have been with Americans who, in the beginning, refused to believe I had grown up since my movies.”
Temple was also a survivor of breast cancer and is credited as making it acceptable to publicly speak about the illness. “It is my fervent hope that women will not be afraid to go to doctors for diagnosis when they have unusual symptoms,” she said.
She was married twice. First to John Agar, an Army Air Corps sergeant turned actor. That marriage lasted for five years and produced a daughter. According to Temple she married him because she wanted to be the first girl in her high school class to be married. Her second marriage was to Charles Alden Black, a navy intelligent office turned business man. The two were married 12 days after they first met. They were married for 54 years until his death in 2005 and they had two children together.
Temple was born in Santa Monica, CA on April 23, 1928. Her father George was a banker and her mother Gertrude was a homemaker According to Temple the decision to pursue her showbiz career was a mutual one between her and her mother. Her mom said that her first words were lyrics to a Rudy Valle song. At the age of 3 her mother enrolled her in Meglin’s Dance School in Los Angeles. Around that time that her mom started styling her hair in the ringlets that defined Temple. The hairstyle was molded after that of Mary Pickford. At the school she was noticed by a casting director for Educational Pictures. At 4 she signed a contract with the company and started in their “Baby Burlesks” shorts, a series of films that satirized recent film and political events by featuring children playing the roles. When Educational Pictures declared Bankruptcy she signed up with Fox and the rest is history.
“When I asked my mother why crowds shouted my name and said, ‘We love you,’ she would dust it off by saying, ‘Your work makes them happy.’ She never let it go to my head.”
For her contributions to film she received the Kennedy Center Honors, National Board of Review and SAG life achievement prizes.
One of the icons of the golden age of Hollywood. As Kevin Smith would say “a huge bucket of win.”