Author’s program note. If I’d been smart, I would have met Shirley Temple Black in Prague August 20, 1968. I was finishing up several exhilarating days in the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia during the waning hours of what was called “Prague Spring.” These were the glorious days when Alexander, local henchman of the USSR, played Tennessee Williams, cat on a hot tin roof.
On the most memorable day of all, just before his arrest, Dubcek went onto the great balcony of Hradcany Castle and made the graceful, long-suffering people believe that liberty was at hand… and they screamed their support, their belief, their hope that deliverance was nigh. I shouted, too, tears in my eyes (as they are now) that better days were coming, and soon.
But the subjugated nations of the Soviet dominated Warsaw Pact had other ideas, which among so many consequences would have given me a place in Ambassador-designate Shirley Temple Black’s motorcade out of Prague to safety. Thus was the great square before the castle, just a day ago alive with flowers, sprayed with bullets. Where I had cheered, there were now bodies. Where I had exulted with fervent patriots, liberty their passion, there was puddled blood and the acrid smell of death.
By that point if I’d had a lick of sense, I should have been en route home, or at the very least to Vienna compliments of the U.S. embassy. But I was instead alone on the last train out of Prague, trapped at the Austrian border, what “information” there was lurid, frightening, a whiff away from panic.
Thus I never met Shirley Temple or personally witnessed the radiant smile that helped us survive the most difficult of times, uplifting then, eternal now. How had this most “girl next door” managed to charm and inspire us so, to our everlasting gratitude and awe?
Golden girl in the Golden State in the Golden Age of the movies.
One thing distinguished Shirley Temple from the moment of her birth in Santa Monica, California, April 23,1928 and that is the fact that everything connected with this entirely normal event was entirely normal and so things remained, even at the dizzying height of her celebrity. She was the daughter of Gertrude Amelia Temple (nee’ Krieger), a housemaker and George Francis Temple, a modest bank employee. The family was of English, German, and Dutch ancestry. She had two brothers, George Francis, Jr. and John Stanley.
Like so many star-struck mothers, Shirley’s encouraged her infant daughter’s singing, dancing, and acting talents, and in September 1931 enrolled her in Mrs. Meglin’s Dance School in Los Angeles for fifty-cents a week. About this time, her mother began styling Shirley’s hair like that of silent fiIm star Mary Pickford. Ultimately this “do” evolved into the celebrated 56 curls that were the quintessence of “cute” and which in turn evolved into a multi-million dollar empire on which the smiles never set.
In 1932, this sunny, blissful child ,”bathed in love” as she said, was discovered by a movie agent and chosen to appear in “Baby Burlesks” , a series of sexually suggestive shorts in which children played all the roles parodying film stars.The 4- and 5-year olds wore fancy adult costumes which ended at the waist. Below the waist, they wore diapers with over-sized safety pins. It was smut in top hat and satin garter, coming perilously close to ending the career of America’s Little Princess before it even got
started. Shirley Temple plays Mae West, indeed!
(Years later in her autobiography “Child Star”, Temple reported that when any of the two dozen or so children cast in “Baby Burlesks” misbehaved, they were locked in a windowless sound box with only a block of ice on which to sit. Her laconic conclusion? “So far as I can tell, the black box did no lasting damage to my psyche.” Nice. More revealing was her final comment on this unsettling matter, “Its lesson of life was profound and unforgettable.Time is money. Wasted time means wasted money means trouble.” This was exactly what the studios wanted their “stars” to believe, say, and do… Shirley Temple, pre-schooler, was their kind of gal, and they were right. Shirley never let them down.)
1934, Hollywood “Stands Up And Cheers.”
It is easy to forget just how grim and frightening 1934 really was. So much had been toppled and devastated by the Great Depression. The old verities, now twelve for a penny, were challenged everywhere, scoffed at, derided, no longer venerated, no longer the white hope of an expectant world.
There was a lot more to fear than fear itself as every ism — Nazism, Fascism, Communism et al — made its strenuous, plausible play for world domination. What did the Great Republic offer in response? “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”, Mrs. Temple Black often said in her unadorned way as if these few words were sufficient to explain her astonishing success. But more explanation is necessary.
Not since Joan of Arc (1412-1431) had a great nation staked its future on a girl, much less one barely out of rompers like Shirley Temple. St. Joan, Pucelle de France, went forward with the sacred Oriflamme in her hand and the certainty of God’s favor.
By contrast, Shirley conquered the world with the famous ringlets, an unbeatable smile, and the warmest possible embrace for… everyone! And this begins to explain what happened next to her, to the nation, and to a world that loved her at once, whatever their race, creed, sex, age, national origin or anything else.
Nothing like it had ever happened before… and it made people everywhere feel good; made them feel happy now and optimistic about what was to come, no matter how gloomy the current situation. She brought hope, and hope was what we all needed, and urgently…
One year, 8 films, just 6 years old.
For all that they prattle on about creativity and art, the titans of Hollywood would give their eye teeth for a film model guaranteed to coin money over and over again. In 1934 Temple became the Most Important Star by providing it. The model, first seen in “Stand Up and Cheer, had predictable, interchangeable parts that produced predictable riches.
A feisty young girl caught in a jam, no parents apparent, adventures galore, all ending in hugs and kisses on the deck of the good ship Lollipop where the minions under 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck shouted “Mazel Tov!”, and tap danced around the lovable moppet who had given them all a “happy landing on a chocolate bar.”
Once proven, the Hollywood Magic Machine worked overtime to provide suitable properties for their ultra bankable asset. Nineteen writers known as the Shirley Temple Story Development team created 11 original stories and some adaptations of the classics for her. They made hay with a will while the sun shined. It was good for everyone, not least the titans themselves whose studios just managed to avoid bankruptcy by standing on her girlish shoulders; one smash hit after another, each one a more perfect rendering of the golden model than the one before.
Everyone, but everyone went to the movies to see her in action. Here’s what President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to say about his main competitor for America’s attention, the child who was far more photographed than he was. “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.” Rarely has envy produced a more graceful compliment. It was completely deserved.
Needless to say, every element of a Shirley Temple film was analyzed and analyzed again. What should she wear, what should she say, to whom should she say it, how should she talk, sing, tap dance… each calculated decision contributing to her image of naturalness, naivete and tomboyishness.
The most controversial of these decisions involved the simple matter of Shirley holding hands with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a helluva hoofer who happened to be Black. After prolonged discussion, loving everyone triumphed over loving some. Their effervescent dance steps in the 4 films they made together dazzled audiences everywhere and helped move segregated America in the right direction.
All good things…
Sadly this marvelous situation couldn’t last, was in fact being undermined by Shirley herself ever single day. Winsome child stars, you see, make the fatal mistake to grow up… and they are never as cute and cuddly when they are loutish teen-agers as they had been. Bad habits materialize (Shirley became a chain smoker) and adolescent sulking makes bad box office. Thus, as her age went up, her appeal went down until, after one wake-up call after another, Shirley Temple tossed in the sponge and announced her retirement. She was just 22.
What happened next defied logic, at least big studio logic.Unlike others of her ilk Shirley didn’t fall apart thanks to drugs and arrogance. Instead she remained what she had always been been. For her the shibboleths of Main Street Middle America were always her bedrock beliefs and guiding lights. What you saw was utterly and completely who she was.
And so what she did was what we all do… get married (at 16) and divorced (4 years later)… only to find love and happiness for fifty-four years with San Francisco Bay area businessman, Charles Alden Black, a man who claimed he never saw any of her films. She had three children (one with John Agar, Jr., two with Black), and they had the usual problems.
She went back to work; some projects succeeded, some didn’t. There was no mystery, no enigma, no hidden secrets waiting to be revealed in supermarket check out lines. Instead there was decency, patriotism, kindness, courtesy, good humor and most of all love, tolerance, and acceptance, each an attribute which helped make her the effective diplomat she became, for her embassy to the Czech Republic and its playwright president Vaclav Havel, was no sinecure. She wouldn’t have taken the job if it had been, for she always valued and extolled the importance of hard work and did more than her share. She might so easily have turned out so very different…
I didn’t have to think twice about the music for this article. It was “On the Good Ship Lollipop”, Shirley Temple’s signature song. Music by Richard A. Whiting, lyrics by Sidney Clare, it was published in 1934, then used in “Bright Eyes.” Over 500,000 copies of the sheet music were sold and on any given night in that year of worry and anxiety, families gathered ’round the piano to find uplift in its lively beat and happy lyrics. Thus she shed her grace on we. Wherever she was going, she wanted us all to go… and I, for one, am glad and grateful I did.
Go to any search engine now and remember how this pint-sized ball of purposeful endeavor and never-say-die determination made you smile. No one ever did it better.