She was the darling of the Diesel Era screen. Irrepressibly cute, but with just enough precocious personality to temper the sugar.
Shirley Temple was an icon of the silver screen. Instantly recognizable by her springy curls, bright eyes, and dainty voice, she became one of the first child superstars [above image from encoremag.com]. She could sing, she could dance, and she could act at a level of maturity that amazed actors, directors, and audiences alike. Though generally cast in roles that were sweet almost to the point of tooth decay, she maintained a level of precocious personality that made her memorable as far more than just a cute little girl, such that she remains today one of the most iconic of Diesel Era actors.
She won an honorary Acadamy Award at age six. She made $3 million ($51 million in today's dollars) before she reached her teen years. Her rendition of "On the Good Ship Lollipop" from 1934's Bright Eyes (her first staring role) was a best selling hit and remains an iconic song of the Golden Age of Film.
Every role she touched was box office gold. The Little Colonel, Our Little Girl, Curly Top (featuring the iconic song "Animal Crackers in my Soup"), The Littlest Rebel, and Temple's personal favorite, Wee Willie Winkie. She would go on to star in scores more, remaining a major box office draw into the Technicolor years. Her agent even turned down the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz!
Yet her movies, despite their sacarine reputation, usually had real depth. Often playing an orphan, her roles taught lessons of strength and perserverence through adversity. Other times her role was that of a mediator in wars and conflicts, addressing ethnic war in Wee Willie Winkie (Anglo-Indian wars) and Susannah of the Mounties (American Indian wars) in ways that seem rather quaint or dismissive to today's audiences, yet were groundbreaking in their day for even addressing that such conflicts could be multi-sided.
She also helped break the Hollywood Color Barrier with many appearances with musician Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, being the first white actress to be filmed holding hands with a black man.
Alas, like most historic child stars, her career never made it past puberty [image to left from shirleytemplefans.com]. Her handful of teenage roles, such as The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer with Cary Grant, never managed to translate into continued stardom. While she would continue to make guest appearances and cameos and launch short-run TV shows, she never again became an A-list star.
Instead, she got involved in the war effort, raising money for War Bonds. After the war, she married decorated Navy intelligence officer Charles Alden Black in 1950, having two children: Charles, jr., and Lori "Lorax" Black, who gained some fame in her own right as the bassist for grunge rock band The Melvins. Shirley Temple Black soon became involved in politics, running unsucessfully for office as a Republican and then going on to political fundraising. She eventually was appointed a representative to the UN by Nixon, and later to ambassadorial positions under Ford and George H. W. Bush, roles in which she performed admirably.
She also became famous for becoming a spokesperson for breast cancer awareness following her own masectomy in 1972, back when such things were just not talked about openly.
Yet for all of her amazing post-Hollywood career, she remains best known and loved as the curley-topped sweetheart that stole the world's heart.
Shirley Temple Black passed away yesterday (Feb. 10, 2014) at the age of 85.