Child prodigies are endlessly fascinating, both because of their relative rarity and because so many of them come to unhappy ends. To be sure, there are some fields of endeavor, most notably classical music, in which a pronounced degree of prodigiousness is common, even relatively normal, and proves more often than not to be survivable. In acting, by contrast, the list of child stars who have grown up to have more or less successful adult careers is fairly short, and those who have done so, Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor in particular, have often paid a high price in emotional instability. Most stop making films well before adulthood, usually not voluntarily, and few escape without damage. Hence it is both singular and heartening to know that Shirley Temple, the most beloved of all child stars, managed to negotiate the slippery shoals of Hollywood and escape unscarred.
Born in 1928, Temple made 44 feature films between 1934 and 1949. She was America’s top box-office attraction for several years running, outdrawing Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, and Robert Taylor in 1937, and was widely credited with having saved 20th Century-Fox, her studio in the years of her ascendancy, from Depression-era bankruptcy.
She was not merely a star but a symbol of hope at a time of widespread desperation. In the words of Franklin Roosevelt, “it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” Not only was no other child star so famous in her own time, but many of Temple’s films continue to be shown on TCM and streaming services, just as Richard Whiting’s “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” the signature song that she introduced in Bright Eyes (1934), and the “Shirley Temple cocktail,” the nonalcoholic drink invented in the ’30s, remain familiar nearly eight decades later.
Temple won distinction of another kind long after she gave up acting. Active in Republican Party politics, she served as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly in 1969, subsequently being appointed ambassador to Ghana (1974–76) and Czechoslovakia (1989–92). Her later TV appearances show her to have been a well-spoken woman who described her youthful stardom with an attractive mixture of wit and ironic detachment.
Most of this is discussed at length in Child Star, Temple’s autobiography, which she wrote without assistance in 1988. Though the book also reveals that she was mistreated by certain directors in early childhood and that two powerful producers, Arthur Freed and David O. Selznick, tried and failed to seduce her after she reached pubescence, Child Star is for the most part the story of an intelligent, observant woman who recalled her career with fondness and wrote about it engagingly.
What Child Star does not do, however, is shed light on what the film critic David Thomson had in mind when he called Temple “a phenomenon who had only to be observed for an audience to be held.” Was she, in fact, a pure phenomenon and nothing more? Or was she a real artist, as worthy of the name as any of the cinematic artists with whom she worked? And if she was, why did her popularity wane as she neared adolescence, never again to return?
Like all studio-system stars, Temple was forced by the assembly-line nature of commercial filmmaking to lead a comparatively uneventful life, most of which she spent either in front of the camera or in the makeshift on-set classrooms where she received much of her education. Until she became a teenager, the story of her life was the story of her work, and it is a tribute to the strength of her personality that she tells it so readably in Child Star.
Born in Santa Monica, Temple began to study dance at a local studio of good quality when she was three, both to burn off her youthful energy and because her mother wanted her to become a professional dancer, if possible a ballerina. She had natural rhythm and took immediately to instruction. Within a few months, she was spotted by a Hollywood talent scout and was soon grinding out one- and two-reel shorts.
In 1934, Fox signed her to a contract (lying about her age in the process—the press release claimed that she was four) and loaned her out to Paramount for her first important feature film, a screen version of Damon Runyon’s Little Miss Marker. Her co-star was Adolphe Menjou, who played a bookie who briefly takes possession of Temple as part of a race-fixing scheme. A seasoned leading man, Menjou was astonished by the child’s aplomb. “She’s making a stooge out of me,” he told a reporter. “She’s an Ethel Barrymore at six!” Audiences agreed, as did the critics, save for Otis Ferguson of the New Republic, who sneered that “I like cute toddlers like Shirley Temple only in their little cribs.” Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, by contrast, spoke for everyone else when he called Temple “a natural-born little actress…one heard spectators expressing amazement at the child’s utterances and her expressions.”
Their amazement was understandable. While it would be an exaggeration to call Temple a first-rate actor, she gives a performance that is more than merely precocious. Aside from her charm, energy, and round-faced smile, she is noteworthy both for her expressive eyes and the way she uses them. Like Spencer Tracy, she looks at her scene partners with precisely focused attention, always staying “in the scene” and reacting to their lines with total unselfconsciousness. Moreover, her tears are both real and believable, as is the wistfulness with which she speaks of her dead mother.
Still unable to read, Temple learned her parts by listening to her mother read them aloud, and by the time she arrived at the studio, she had memorized not merely her own lines but the whole script. As she explains in Child Star:
Part of my incentive for concentrating was to assure myself that I wouldn’t blow my lines….Refinements of expression and gesture were left to me. Mother never coached me at home, and seldom did a director offer specific instruction….I was free to make up my own interpretation of character. My versions were naturally and invariably how I felt as a child, not how I suspected it would be as an adult.
As a result of the box-office success of Little Miss Marker, Fox rushed Bright Eyes into production, the first film written specifically for Temple and the first one in which she received name-above-the-title billing. A sentimental fable about a winsome orphan who steals the heart of a curmudgeonly millionaire, Bright Eyes was both short (83 minutes) and shot on a tight budget. Most of her later films would draw on its basic plot elements, and the inclusion of “On the Good Ship Lollipop” helped to make it an even bigger hit than Little Miss Marker. While there was nothing memorable about Temple’s voice, her singing was lively and in tune, and her sharp comic timing made her acting even more distinctive.
Only one thing was missing, and it would be supplied in abundance in The Little Colonel (1935), a preposterous tale of postbellum Southern life in which Temple was teamed with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the best tap dancer of his generation, who because of his race had never played a major film role. At the suggestion of D.W. Griffith, who reportedly told a Fox executive that “there is nothing, absolutely nothing, calculated to raise the gooseflesh on the back of an audience more than that of a white girl in relation to Negroes,” Robinson was cast as a butler who teaches Temple how to do his own legendary “staircase” dance.
The two became close off screen, and their rapport is glowingly evident. Robinson went to endless trouble to coach Temple. The most attentive of pupils, she reproduced his steps with breathtaking exactitude, and the result was one of the most exhilarating dance sequences ever filmed. It was also, as Temple proudly noted in Child Star, a “watershed” moment in American culture: “We were the first interracial dancing couple in movie history.” Here as in her other films, especially Captain January (1936) and Little Miss Broadway (1938), in which she is respectively partnered by Buddy Ebsen and George Murphy, Temple’s performances suggest that her greatest talent—never fully exploited by Hollywood—was as a dancer.
By then, Darryl F. Zanuck had bought out Fox Studios to form Twentieth Century-Fox, thus bringing Temple’s career under his purview. At once shrewd and cynical, Zanuck sensed both that the Temple formula was wearing thin and that Temple herself had untapped gifts as a dramatic performer that could enhance her career, so he decided in 1937 to make her the star of a screen version of Rudyard Kipling’s Wee Willie Winkie, casting her opposite Victor McLaglen, one of Hollywood’s most accomplished scene-stealers, and hiring John Ford as director. Temple had never before worked with a great film director, nor had she been offered a challenge remotely as daunting as the scene in which she sings “Auld Lang Syne” to McLaglen on his deathbed. But she played it with simplicity and dignity, impressing the ordinarily irascible Ford, who told her afterward that she had conducted herself with “perfect restraint.”
Wee Willie Winkie should have led by all rights to films in which Temple played richer, more complex characters, but Zanuck chose thereafter to stick with the Temple formula. “Now she’s lovable,” he told her mother. “The less she changes, the longer she lasts.” Yet change was inevitable, since Temple was on the brink of puberty: Not only did her films become more hackneyed, but they grew increasingly less successful as she outgrew the persona that had made her famous, and Zanuck canceled her contract in 1940. She made 13 more features for other studios, but only three—1944’s Since You Went Away, the 1947 comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer with Cary Grant, and Ford’s 1948 Fort Apache—were distinguished, and Temple’s own performances were competent but in no way striking. She retired from the screen in 1949, never to return.
Why was Shirley Temple unable to sustain her film career into adolescence and beyond? David Thomson has called her an “unremarkable teenager,” which is, if not quite the whole truth, fairly close to it. To watch Fort Apache, in which she plays Henry Fonda’s nubile daughter, tells much of the rest of the story. At 19, she is pretty and (as always) energetic, as well as impeccably professional. But the fact that she is appearing opposite Fonda and John Wayne is the giveaway. Unlike them, she no longer has the star quality that she had as a child. And there is something else missing, too, something that had been illuminated, albeit perversely, by the most notorious review of a Shirley Temple movie ever written.
In 1937, Graham Greene, then a little-known novelist, was doubling as the film critic for Night and Day, a short-lived British magazine modeled after the New Yorker, for which he wrote about movies from a point of view shaped by the highly idiosyncratic brand of Roman Catholicism to which he subscribed. In his review of Wee Willie Winkie, he suggested with the straightest of faces that Temple appealed mainly to pedophiles: “Her admirers—middle-aged men and clergymen—respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality.”
Twentieth Century-Fox promptly sued Night and Day for what the studio’s barrister contemptuously described as “one of the most horrible libels one can imagine about a child nine years of age,” winning a judgment of £3,000 ($243,000 in today’s dollars), a sum that bankrupted the magazine, which shut up shop at the end of the year.
Greene’s review was the inverse of the truth. Temple’s appeal was deeply rooted in her genuine innocence, a prelapsarian quality to which her fans responded warmly. But sexual unknowingness is not the stuff of which adult movie stars are made. Even such “innocent” young actresses of the ’40s as Cathy O’Donnell and Teresa Wright still conveyed an unmistakable air of sexual potential, a quality that is central to their roles in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), so much so that Wright is effortlessly convincing when she tells her parents that she intends to break up Dana Andrews’s unhappy marriage to Virginia Mayo.
While there was nothing virginal about Temple in 1948—indeed, she was married at the time to John Agar, the actor who woos her on screen in Fort Apache—she found it impossible to suggest adult sexuality on the screen. And while it would have been possible for her to play roles in which that quality was superfluous, those who saw her later films needed no reminding that she had once been a star as great as Fonda or Wayne. By then, it would not have been easy for her to shift into smaller supporting parts, and to her credit, she knew it, instead making a successful second marriage to a man who had never seen any of her movies and contentedly spending the rest of her life as Mrs. Shirley Temple Black, a wife, mother of three, and, later, diplomat.
As for the Shirley Temple of legend, she remains with us, working her innocent magic on viewers whose grandparents were unborn when her films were new. Of all the child stars of her ill-fated generation, she is the only one who is still widely remembered for the movies she made as a girl—and the only one, Deanna Durbin excepted, who knew when to fold her cards and walk away from the table. To read her autobiography is to be in the tonic presence of that rarest of creatures: a happy ex-star.
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