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Shirley Temple Black from Child Star Celebrity to Ambassador
With all the publicity of child stars such as Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan along with the recent death of Gary Coleman I’m reminded of discussions my wife and I had about what gives with child stars and child “Beauty Queens.”
Shirley Temple who was born in 1928 was probably the leading child star when I was young, became a millionaire and was smart enough or lucky enough to get away from the limelight before it was allowed to ruin her.
I’ve never seen many of her movies but when I was a junior in high school I saw some films on television that she had made in her teen years and I found her attractive like a younger group was taken with Annette Funecello. I later saw her as host on her TV series and thought she was still attractive even though a few years older than me.
Her Early Years
Shirley Temple was born on Monday April 23, 1928 to George Francis Temple and Gertrude Amelia Krieger Temple.
Mrs. Temple believed that a child could be influenced in the womb. She tried to influence Shirley with prenatal beauty. During pregnancy she listened to phonograph records, read books aloud and went to dance recitals and concerts. In Shirley’s first years her mother read storybooks to her with some enacting of the books characters. The daughter responded by mimicking her.
She taught Shirley the words to popular songs and Shirley the child was able to bring expression to the words. Shirley also had perfect pitch and could easily do simple dance steps. In 1931 she was enrolled in dance classes.
The mother styled the girls hair to reflect that of Mary Pickford.
Beginning in film
Educational Pictures planned a series of one-reelers called Baby Burlesks to compete with the popular Our Gang comedies. When they were auditioning they found young Shirley hiding behind a piano and encouraged her to audition. She did and was signed to a two-year contract. She was paid $10 a day, which was good in its day.
The films were satires of the pictures of the day as well as celebrities and politics. The cast was made up of preschoolers dressed like adults on top but in diapers with exaggerated safety pins.
Although hey got paid well, I don’t know it the films of those days would pass muster with today’s child labor laws. For example, Shirley was sometimes disciplined at the studio by confinement to a small “black box” isolation chamber with only a block of ice to sit on. Her first day was almost twelve hours of work with two naps.
Shirley’s first on-screen tap dance was to the song “She’s Only a Bird In A Gilded Cage,” in Glad Rags to Riches .
In April 1934 she had a breakthrough film, Stand Up and Cheer! She received widespread acclaim and fan mail came by the truckload. She got critical acclaim for performance in the film Little Miss Marker .
In 1935 her foot and handprints were added to the forecourt at Grumman’s Chinese Theater.
In 1934 She was Fox studio’s greatest asset. She was a great for a Great Depression audience. The films were cheaply made comedy dramas with songs and dance Her parts were those of the fixer upper, precocious cupid or the good fairy, She was often motherless or fatherless or an orphan. Traditional fairy tales were woven into the plots.
The film Wee Willie Winkie was a critical and commercial hit. But British film critic Graham Green wrote that she was a complete “totsy “ and too nubile for a nine-year old.
Temple and the studio sued for libel and won.
MGM wanted her to play Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ but was turned down. Plans were made to star her with Andy Rooney for the Andy Hardy series but he comeback film was Kathleen (1941)
Shirley was probably the first of the real child stars that were big time as children but lost some of her appeal, as she got older. At the age of three in 1932 she started her career in film. In 1934 she became a superstar in Bright Eyes , which was a feature film specifically, meant to fit her talents. She got a special Academy Award in February 1935 and had blockbuster hits like Curly Top and Heidi going for years until the middle of the 1930’s. People bought spin-off merchandise like dolls, dishes, and clothes.
She started to lose box office popularity when she got to her adolescent years. She left the industry and at twelve years old she went to high school. That was followed by a few films in her mid to late teens and then left the screen in 1950s at the age of twenty-one.
In 1958 she had a two-season anthology on TV of fairy tale adaptations. She also was a guest on various shows in the 1960’s. She filmed a pilot for a sitcom but it was never produced.
She was on the board of corporations such at Del Monte Foods, National Wildlife Federation and the Walt Di8sney Company. She ran but lost a bid for United States Congress but in 1974 she was appointed to be United States Ambassador to Ghana and in 1989 to Czechoslovakia. She published her autobiography in 1988 titled Child Star.
She was married at seventeen to John Agar in 1945. He was just out of the Air Force and turned to acting. They made two films together but she divorced him in 1949. They had one daughter Linda Susan. She got custody of the daughter. She married Charles Alden Black in December 1950. She left films the same day to be a homemaker. Her son Charles Alden Black, Jr. was born in 1952 and a daughter Lori Alden Black was born in 1954.
In 1972 she had breast cancer. The malignant tumor was removed and a modified radical mastectomy was performed. She announced it to the world through radio and television. In February 1973 she wrote an article for McCall’s about it. She was one of the first prominent women to speak openly of breast cancer.