Sunday, February 16, 2014

Shirley Temple: A Personal Remembrance


A Temple Offering...

It was a sad way to start a Tuesday morning. 

Even though Shirley Temple (Black) was 85 when she died, it isn't a grown woman that we picture when we hear the name 'Shirley Temple'.  Instead, it is that of a sweet-natured little girl, who charmed an entire nation out of the Great Depression.

Is it a strange sense of nostalgia that has us pausing to remember Shirley Temple, or to shade our memories of her screen persona?  It is a safe bet that for many of us, our parents, even perhaps our grandparents did not see a Temple film when it premiered.  She had not made a film in over 60 years.  Therefore, given all that, why did news of her death still impact people?

I think it has to do with the fact that Temple played an important role in film.  Shirley Temple was not the first child star.  However, she was the first one to create a mania to rival that for someone like Charlie Chaplin.  Her films were an emotional release to a nation that had been all but brought down by harsh economic times.  We in this Great Recession have no real inkling of how difficult, how horrible the 1930s were.  There was 25% unemployment, the Dust Bowl was devastating our crops, and there was open talk of revolution.

Into this breech entered this little girl, charming, sweet, who had this can-do optimism that would let her overcome.  In many ways, Shirley Temple represented to Americans what they though of themselves: people who had been beaten down but with pluck and determination, could rise to triumph in the end.

The emotional impact of her overall message (no matter the obstacle, you can succeed if we, to quote one of her songs, Be Optimistic) was what America needed.  It certainly was what 20th Century Fox needed.  Her films literally saved the studio from bankruptcy.  She was so important to the financial health of 20th that Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck created a whole story department to make films tailored to Temple.  One story I read is that when she lost a tooth on-set, Zanuck so panicked he ran out of a meeting with John Steinbeck. 

There's something to be said when as a little girl, your lost tooth takes precedence over a future Nobel Prize winning-author.

Still, cuteness (though she was that) can only get one so far (just ask Channing Tatum).  She had the talent to back up her popularity.  She was not only able to remember her own lines but those of her veteran costars.  She could keep up with dance steps alongside professional hoofers.  Buddy Ebsen and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson were proficient dancers, and here was this child handling if not elaborate dance numbers at least more intricate numbers that most adults and certainly many child performers of yesterday and today couldn't master. 

As a digression, I think it is worthy of mention Temple's role in race relations.  I'm not saying she was some sort of pioneer, but give her credit: the fact that a white female and a black male shared the screen at all (and more daring, held hands onscreen) was a step forward to show the foolishness and injustice of bigotry.  Granted, Robinson was playing if not slaves certainly subservient figures, and films like The Little Colonel or The Littlest Rebel were hardly calls for racial equality.  However, so pernicious was the racism of the time that in the South, scenes of Temple and Robinson holding hands (which was their way of communicating dance steps) had to be cut.  It was a small step, but an important one nonetheless, making it at least possible if not acceptable for people of different races to share the screen.  The fact that she was such a little girl made these scenes less controversial, and Temple always regarded Robinson as a friend so any idea that they shouldn't hold hands was bizarre to her.

Children sometimes are the wisest of us all.

However, it is what she did after her heyday that marks Temple's true achievement.  Once her films started losing money, once she recognized that her career and popularity were closing, she took a good hard look at the reality of the situation and made the decision that this thing called a 'showbiz career' was not worth keeping up.  She had no desire to continue being famous, and with the exception of the Shirley Temple Storybook television series, Temple left the screen and did not look back.  Here is the key to what differentiates Temple from so many child stars.  She was not one to look back. 

Ambassador Black

Too often a lot of these child stars insist on keeping things as they were, on being stars long after the public either forgot about them or moved on.  Temple kept going forward.  In that she is truly remarkable.  She went on to become a delegate at the United Nations, then Ambassador to Ghana and later what was then Czechoslovakia.  Temple also took a very brave step by going public with her battle against breast cancer in 1972, one of the first major names to do so.  Her frank admission of her illness and open discussion of it led other women to get tested themselves, and who knows how many women's lives were saved because of Temple's then-daring act.

She made a life of her own, and made a life beyond the cameras.  For Temple, fame was nothing.  She once said that she couldn't just 'stay at home and look at old scrapbooks'.  She needed to work, and she did.  Temple was aware of all the doors 'little Shirley' opened, but in the end she made her own way.  She didn't give in to despair: not when her career dried up, not when she went through a divorce (about the only real hint of scandal, and even that was handled tastefully) and decided what she could do was contribute to the country that had given her so much by going into public service.  While she lost her only Congressional campaign, her career led her to diplomacy, and she earned the respect of her peers in the U.N. and around the diplomatic corps. 

In short, two things make Shirley Temple both a great star and a great figure/role model.  I don't know if I could call her a great actress.  However, her films are still popular and beloved.  Why?  I think it is because, for all the corniness they might have, they were totally sincere.  There was no cynicism, no meanness in her films.  Instead, they were filled with sweetness, with joy, and with optimism.  That covers her film work, and seeing her onscreen we can see why even now she is beloved: her mix of youthful optimism coupled with genuine ability to touch an emotional core makes her compelling to watch.

At the 70th Academy Awards
Oscar Winners' Reunion
Baby, Take A Bow

Secondly, when her career was over, it was over.  She didn't drown herself in alcohol or drugs, she didn't go out of her way to get people to pay attention to her.  Instead, she discovered herself, found new interests, was grateful for everything she received but also saw that there was a life outside Hollywood.  When the 70th Academy Awards had their "Oscar's Family Album" where they reunited those who had won Oscars in acting, honorary, or juvenile categories, Temple's appearance brought down the house.  It is a sign of the endearing love America had for its Little Princess that she still evoked such genuine affection all those decades later. 

It was an extraordinary life.

He ain't no Shirley Temple

In the end what makes Shirley Temple important is that at the end of her career, unlike other child stars, she did not look upon this turning point as something to mourn or to wrap her whole identity around.  Instead, in a radical departure from so many child actors, Temple accepted this as a matter of fact and moved on.  Therein lies one part of the greatest of Shirley Temple: she moved on.  She did not attract attention to herself by foolish behavior or making a spectacle of herself.  Instead, she did what we all do: she got an education, married, had children.  Temple went one step further: she adapted to being an adult in an adult world.  How many of US could become Ambassadors, let alone help usher a peaceful transition from authoritarianism to full democracy as she did when she served as U.S. Ambassador to then-Czechoslovakia in their Velvet Revolution?

Shirley Temple fashioned a life outside Hollywood.  When her career was over, she accepted it and kept going.  So many child performers could not, or cannot, or will not follow her example.  They cannot see their own worth comes from within, from family and true friends, not hangers-on or an entourage. 

The term 'child star' has become shorthand for ruined, chaotic lives done in by fame and fortune at a young age.  Bobby Driscoll, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Dana Plato, Brad Renfro, Jonathan Brandis, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Shia LaBeouf.  There have been actors and actresses who started young who have managed to survive: Jodie Foster, Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning.  They however, are not about themselves, but about their work, and I imagine that if they didn't enjoy acting they'd leave and be happy.  Can we say that about people like Drake Bell or River Phoenix or Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer?

Each of them owes something to the person who set the template for how to survive when no one wants you on the screen anymore...a little girl with 56 ringlets.

In the end, why does the death of Shirley Temple matter?  It matters because we've lost one child star who both grew up and never grew old.  It matters because Temple set the template for how to be a child star and how not to be swallowed up by it.  It matters because Temple became a lifeline in one of America's darkest times.  It matters because while there will always be child actors, and while there will be child actors with more talent, I doubt there will be child actors who were, are, and will always be as beloved as Shirley Temple.

Good night, Shirley.  Godspeed as you sail onwards, On the Good Ship Lollipop.


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