She made America and the whole wide world smile when we needed it most. An appreciation for the life of Shirley Temple Black, dead at 85, February 10, 2014.

shirleytemple

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

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  Dubcek, 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.

Now what?

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…

Envoi.

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.

About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is the author of over a dozen best sellers on business and marketing, several ebooks and over one thousand online articles on a variety of topics.

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This author has published 72 articles so far. More info about the author is coming soon.

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