Throughout the Depression years, her sunny disposition helped audiences forget their woes and a special Oscar was presented to her for “bringing more happiness to millions of children and millions of grown-ups than any other child of her years in the history of the world”. It might have turned many a tiny tot’s head, but Shirley had her mother constantly at her side to ensure she was kept on an even keel.
Gertrude Temple was the architect of Shirley’s career, masterminding every aspect, every contract, what she ate, when she slept. Before each take, she would coach her, ignoring the director, and give her last-minute instructions. “Sparkle, Shirley,” she would say. A shrewd businesswoman, she knew instinctively how to manipulate the studios and their publicity machines to her daughter’s advantage. For good or ill, she turned little Shirley into a phenomenon. Everything she did was news. In October 1936, the world gasped as a bulletin flashed over the Reuters wire: “Shirley Temple has been sent to bed with a slight fever resulting from a cold.”
She was acting in pictures from the age of four and rapidly captivated filmgoers with her blonde ringlets and dimpled charm. Dolls, books and games were named after her in a merchandising campaign matched only by Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. Yet her talent was modest. She sang off-key and cynics dismissed her dancing as “mere jigging up and down”. She liked to do impersonations but her acting was generally regarded as cute rather than compelling.
She had the child star’s built-in self-destruct mechanism — what had seemed peachy in a moppet became arch in adolescence. Attempts to extend her career into young womanhood were unsuccessful and she made her last film in 1949 — washed up in Hollywood at 21.
Yet that was not the end of the Shirley Temple story. Against all sceptics’ expectations, the little girl who had never had a normal childhood matured into a distinguished politician and diplomat. She stood (unsuccessfully) for Congress before representing America at the United Nations and serving as US ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia under her married name of Shirley Temple Black.
She was born on April 23 1928 in Santa Monica, California, the daughter of a bank teller. Like many a proud mother, Gertrude Temple enrolled her child in dancing classes at the age of three and promoted her vigorously. A talent scout from Educational Pictures, a small company specialising in shorts, spotted Shirley and invited her for a screen test, which led to her appearance in 1932-33 in a string of film spoofs known as Baby Burlesks. Among them were The Incomparable More Legs Sweetrick (as Marlene Dietrich), The Pie-Covered Wagon and Polly-Tix in Washington.
She alternated these performances with small parts in now forgotten feature movies such as The Red-Haired Alibi (1932) and To the Last Man (1933), opposite Randolph Scott. While filming a second series of shorts for Educational under the title Frolics of Youth, she and her mother were approached by the much bigger Fox Film Corporation (later Twentieth Century-Fox) with a view to Shirley featuring in the film Stand Up and Cheer (1934). She passed the audition and was signed up for $150 a week. When the film opened, she stole the show with the song and dance routine Baby Take a Bow.
Recognizing her star potential, Fox swung its publicity department into action. But it did not have her under exclusive contract. Earlier in the year, the astute Mrs Temple had forged a two-picture deal with Paramount and it was that studio that initially reaped the benefit of her sudden fame. It rushed her into two pictures in 1934 to fulfil the contract — Little Miss Marker, based on a Damon Runyon story, and Now and Forever, in which she was the go-between who reunites an estranged couple played by Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard.
On the strength of these pictures, Shirley’s Fox contract was renegotiated to $1,250 a week. She was cast in Bright Eyes, where she sang one of the songs indelibly associated with her, On the Good Ship Lollipop, and from then on vehicles were written especially for her. By the end of 1934, aged six, she was the eighth biggest draw in America.
A year later, she was number one and held that position four years in a row, attracting more fan mail than Greta Garbo and being photographed more often than the President himself. “I class myself with Rin Tin Tin,” she volunteered brightly.
She churned out pictures at a tremendous lick — sometimes five a year through the late-1930s — and the public clamoured for more. Features included, in 1935, The Little Colonel, Curly Top, a remake of Daddy Long Legs, and The Littlest Rebel, in which she told Abraham Lincoln that he was almost nice enough to be a Confederate. The 1936 clutch had Captain January, Dimples and Poor Little Rich Girl, while in 1937, the title role in an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Wee Willie Winkie was changed from boy to girl especially to accommodate her.
Her work in this film led to a notorious libel suit involving the future novelist Graham Greene, then employed as a film critic by the magazine Night and Day. At a cocktail party, after what he later described as “a dangerous third Martini” Greene dreamt up the idea of deflating the Temple balloon, but he peppered his review of her performance in Wee Willie Winkie with such litigious terms as “dubious coquetry”, “dimpled depravity” and “mature suggestiveness”.
Shirley and Twentieth Century-Fox sued. In court in March, 1938, Sir Patrick Hastings, counsel for the plaintiffs, was too mortified to bring himself to utter Greene’s words. “In my view”, he said, “it is one of the most horrible libels that one can imagine about a child. I shall not read it — it is better I should not — but a glance at the statement of claim … is sufficient to show the nature of the libel. This beastly publication appeared but it is right to say that every respectable news distributor in London refused to be party to its sale.”
The plaintiffs won; $5,250 punitive damages were awarded to Fox, $7,000 to the actress and Night and Day folded. But as a postscript to the episode, the mature Shirley Temple bore the novelist no grudge. In 1989, she sent him an inscribed copy of her autobiography, Child Star, and invited him to tea.
The year 1938 marked the high-water mark of her popularity. She appeared in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (without ringlets for the first time), in Little Miss Broadway and Just around the Corner at a fee of $100,000 a picture, which made her Hollywood’s highest-paid earner after Louis B Mayer. By 1939 he fee had jumped to $300,000, but public taste was changing. Susannah and the Mounties was disappointing and The Blue Bird was, by common consent, a “turkey”.
MGM had wanted to borrow her for The Wizard of Oz, but Fox refused, casting her instead in what it hoped would be a rival children’s attraction . But Maeterlinck’s arty symbolism in The Blue Bird found no favour with the public. It opened in selected cinemas a few days before Christmas 1939, but proved such a dud that it had to be withdrawn after only a few days and replaced by a Sonja Henie ice-skating musical. When generally released in 1940, The Blue Bird met with no warmer response, becoming Shirley’s first unmitigated flop.
Gertrude Temple blamed Fox and offered to buy out the remainder of Shirley’s contract. Fox raised no objections and, at the age of 11, she took a “sabbatical” from the cinema, ostensibly to repair gaps in her patchy education. Though her vocabulary was officially said to be 750 words, “all of which she can write”, she had trouble with numbers over 50. According to her teacher, she still thought 47 cents was more than 55 cents.
In fact, Shirley’s absence from the screen was an opportunity for her mother to negotiate a fresh contract with another studio. She picked MGM, but it was not a happy choice. The studio was grooming its own child prodigy in Judy Garland and found only one vehicle for Shirley, the lacklustre Kathleen (1941). Roger Edens, who was Garland’s coach, let it be known that Shirley would have to put in a lot of singing and dancing practice if she hoped to be worthy of the studio. Mrs Temple took umbrage and took off.
After a remake of a Mary Pickford picture, Miss Annie Rooney (1942) at United Artists, Shirley gravitated to David O Selznick, who signed her to a seven-year contract, but as a teenager she could no longer command lead roles. Selznick cast her only in supporting parts in Since You Went Away (1944) and I’ll Be Seeing You (1945). In that year, aged 17, she also completed her interrupted education by graduating from Westlake High School for Girls in Los Angeles. She then published her first autobiography, My Young Life, and was married to army sergeant-turned actor John Agar.
The last four years of her screen career were an anticlimax. Her infant precocity gave way to mere pertness (of which there is no shortage in Hollywood) in such films as The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947), That Hagen Girl (1947), with Ronald Reagan, and A Kiss for Corliss (1949), her screen swansong, opposite David Niven. This period also included the first film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache (1948), in which she co-starred, aged 20, with her husband.
When the marriage failed, she wed again in 1950 – her new husband was a wealthy San Francisco businessman, Charles Black. She largely retired from acting to concentrate on social work, though from 1957 to 1959 she narrated and appeared in a television series entitled Shirley Temple’s Storybook. This was followed in 1960 by Shirley Temple Presents Young America, a programme about the problems of high-school dropouts.
From 1960 she played a leading role in developing the San Francisco film festival, resigning in 1966 only over the decision to screen the Swedish film Night Games, which she denounced as “pornography for profit”. In 1967 she ran for Congress to fill a dead man’s shoes (Republican J Arthur Younger). Though her recording of On the Good Ship Lollipop was used as a theme song at rallies, she insisted that “Little Shirley Temple is not running. If someone insists on pinning me with a label, let it read Shirley Temple Black, Republican independent.” But in the era of Lyndon Johnson, her conservative stance on taxes, law and order and drug addiction lost her the seat.
After her election defeat, she continued to work for the Republican party, raising funds and urging Americans overseas to back Richard Nixon in the forthcoming presidential campaign. When elected, Nixon named her one of the five-member American delegation to the 24th session of the United Nations General Assembly. In this capacity she served in 1969 on the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee. Her subsequent diplomatic career included US ambassador to Ghana (1974-76), sparking a trend for Ghanaian children to be named Shirley (including boys), and to the former Czechoslovakia, to which she was appointed by President Bush in 1989.
Shirley Temple married first, John Agar, with whom she had a daughter. The marriage was dissolved. She married second, Charles Black (who predeceased her in 2005), with whom she had two more children.
Shirley Temple, born April 23 1928, died February 11 2014 – Source: The Telegraph