Remembering Shirley Temple Black

There’s a lesson in her fantastic life for all of us: cute doesn’t last, so you better grow up, become a real adult and figure out what matters to you

The voice of reason among silly adults.

For most of us who are still mobile without the aid of a walker, Shirley Temple is the name of a drink you order if you’re looking to avoid alcohol.

With the death of child star-turned-diplomat Shirley Temple Black yesterday (Feb. 10), at age 85, we are reminded of the very real person who gave the concoction its name.

Today’s child stars — this means you, Miley Cyrus — could learn a thing or two from the life of this American screen icon.

Topping the list, Shirley never once twerked on national TV. She was never arrested for possessing drugs, drinking or driving too fast while drunk (yo, Justin Bieber, you listening?) or walked around looking like a scary, frail sickly shadow of herself (seen Macaulay Culkin lately?).

For much of the 1930s, Shirley Temple was the reigning box office champ in the country, her drawing power far eclipsing that of even studly Clark Gable, then the No. 2 most popular star. She single-handedly saved a movie studio, Twentieth Century Fox, at the height of the Great Depression.

This was an era when studios turned out scores of movies a year and films changed every couple days at theaters, where weekly attendance was as high as 75 million. In 1934 alone, Temple, then barely 6 years old, starred in seven movies plus a short.

To watch an old, black-and-white Shirley Temple movie — and there were still plenty on TV on Saturday afternoons when I was a young kid, before they all migrated to specialty cable channels like Turner Classics — was to be plunged into a world where she was the voice of reason among silly adults and everyone tap danced.

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If you go back and watch her films now (many are available for rental or purchase on iTunes, though Netflix has only one that streams), you’re struck by the fact that she was honestly hugely talented. She could indeed sing and dance and she was a disciplined if insistent little actress.

In our more cynical age, there is also whiff of something perverse in her films as little Shirley goes from lap to lap to lap of an ever-changing cast of adult leading men. This was notoriously touched on by novelist Graham Greene who, when reviewing her 1937 movie, “Wee Willie Winkle,” for a British film magazine, wrote, "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, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire." His words caused a furor and cost him his job.

She was also a barrier breaker. When she held hands with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the two exuberantly tap-danced their way up and down a staircase in 1935’s “The Little Colonel” — a sequence that which still exudes pure joy even today — it was the first and last time that a white female, even a pipsqueak one, would be paired with a black man for decades. (The duo made four films together.)

Temple made a stab at continuing her acting career as a teenager and young adult, but during WWII and after, the nation had moved on. She had the grace and smarts to do the same, becoming a charitable and political fund-raiser, and later building an impressive career as a diplomat and early campaigner on behalf of breast cancer awareness (following her own mastectomy in 1972).

Come to think of it, there’s a lesson in her life not just for today’s child stars but also for all of us: You can’t build a life on cute. It doesn’t last. So you better grow up, become a real adult and figure out what matters to you and is worth doing and then (here’s the hard part) do it and do it well.

Still, she was mighty adorable. Just how adorable? Take a look at Temple singing “Animal Crackers in My Soup” in 1935’s “Curly Top."

Tags: movies

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