We were talking recently about how some kids just out of high school don’t know how to do certain things we used to take as givens when it came to holding a job—things like making actual phone calls and figuring out how to print labels. I was reminded of the great gulf that exists between people of my generation and those 20-30 years younger when I heard about the passing of Shirley Temple. As a few co-workers and I shared memories of our favorite Temple movies, a millennial said, “Shirley who?” Another one knew the name as something involving grenadine and a maraschino cherry.
I have very fond memories of watching Shirley Temple movies, which I remember would be on TV early Saturday afternoons back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. My mother, who grew up quite poor in the Ozarks, in a very rare moment of sharing something from her childhood, recalled going with her many cousins to see Temple matinees and just marveling in awe at the actress’ pretty dresses and sumptuous surroundings. Now, not all Temple roles cast her in the lap of luxury, but even when she was an orphan or Swiss Miss Heidi, she usually ended up transformed to a much happier (read: moneyed) place, with devoted surrogate parents, and maybe a pony.
I’m not mocking the Temple movies. They were very entertaining, and usually nicely produced. It was clear that Temple was a natural; she owned the spotlight even at a tender age. Over the years I’ve read stories about how many adult performers hated working opposite her, in part because of that adage that one should never star opposite a child or a dog. Mostly, however, this was because Temple was the type who knew not just her own lines, but everybody else’s, and God forbid a co-star didn’t come prepared. That said, she had tremendous chemistry with several such co-stars, including Arthur Treacher (whom until those film reruns, I only knew as the name of a fish restaurant), Robert Young, and, of course, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, whom she referred to as her best Hollywood friend.
Temple’s appeal wasn’t just the dimples and the ringlets. She was plucky. I can well imagine that Depression-era audiences weren’t just thrilled by her singing and dancing, but also moved by the gumption with which she imbued each of her characters. You got the sense that Shirley Temple could get the job done, and that we’d better follow suit, gosh darn it. I can’t really imagine Lindsay Lohan, even pre-breakdown, doing the same. As Temple matured, she appeared with great effect in Since You Went Away, in which she was the younger sister to Jennifer Jones and daughter to Claudette Colbert. The movie is about the effects of the war on those left at home, and in it, we see Temple go from adolescent to young womanhood, and she’s both wonderful and believable. In 1947 she appeared opposite Myrna Loy and Cary Grant—two formidable co-stars if there ever were—in the bubbly comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer. Shirley is Susan, the younger sister to Myrna’s judge, and she’s got a wicked crush on Grant. Through film narrative sleight of hand, we end up believing that Grant would be compelled to date Susan (purely chaste, mind you) in order for her to get him out of her system. For the last time on screen, Temple proved her comedic mettle.
I remember seeing Shirley Temple Black (her full married name) on TV, in real time, back in the 1970s, and as is usually the case for children who are used to seeing somebody in a certain way—in this instance a much younger, cuter Temple—I was shocked. She was kind of like my mother! A little plump. Black hair. Some wrinkles. I look back at that era now and realize that Temple aged pretty well, not just in terms of looks, but career-wise, going on to be a successful U.N. representative and U.S. ambassador (to Czechoslovakia), and a happy wife and mother. Like her onscreen persona, Temple really could get it done. It’s more than nostalgic to look back fondly at a child star who didn’t implode and who left a rich legacy of happy memories.