If you can hold the responsibility for your whole family on your shoulders at a young age, you must be very brave.
However, if you can hold the responsibility for your whole country on your shoulders at a young age, you must be Shirley Temple.
While such a statement might sound melodramatic in our era of viral hyperbole, I think Present Franklin Roosevelt would back me up. After all, didn’t that master of motivational psychology recognize the curly-topped child as the savior of the nation’s morale? His words were reportedly, “As long as we have Shirley Temple, this country is going to be alright.”
Now that she’s gone, we have to wonder.
From the first, Temple’s stardom was explicitly presented as the antidote to the weariness of Depression-era America. She rose to prominence in Hamilton McFadden’s Stand Up and Cheer (1934), a film that dealt with the need for escapism in the 1930s. “President Roosevelt” (a sound-alike actor seen only in silhouette) appoints a Broadway producer as Secretary of Amusement to uplift downtrodden Americans. However, in the movie, Temple’s onscreen father, played by James Dunn, has to petition to let her perform and take her dead mother’s place in their stage act, since child labor laws forbade it.
At one point, Dunn gestures to the agonizingly adorable child, waiting in the corner, and pleads, “Look at her… she thrives on it!” Playing with building blocks, she looks up and grins in acquiescence. And, of course, Temple tap-dances to center stage as the country’s new mascot. In the first major musical number of her career, “Baby, Take a Bow,” she all but broke the fourth wall, leaning right into the camera as if bestowing a kiss on the audience.
Breaking the fourth wall would become something of a Temple trademark, perhaps because audiences are likely to accept and actually expect such mischievous violation of “the rules” by a little girl. She caps off Irving Cummings’s Curly Top (1935) by adorably scratching her head and repeating the running gag line, “Oh, my word!” Similarly, at the end of Allan Dwan’s Heidi (1937), she prays, in close-up, “please make every little boy and girl in the world as happy as I am,” then looks up to smile into the camera.
She’s allowed to look at the audience just as silent comedians could—to bypass the invisible boundaries of realist entertainment and establish a rapport with the viewer. She could look at us, as if to say, “Thanks for coming. I hope you had fun.” Shirley Temple the lovable phenomenon always underpinned her nuanced performances, so it seemed only right that she should reach out directly to the people on the other side of the screen. And they responded in kind; as one fan wrote in to Photoplay magazine in 1934, “She is the sweetest bunch of happiness I have ever seen.”
As we mourn an unthinkable thing—the death of someone forever frozen in our memories as a perfect child—there’s not much that one can say about Temple that won’t come out exaggerated or maudlin. The facts of her life are too vast and strange, her childhood too clear a parallel to the magical ragamuffin roles she incarnated onscreen. She was the most famous person in the world, Queen Elizabeth’s childhood role model, one half of the first interracial dance duo in film, and a multi-millionaire. And all this before she was in her teens.
In spite of these accomplishments, Temple famously understated her charm over audiences, equating herself with canine star Rin-Tin-Tin as a heartwarming but uncomplicated symbol of cuteness for a hopeless era. Nothing more.
In my opinion, though, she actually revealed more than she knew with this observation. Animals and children move us on a universal level because they abide; their pure perseverance and will to live contrast with the often-sanctimonious cares of adults, who wear depression and strife like badges of honor. A child, even one that’s been through a lot, knows that joy is the couture emotion, the only one that makes you shine when you wear it.
Thus, Temple’s spunk and sassiness beg the question: if this child can hang on, if she can bear up, smile, and dance with the pros, what excuse do the rest of us have not to face our problems with grace?
Speaking of grace, Shirley Temple Black—the amazing grown-up who never disappointed fans of “little Shirley,” as she referred to her star image—refused to carp loudly about how her childhood was sacrificed for our continuing pleasure. But it was. She quietly acknowledged this by sharing a number of anecdotes about her early life. A department store Santa asked for her autograph and destroyed her faith in such fairy tales. Directors and studio executives wielded physical and psychological torment—from blocks of ice to lies about her mother—to knead her into a better performance. 20th Century Fox staged elaborate birthday ceremonies where she had more lines to memorize for newsreel cameras and where all of the presents were shipped to orphanages, unopened by Temple.
Real life and reel life birthdays for Temple—both 20th Century Fox productions
Perhaps Temple’s most incisive comment on fame, about being “devoured by human adoration, sparkle by sparkle” poignantly echoes her mother’s commandment from off camera, “Sparkle, Shirley! Sparkle!”
So, as with all great entertainers, suffering entered into the equation of what made Temple so special. And we need to remember this, in spite of the loss of innocence it implies for those of us on the other side of the screen. I promise that you will find her films no less inspiring once you come to realize what she lost so that we, the viewers, might gain.
When I watch Temple, it is with the rapt astonishment that one might feel before a great magician. Not because I consider her talents a “trick,” but rather because I find something infinitely more sacred in the strength of the woman-child sustaining the act than I see in the idealized child-woman presented for my admiration. I gasp at the flawless execution of a performance, amazed at the adaptability and determination that this little girl harnessed.
You have to know a lot before you can pretend not to know much. This was one of Temple’s greatest gifts: hiding her experience behind a feint of cluelessness. In perhaps the greatest acting achievement of her career, she gladly sings “Auld Lang Syne” to mortally wounded Victor McLaglen in John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie (1937), enhancing the pathos of the moment with her total non-comprehension of his imminent death.
As the hulking, recumbent McLaglen slips away, Temple warbles with mock solemnity, still untouched by the knowledge of mortality. Instead of a dirge, “Auld Lang Syne” in her voice becomes a regimental lullaby, bringing the dying man back to the innocence of childhood in his last moments on earth. Neither overplaying her cheeriness nor succumbing to bathetic melancholy, Temple made audiences weep with longing for the time when death was meaningless to us.
Temple’s films frequently capitalized on her status as an almost uncanny adult-child paradox. In Curly Top, for instance, she acts out a series of vignettes over the trajectory of a human life, singing, “When I grow up…” She even appears in a wedding gown and, rather disturbingly, as a sedentary miniature of Whistler’s mother in a rocking chair. Slightly creepy as such an act may seem today, I like to think that audiences craved subliminal reassurance that a Shirley Temple resides in all of us, that we’re all really children in fancy dress.
Movies starring Temple clearly made this point—that children have an adult-like wisdom, whereas adults too often succumb to petty, childish reasoning. In Wee Willie Winkie, peace comes about only when Khoda Khan sees the world through Priscilla’s eyes. Ford drums this point home with virtually identical shots of Khan and Priscilla descending monumental stone steps that reduce both the man and the little girl, visually, to tiny figures on a huge scale.
Consider her famous one-liner upon receiving a special Oscar in 1934. After thanking the presenter, she turned to her mother and asked, “Can we go home now?” The crowd roared. Though this “unintentional” wisecrack was clearly staged and rehearsed, like virtually everything about Temple’s life, it speaks to the way a child’s ingenuousness renders all of the adult pomp around her absurd and pretentious.
Again, reel dialogue would later echo real dialogue. Who can forget her cries of, “I want to go home!” in Heidi? Cries so naturalistic that they’re almost unintelligible, like the real wails of a child in distress. Comparing that scene to the modeled perfection of her storybook sequence clog dance and minuet, one recognizes the multiple registers of acting that this child understood and encompassed in her performances.
Yesterday, as I navigated the social media extravaganza prompted by Temple’s death, I discovered a worldwide digital wake of surprising sincerity and vulnerability. Temple brought out the goodness in her viewers, emulsifying their calloused and cynical hearts. And, of course, she will continue to do so.
However, one comment that recurred on every trend, on every thread was, “My childhood is over…” While I sympathize with the sentiment, I encourage these individuals to take comfort in remembering that Temple’s gift to her fans was not the promise of eternal childhood, but a passport back to that Neverland for the space of a few hours. Watch one of her films and feel all resistance to corniness wash away. Just as Temple beguiled us as a child but performed like a grown-up, so too can her legacy be cherished and appreciated by the grown-up and the child in us all.