GRAVES REGISTRY: The little girl who kept a nation's chin up
Many, many years ago, I saw Carol Burnett in a Broadway musical called "Fade Out -- Fade In." She played Hope Springfield, an usherette in a movie theater with stars in her eyes. The highlight of the show was Burnett's impersonation of Shirley Temple. In a ruffle-laden short skirt and with her face earnestly scrunched up, she sang "You Mustn't Be Discouraged." ("When you're lying on a park bench, eating grass cause you've no dough. You mustn't be discouraged. You could be six feet under helping it grow.") Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green wrote it as a spoof of the paeans to optimism warbled by the real Shirley Temple during one of the darkest periods in American history. If the underlying intent of the song wasn't quite the same, the message wasn't all that different. What does it matter if it's raining outside? One of Shirley's biggest hits was a reminder of how much fun it can be to walk in the rain.
During the Depression years, no matter how bad things were going in that forbidding place called the real world, folks could pay 15 cents and watch this astonishingly appealing little girl sing and dance their troubles away for 90 minutes.
Shirley Temple died at the age of 85 in Woodside, Calif. on Feb. 10. She began making movies when the "talkies" were in their infancy and, in this age of CGI and billion dollar box-office hauls, her status as Hollywood's greatest child star remains unchallenged.
It could be argued, of course, that Temple was exactly the right person at precisely the right moment, but that hardly diminishes her accomplishment, even if she was too young to realize the tremendous impact she had on so many lives. The 1930s was a period when thousands of Americans felt helpless as far as determining their own fates. Shirley usually was cast as the optimistic innocent, whose unquenchable faith in a brighter tomorrow inspired everyone else in the movie to lift themselves up by their boot straps. The message wasn't lost on audiences either.
She was born in Santa Monica, Calif., the only daughter of Gertrude and George Temple. Her father worked in a bank. Her mother, a homemaker, cultivated her daughter's talent, enrolling her in dance classes and styling the child's hair in ringlets just like Mary Pickford's. Gertrude would remain a bulwark, protecting Shirley from the exploitation that frequently destroyed the lives of so many performers, both children and adults.
After appearing in such dubious enterprises as "Baby Burlesks" and "Frolics of Youth," Temple came to the attention of executives at Fox in a picture called "Stand Up and Cheer." The studio signed her to a $1,250 per week contract and tailored a film called "Bright Eyes" especially for her.
One song from that movie, "The Good Ship Lollipop," sold half a million copies of sheet music and it would become the song most closely identified with Temple. "Lollipop" might have been eclipsed if she had been cast as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," but executives at MGM felt that the role required a stronger vocal prowess than Temple possessed. Judy Garland got to claim "Over the Rainbow" as her signature song.
Temple's glittering star was waning by the time "Oz" was released in 1939. The compensation film that she had been given by Fox studio chief, Darryl Zanuck, was a lavish musical version of Maurice Maeterlinck's play "The Blue Bird." It was the first of her movies to loose money. Just as the innovation of sound had tolled a death knell for many careers in silent movies, her inevitable advancement towards young adulthood heralded the end of Temple's reign at the top of the box office.
She gave competent performances in a few films during the 1940s, notably in David O. Selznick's home front in wartime drama "Since You Went Away" and as Henry Fonda's daughter in John Ford's "Fort Apache," but the sparkle that had captivated Depression era audiences was gone.
Unlike many others in Hollywood, who seem to personally deflate as their careers decline, Temple proved that there can be a rich and rewarding life after stardom. A brief first marriage, to actor John Agar, had ended in divorce. She wed Charles Alden Black in 1950 and the marriage would last until his death in 2005. After working on various television projects in the 1950s and 60s, she withdrew from show business and entered into public service. Gerald Ford appointed her as United States Ambassador to Ghana in 1974 and she became George H. W. Bush's Ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989.
The films she made during her golden years at Fox didn't win Oscars, but Greta Garbo's vehicles didn't win many for MGM either. In 1935, Shirley became the first child star to be given a miniature statuette for her work. Seventy years later, Shirley Temple Black was given an award by the Screen Actors Guild. The honor came only a few months after her husband's death, but her determination to triumph over anything was still apparent. Her tongue-in-cheek advice to actors hoping one day to win the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award: "Start early."
Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.
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