Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Tribute to Shirley Temple Black
I was saddened this morning to read that one of my childhood heroines, Shirley Temple Black, had passed away. I vividly remember the first time I saw her on television; I was flipping channels and came upon a black and white movie with a little curly-haired girl tap dancing on top of an all-white piano. Turns out it was the end of the movie ("Curly Top," 1935) and I would have to wait until the next Sunday to see another Shirley Temple movie. Here's a colorized version of that very scene:
Every week, "The Shirley Temple Theater" on our local TV station would show a different Shirley Temple movie, and I sat in front of the set and watched every one of them.
What fascinated me about her so? Well, there were others who danced better, and plenty of others who sang better, too, but very few (if any) in films had her sunny disposition, can-do attitude, and total lack of artifice.
Her films were simple and adhered to a very strict format. Typically, Shirley was orphaned or missing at least one parent, causing her to shamelessly play matchmaker to create a new family for herself. You knew there'd be a happy ending and that Shirley's home would be whole again by the end of the film. Along the way there'd be plenty of opportunity for Shirley to sing and dance a memorable tune that would stick in your head, and if there were any mean-spirited or hateful people that she'd encounter, well...Shirley would unthaw them pretty darn quick with a smile and a positive message. Even President Lincoln had to acknowledge her request, which in this particular film ("The Littlest Rebel") was to free her father from jail.
During the Depression, one of the darkest times of this nation's history, Shirley provided 80 minutes of happiness in a darkened theater for those who had very little joy in their own life. She was credited with lifting the spirits of the world with a toss of her curls and the warmth of her smile. For 20th Century Fox, she was a cash cow, saving the studio from bankruptcy and becoming a merchandising bonanza, spearheaded by the release of a slew of dolls created in her likeness, which happened to save the Ideal Toy Company from financial ruin, too.
Shirley's film career as a child ended for all the reasons you might guess; she got older, the country became a bit bored with the predictable nature of her films, and others came along that had more talent. At the age of 12, Shirley temporarily retired to focus on being a normal teen and to attend private school at the Westlake School for Girls.
Shirley made a number of movies as an adult, some of which are actually pretty darn good, with my favorite being "The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer" with Cary Grant.
Shirley eventually decided to leave films and with her second marriage, achieved happiness with both husband (Charles Black) and family.
At a time when women were fighting for equality, Shirley quietly began a second career for herself in politics, showing that you didn't have to burn your bra to be an achiever. Some of the positions she held included Representative to the 24th United Nations General Assembly under Richard Nixon, Ambassador to Ghana for Gerald Ford, and first female U.S. Chief of Protocol (also under Ford). She served as the U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia (1989—1992), having been appointed by President George H. W. Bush. She rounded up her political career by serving as a trainer to future diplomats.
She was also one of the first women to speak up about breast cancer, sharing her own story in 1973 and encouraging women to get checked early. It was a very brave thing to do for such a private person at a time when women just did not speak about such things.
Afterwards, Shirley stayed in the public eye with appearances, honorary Oscars, and the release of her autobiography, the very candid and funny book "Child Star" in 1989.
Here she is with Liza Minnelli, Milton Berle, and Jack Haley, Jr. Eva Marie Saint can be seen in the background:
Thank you Shirley for your many years of service to this country. I am sure that Heaven will shine a little brighter with you up there.
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