2014 can just go away. The reaper is hitting way too close to home with the choices it is making for humans to harvest – and the taking of SHIRLEY TEMPLE… it’s brutal.
Shirley Temple, for me, goes back to some of my earliest film memories with my parents. In the pre-video days of the Early Seventies, my parents collected films on 16mm. At around the age of 3, I was introduced to this short film: POLLY TIX IN WASHINGTON (1933). I loved it. My parents told me that Shirley Temple got her start making Baby Burlesks – which were little kid parody films of more adult fare. We had a few of these. But better, my parents were pals with other film geeks whom all seemed to have at least one Shirley Temple feature in 16mm. So in the upstairs of my childhood home, I fell madly in love with Shirley Temple. She was the girl that all the film collecting friends of my parents just fell in love with. They often pointed at her flirty eyes and that voice that filled you with pure joy. It didn’t hurt that my mother’s childhood was spent with her hair in rollers and Shirley Temple outfits. My grandmother was such a Temple fan, that she gave my mother the same middle name of Jane. Mom had Shirley Temple storybooks from her childhood – and as Film and Pop Culture dealers, we had dolls, posters and ephemera that we sold to fans of Ms. Temple at shows.
Then a dark day came on my 5th year of life on Planet Earth. My love for Shirley just continued to grow. I’d tell anyone that would listen that I was gonna marry Shirley Temple when “WE” grew up. My parents thought this was beyond adorable – and so it was encouraged, but when I was still madly obsessed with Shirley Temple at the old age of 5… something had to be done. My father felt I should know that Shirley Temple was not actually my age. That in reality, she wasn’t even Shirley Temple any more. She was a “REPUBLICAN AMBASSADOR named SHIRLEY TEMPLE BLACK!”
This just could not be true. Mind you, at this point – my parents hadn’t quite worked up the nerve to tell me that BRUCE LEE had passed away and it was 1977, the man had been gone for 4 years at that point. Later in 77, they told me that – and completed the breaking of my vision of the world totally.
I was in denial as Dad sat me down to see FORT APACHE, which features Shirley Temple as Henry Fonda’s grown daughter. It was true. Shirley Temple had grown up. It meant a lot of things to me. It meant that one day I might in fact have to grow up, something I wrestle with often. More than the fact that Shirley Temple grew up… As I continued to watch FORT APACHE, there was this guy that was flirting with her all the time that I recognized from MOLE PEOPLE & the second CREATURE feature. Dad told me… Shirley had married that guy! OMG, she’s married! All this must’ve been in early January of 1977, cuz I can still remember seeing Shirley Temple at Jimmy Carter’s Inaugural Gala on TV that year and realizing. WOW – She’s really old!
From that point on – I recognized that Shirley Temple was always going to be the first girl I ever loved. And not a dirty love, a complete childlike innocent love. Shirley Temple is that person for A LOT of people. Watching her as a child is an empowering thing. When you have parents that sit you down and explain… “This little girl was part of what saved THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA from the Great Depression!” She taught America to smile even though the worst has happened. Her films would have Shirley suffer, lose her parents, her pets, her friends – but showed that even though the worst had happened, a child could control their own destiny – that through sheer charisma and projection of joy – you could overcome the doldrums of a miserable life and find prosperity around the corner, too few dare to notice. My parents summed her films up as “Here’s a puppy! Your puppy is dead! Meet the President!”
My fave Shirley Temple features? I can’t really choose. I love BRIGHT EYES, THE LITTLE COLONEL, CURLY TOP, THE LITTLEST REBEL, CAPTAIN JANUARY, DIMPLES, THE LITTLE PRINCESS, STOWAWAY and WEE WILLIE WINKLE something fierce.
Take WEE WILLIE WINKLE… she co-stars with Victor McLaglen… Now McLaglen is one of the great John Ford character actors – and in fact, the film is directed by John Ford, who would later direct teenage Temple in FORT APACHE – but WEE WILLIE WINKLE. In the film, Shirley and her mother are in northern India living with her departed father’s Dad, played by the awesomely curmudgeon Charles Aubrey Smith (FOUR FEATHERS, TARZAN THE APE MAN & so many others) – McLaglen is a lovable Sgt that she charms into training her to be a proper soldier. Now mind you, this is a Rudyard Kipling story. Now you will cry! Cuz, well, it’s a Shirley Temple film – and one that is WAY TOO OFTEN overlooked. Caesar Romero does a great job playing the villain, Khonda Khan! I can not recommend discovering this film! It’s on DVD – but like most of Shirley’s career – we don’t have much in the Blu Ray world.
THE LITTLEST REBEL (1935) is a Civil War affair with Shirley Temple as a Plantation Child. And has one of the greatest scenes in film history – as far as I’m concerned… and that’s Shirley Temple dancing with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson down those steps with her. It is… sublime. Once you have Shirley Temple on Abraham Lincoln’s lap – you realize – HOLY SHIT! I LOVE THIS SO MUCH! SO MUCH!
However, I think the greatest lesson that Shirley Temple taught the world is that just because you start out life as the biggest box-office star Hollywood had ever seen… that needn’t be the rest of your life. When Shirley got older… audiences didn’t really accept her. Seeing Shirley Temple at a dating age was just not something audiences wanted. I know in today’s era of websites that countdown to legality – and where every “child star” goes through the awkward aging with a sudden ownership of their sexuality publicly… well, we were not always this way.
Shirley left Hollywood, raised a family, she worked at the U.N., became an ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia. She fought breast cancer and survived and moreso became one of the first famous women to openly talk about breast cancer and to raise awareness about the disease. She never followed Selznick’s advice to change her name, mature and return to Hollywood – instead, she found a different calling for her life and lived it to the fullest.
When she passed away – I can only imagine it was with a smile – she was loved by the world and more importantly by her family. She is survived by her 3 kids and their kids and their kids. Graceful to the end.
Now I’m going to leave you with a bit of an education regarding the earliest work of Shirley Temple. Not only that, but Shirley felt the work in these films was the very best work she ever did! These shorts played in front of films all over the world and is why from the very first feature she was a sensation! You'll notice kids from Little Rascals fame in these shorts if you've got an eye for that sort of thing! First, here’s the first film appearance of Shirley Temple in RUNT PAGE (1932)
You might of noticed she didn’t speak in that – Here’s her first short where she’s a bit of a bigger deal in WAR BABIES (1932)
Next was THE PIE-COVERED WAGON (1932)
Then there's GLAD RAGS TO RICHES (1933) where young Miss Temple played La Belle Diaperina!
Then there's KID IN HOLLYWOOD (1933) where Shirley plays Morelegs Sweettrick!
Next - THE KID'S LAST FIGHT< (1933)/P>
Then came POLLY TIX IN WASHINGTON where she's riffing on Marlene Dietrich, at least that's what I've always felt she was doing here!
Which leads us to DORA'S DUNKING DOUGHNUTS (1933)
Which brings us to the most infamous of all the Baby Burlesks. First, she plays Madam Cradlebait - and is very much a riff on the TARZAN insanity that was sweeping the world! That said... racially speaking... it is a doozy. It was also her final BABY BURLESKS due to the end of her contract!
While making these, Shirley got some feature work. And did do more shorts but as a character named Mary Lou Rogers. And of course the films got bigger and better as her star became the brightest Hollywood had ever seen.
Thank you Shirley Temple! You were amazing throughout your life!