In today’s social media obsessed society it’s become an all too frequent sight to watch a young child rise to stardom before an ungraceful spiral from favour. Shirley Temple, who passed away on February 10th, stands as a rare example of a child who had fame thrust upon them and grew up to be an truly influential role model.
Born on April 23rd 1928 in Santa Monica, California. Her mother Gertrude Amelia Temple encouraged her from an early age, fostering a passion for dance. At merely age three she was enrolled in a Los Angeles dance school. Even from a young age her talent was evident, it didn’t take long for talent spotters to be knocking on her door.
Unfortunately Shirley Temple was exploited by a group called Educational Pictures who used her for a series of short films entitled Baby Burlesks. She would later describe these short films, known at the time as one-reelers, as “a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence that occasionally were racist or sexist”.
In 1933 Educational Pictures went bankrupt and Shirley signed with Fox Films in February 1934. Her breakout would come a few month later in April 1934 in a film called Stand Up and Cheer!. Fox executives were so impressed that they raised her salary even before the film was released. In June of that year she featured in the Paramount picture Little Miss Marker.
Bright Eyes was Shirley’s next film and marked the start of Shirley mania throughout America. Released in December 1934 the movie featured Shirley’s iconic song “On the Good Ship Lollipop” which would go on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. In February 1935, Temple became the first child star to be award the Juvenile Oscar; she added her foot- and handprints to the forecourt at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre a month later.
Fox Film merged with Twentieth Century Pictures to become 20th Century Fox, the whole studio was focused around Shirley Temple with a team of writers solely writing films for the young star. A bungalow was built on the studio lot for Temple and her family. Temple was a huge box office draw and continued to be so throughout the 1930s.
Many critics have weighed in on why she was such a break out star and perhaps the main reason is that 1930s America was a country locked in a tough depression. Cinema was used as an escape during this time and Temple’s youth and joyful face was described as: “The kind of daughter all of America wanted”.
In 1940 Shirley starred in two box office flops The Blue Bird and Young People. Shirley’s parent’s bought her out of the remainder of her contract with 20th Century Fox and at age 12 sent her to Westlake School for Girls in LA. Throughout the 1940s Shirley appeared in several films, none of which recaptured the magic of her early work. She announced her official retirement from films on December 16th, 1950. She ventured into TV work with The Shirley Temple Show throughout the 1950s and the early 1960s, after which Shirley decided to use her fame and considerable wealth to enter into politics and became an active member of the Republican Party in 1967. She ran unsuccessfully in an election for California’s 11th congressional district later that year.
Temple became an ambassador for women when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1972. She became one of the first women in the public eye to speak openly about the illness. In 1945 she married her first husband John Agar, who she had one child with. She divorced him in 1950 and was remarried the same year to Charles Alden Black, who she had two children with. He passed away in 2005.
Despite moving away from the limelight in her later years Shirley never resented her fame describing it as “a great advantage, I’ve been most fortunate”. She passed away at the grand old age 85 at her home in Woodside, California her bedside adorned by her many friends and family. She was known as America’s “Little Princess” throughout her childhood and her one piece of advice to anyone hoping to take up the mantle “start early”.