What were you doing when you were five years old? Perhaps, like me you were in your introductory year of school, reading your first simple books, and playing in the sandpit. When Shirley Temple was five, she was signing a contract with Twentieth Century Fox. The uber-talented singer, dancer and actor would go on to not only keep the Fox studio afloat in troubled financial times, but her films would also bring joy to millions of Depression-era Americans (and others around the world) at a time when there wasn’t much else to smile about.
Shirley (it’s not a sign of disrespect, but rather a sign of my affection for her that makes me want to refer to Ms Temple by her first name) began performing as a toddler, made her film debut at four, and went on to be America’s top box office star from the ages of six to ten (1934-1938). This was at a time when other top stars like Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Jean Harlow had millions of fans.
In films like Stand up and Cheer (1934), Bright Eyes (The one with The Good Ship Lollipop in it – 1934), Curly Top (1935) and Heidi (1937), Shirley’s immense talent and shone through. Her films weren’t ones where she just had bit parts: she, as leading lady, was often carrying the film. Even when working with illustrious co-stars, Shirley always shone. She wasn’t only immensely talented, but she had this warmth about her that made her relatable.
It’s hard to pick a pick a favourite Shirley moment, but one that does stand out is in The Little Colonel (1935) when she and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson held hands and danced up a stairwell. It’s an absolutely delightful scene, and at the time it was quite ground-breaking. The sight of Shirley dancing with Mr Robinson (who was an African-American man) was seen as a powerful symbol of unity and positive race relations – at a time when such images were rare in film.
As Shirley grew up and entered her teens, he popularity waned. She retired at the age of 21, and unlike so many ill-fated ex-child stars, she made a smooth transition into civilian life. It’s a great testament to Shirley’s personal strength and that she didn’t go off the rails when her career declined. Shirley (now known as Shirley Temple Black) actually went on to a career in international diplomacy and public service, with roles such as the United States’ Ambassador to Ghana. Shirley also made a great contribution to public health attitudes when she was open about her breast cancer struggle in the early 70s. She was one of the first public figures to talk openly about her masectomy, and has been credited with raising public awareness about the disease – and therefore helping save lives via early detection.
It’s so sad that as every year passes, we lose more and more stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age. In the last two years we’ve lost so many – including Ann Rutherford, Ernest Borgnine, Celeste Holm, Ben Gazzara, Esther Williams, and most recently Peter O’Toole and Joan Fontaine. Of course film fans know that those who suffer these losses most acutely are the stars’ friends, family and colleagues – but we somehow still feel like it’s a personal loss. Why do we cry when we get such news? It’s because we feel we know them. We love their characters, and we love them. We immerse ourselves into their films, and we somehow feel connected to them. Our favourite actors (and indeed writers, directors, crew, designers et al, and all who bring us our beloved films) are part of us. They tell us stories, and these stories will live on, long after all of us are gone.
Vale Shirley. We’ll miss you. It’s been a sweet trip.
Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf