The story of Shirley Temple is as hard to credit as the notion that one of the greatest stars of the 1930s is still alive. One of the greatest stars? Very well, I’ll come clean: this sublime Santa Monica girl was the greatest star of the late 1930s, that hallowed moment for movie stars.
It’s not just that she kept her studio, Twentieth Century Fox, alive and strong, the numbers on Temple are still phenomenal. And before you let any kid raised on the likes of Hilary Duff actually see the astonishing, innocent perfection of Shirley Temple, run the numbers past them.
In 1937, when Shirley was 9, the head of her studio, Darryl F. Zanuck, enjoyed a salary of $265,000. Yes, he had stock in the studio, which brought him more money. Clark Gable made $272,000 that year, Greta Garbo $270,000 and Spencer Tracy $212,000.
But little Shirley did better. She brought home $307,000 for her father, George Temple, a former bank teller, to manage. But that was only her base pay. Shirley Temple, and her parents, had an appreciable percentage of all the other merchandising that her image bore: dolls, clothes, coloring books, toys — the kind of things a little girl appreciates.
A survey was done at the time, and it reported that Shirley’s earnings from those residuals were 15 times what she earned in salary. That amounts to $4 million a year, what it took to transport “Gone With the Wind” to the screen.
George Temple married Gertrude Krieger in 1910 — she was 17 and he was 22. They had two boys and a nice, modest life. But Gertrude was in love with show business, and she dreamed of a daughter who would share her taste. They lived at 948 24th Street in Santa Monica when Shirley was born on April 23, 1928. The mother was so sure of the child’s destiny that she played records and read storybooks throughout her pregnancy. And when Shirley was lying in her crib, the same songs filled the air.
As soon as the little girl walked, she started to dance. Maybe you had to be there, for this is the legend of fan magazines and studio hype.
Nevertheless, Shirley was gorgeous in a healthy, all-American way. She had a smile that could split concrete and warm Scrooge. At the age of 4 she was doing knock-out impersonations of Marlene Dietrich in her first American films. That led to the “Baby Burlesks” shorts where she imitated adult stars. And then to her Fox contract.
The principle of imitation explained a lot: she was a sweet singer and a deft dancer who could pick up complicated routines very quickly — and then do them in extended takes that often tested her adult co-stars. She was chipper, bouncy, indefatigable; and all those cocksure attitudes contributed to films where she was the flag that kept flying in hard times and the wise child who mended adult lives with magical assurance.
The studio worked her hard, but her mother took good care of her and had a special inside trick of saying “Sparkle now, Shirley!”
Of course, children loved the spectacle, but nothing really explains the Temple craze except the fact that adult audiences adored her, too. She had fun, and the fun was untinged by irony or cynicism.
Think of Tatum O’Neal in Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant “Paper Moon,” made in 1973. Her character, Addie Loggins, is as far from Shirley as could be. “Paper Moon” looks and feels like a 1930s picture, but by 1972 that cozy sentimentality could no longer be taken straight. So Addie is a cynic and a gangster.
In a way, that comparison tells you what happened. Shirley was a climatic condition in the late ’30s, and you can see her small, perfect world still in films like “The Little Colonel,” “Curly Top,” “Captain January,” “Wee Willie Winkie,” “Heidi” and “The Little Princess.” By 1940, she was 12 and the tot was on her way to becoming a buxom teenager — pretty, apple-cheeked, decent, obedient, full of team spirit — but suddenly ordinary and dull. The business persevered with her adolescence. David O. Selznick adored her as a daughter and he put her in films like “Since You Went Away” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Nothing worked any longer.
Her acting career went on until the late ’40s (she is in “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” and “Fort Apache”), but lightning had moved on. The mood of the ’40s was for its young female sensations to be as sultry as Lauren Bacall or Veronica Lake. Shirley couldn’t compete — and didn’t want to. There was a bad marriage to the actor John Agar and then at the age of 21 she retired.
She did a little TV, then remarried in 1950 to TV exec Charles Black. She became Shirley Temple Black and a very wealthy Republican. She ran for Congress in the ’60s without success, but Richard Nixon appointed her as U.S. representative at the United Nations. Then she served as ambassador in Ghana and Czechoslovakia.
She will be 78 this April, living down the peninsula from San Francisco in a mansion in Woodside.
As far as anyone can tell, she digested her astonishing fame and subsequent rejection with exactly the bounce that “Shirley” would have shown. She set the standards for child stars and was very fortunate in having benign, loving parents who never really exploited her.
It says something bizarre about world history and politics that she effectively guided the heart of the country into WWII with Adolf Hitler.
But if you want to understand the easygoing confidence and the shallow idealism of America before 1939, then you can do no better than marvel at the way Shirley does her imitation of the home of the brave and the land of the free (with just a hint of Mae West for flavor)!