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Updated: February 13, 2014 18:32 IST

Baby takes a bow

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Shirley Temple in Little Miss Marker
Shirley Temple in Little Miss Marker

A tribute to Shirley Temple, the child star of the 1930s who took Hollywood by storm

The little American girl, with a cherubic face, blonde curls, mesmerising eyes and charismatic smile was taken by her mother during Christmas time to the neighbourhood shopping mall. While other children and their mothers surrounded Santa Claus, clamouring for gifts, Santa Claus sought her autograph! That moment, the surprised little girl lost her faith in Santa Claus — she was the greatest child star of movies, Shirley Temple! She passed away on February 10 at the age of 85 in her Spanish-style villa in Woodside, California.

(This writer had the pleasure of watching more than once a captivating documentary on Shirley Temple from the archives of Twentieth Century Fox in Hollywood during his one-year stay in 1996-1997. She does not appear in this documentary and the voice-over is by her neighbour and good friend. In the documentary, a fan asks if the actor will appear at least once in the documentary for the benefit of millions of fans, and the reply, in the actor’s voice, is, “I want my fans and admirers to remember me as a little girl of the 1930s... now I am old and wrinkled, and I do not want that girl’s image spoiled”!)

During the 1930s, not just America but the entire world doted on her and watched every movie of hers. At the age of six, this little girl was earning more than the President of the U.S., a record not equalled, much less beaten, for nearly 80 years now.

She brought cheer and smiles to millions during the Great Depression taking their mind off worries about day-to-day existence. That was not all. The most respected President of the U.S. after Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of her ardent fans. President Roosevelt called her ‘Little Miss Miracle’ (after her hit movie Little Miss Marker, 1934) for raising the public spirits during the Great Depression following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which plunged the country into gloom and economic hardship. The President remarked, “As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.” High praise, indeed! He invited her to the White House as a guest, the first movie star to be given that special privilege. The entire family surrounded her taking pictures, and when she was leaving, Eleanor Roosevelt walked with her to her car and saw her off with a wave. This picture of the send-off was flashed all over America in newspapers and enhanced the girl’s reputation.

Her song-and-dance routine to ‘On The Good Ship Lollipop’ in the 1934 hit Bright Eyes earned her a Special Academy Award, for ‘Outstanding Personality of 1934’. She was the first child artiste to win an Oscar. The song was shot in a taxiing plane (a set), and seen today even after 80 years, this sequence is stunning.

Magical story

A few years ago, a critic wrote about her, ‘…The story of how a curly-headed six-year-old tot saved a major Hollywood studio from financial ruin is like something out of a Harry Potter book…’ It all began in the ocean-side suburb of Los Angeles, Santa Monica (famous for its pier) on April 23, 1928, when Shirley Jane Temple was born, the third child of George Temple, a branch bank manager, and his wife Gertrude. Her fond mother was a failed dancer, and she resolved to realise her artistic dreams through her little girl.

At the age of three, Shirley was enrolled at a dance studio in Hollywood, where she was soon spotted by two talent scouts from a minor studio Educational Films, which churned out one-reel Poverty Row shorts. At the age of five, Shirley’s big break arrived when songwriter Jay Gorney, composer of the famous iconic song of the Depression Era, ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’, invited her to audition at Fox Film Corporation on December 7, 1933, for a new film, Stand Up And Cheer. Temple made eight films in 1934, including Bright Eyes, which marked her passage from stardom to superstardom. By 1935, she had risen to the top of the list, and for four consecutive years, she stayed at the top of the Hollywood heap and the world’s number one box-office star, pushing the legendary Clark Gable into second place. Fox Pictures, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, sailed out of the red, thanks to a six-year-old curly-haired child.

Many are the movies in which she acted, and in a single article, it is difficult to take an in-depth look at all, but mention must be made of the following film that were major hits. The list includes, Stand Up And Cheer (1934, her first major hit), Little Miss Marker (1934), Curly Top (1935), Heidi (1937), Since You Went Away (1944), I’ll Be Seeing You (1945), and Wee Willie Winkie, among many others. Wee Willie…, the 1937-film based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling was all about the problems of the British against the tribals of North Western Frontier Province of India. One of the wanted tribals kidnaps the little child, but she wins over the tribal leader and brings about harmony and peace. The Indian locations were built at a great expense in Arizona. The film was directed by the great filmmaker John Ford. It is the most expensive movie of Shirley Temple’s career and was a box-office bonanza. As it often happens in the career of child stars, Shirley Temple’s career too began to wane when she reached 16, and her later films did not make money. She tried her hand in television, but even that was not the success she had expected. She decided to call it a day, and sailed into the high seas of politics.

The U.S. government appointed her as its representative to the United Nations. Later, she served as her country’s ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. Noted writer Graham Greene wrote a scathing review in a British magazine about her role in Wee Willie Winkie, and 20th Century Fox took him and the publisher to court for defamation, and won a handsome amount as damages. Green called her ‘a 50-year-old dwarf!’

Shirley Temple married twice, and her first husband was John Agar whom she married in 1945 and it ended in 1947. Her second husband was a California businessman Charles Black, and she became Shirley Temple Black. This marriage was happy and ended only with her husband’s death a few years ago.

After the death of her husband, she withdrew from the public eye. Expectedly, she was the recipient of many awards, and besides Oscars (including Life Achievement), she got the ‘Life Achievement Award’ from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

Shirley Temple will forever be remembered around the world as a child star.

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