From the Good Ship Lollipop to UN, little star conquered world
Published 12/02/2014 | 02:30
SHIRLEY Temple, the former child star who made the unlikely journey from 'The Good Ship Lollipop' to the United Nations, died yesterday at the age of 85.
She died peacefully at her home in California.
She was the screen's most popular child star of the 1930s, receiving at the age of eight 135,000 birthday gifts from fans the world over.
Throughout the Depression years, her sunny disposition helped audiences forget their woes and a special Oscar was presented to her for "bringing more happiness to millions of children and millions of grown-ups than any other child of her years in the history of the world".
It might have turned many a tiny tot's head, but Shirley had her mother constantly at her side to ensure she was kept on an even keel. Gertrude Temple was a shrewd businesswoman, who knew instinctively how to manipulate the studios and their publicity machines to her daughter's advantage.
Shirley was acting in pictures from the age of four and rapidly captivated filmgoers with her blonde ringlets and dimpled charm.
Dolls, books and games were named after her in a merchandising campaign matched only by Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. Yet her talent was modest. She sang off-key and cynics dismissed her dancing as "mere jigging up and down". She liked to do impersonations but her acting was generally regarded as cute rather than compelling.
Attempts to extend her career into young womanhood were unsuccessful and she made her last film in 1949 – washed up in Hollywood at 21. Yet that was not the end of the Shirley Temple story. Against all expectations, the little girl who had never had a normal childhood matured into a distinguished politician and diplomat. She stood (unsuccessfully) for Congress before representing America at the UN and serving as US ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia under her married name of Shirley Temple Black.
She was born on April 23 1928 in Santa Monica, California, the daughter of a bank teller. Like many a proud mother, Gertrude Temple enrolled her child in dancing classes at the age of three and promoted her vigorously. A talent scout from Educational Pictures, a small company specialising in shorts, spotted Shirley and invited her for a screen test, which led to her appearance in 1932-33 in a string of film spoofs, known as Baby Burlesks, and small parts in now forgotten feature movies such as 'The Red-Haired Alibi' (1932) and 'To the Last Man' (1933), opposite Randolph Scott. While filming a second series of shorts under the title 'Frolics of Youth', she and her mother were approached by the much bigger Fox Film Corporation (later Twentieth Century-Fox) with a view to Shirley featuring in the film 'Stand Up and Cheer' (1934). She passed the audition and was signed up for $150 a week.
When the film opened, she stole the show with the song and dance routine 'Baby Take a Bow'.
Recognising her star potential, Fox swung its publicity department into action. But it did not have her under exclusive contract. Earlier in the year, the astute Mrs Temple had forged a two-picture deal with Paramount and it was that studio that initially reaped the benefit of her sudden fame. It rushed her into two pictures in 1934 to fulfil the contract – 'Little Miss Marker', based on a Damon Runyan story, and 'Now and Forever', in which she was the go-between who re-unites an estranged couple played by Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard.
On the strength of these pictures, Shirley's Fox contract was renegotiated to $1,250 a week. She was cast in 'Bright Eyes', where she sang one of the songs indelibly associated with her, 'On the Good Ship Lollipop', and from then on vehicles were written especially for her. By the end of 1934, aged six, she was the eighth biggest draw in America.
A year later, she was number one and held that position four years in a row.
She churned out pictures – sometimes five a year through the late-1930s – and the public clamoured for more. The year 1938 marked the high-water mark of her popularity. She appeared in 'Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm' (without ringlets for the first time), in 'Little Miss Broadway' and 'Just around the Corner' at a fee of $100,000 a picture, which made her Hollywood's highest-paid earner after Louis B Mayer.
By 1939 her fee had jumped to $300,000, but public taste was changing. 'Susannah and the Mounties' was disappointing and 'The Blue Bird' was, by common consent, a "turkey".
As a teenager she could no longer command lead roles. She was cast only in supporting parts in 'Since You Went Away' (1944) and 'I'll Be Seeing You' (1945). In that year, aged 17, she also completed her interrupted education by graduating from Westlake High School for Girls in Los Angeles. She then published her first autobiography, 'My Young Life', and was married to army sergeant-turned actor John Agar.
When the marriage failed, she married again (in 1950) to a wealthy San Francisco businessman, Charles Black. She largely retired from acting to concentrate on social work, though from 1957 to 1959 she narrated and appeared in a television series entitled 'Shirley Temple's Storybook'.
This was followed in 1960 by 'Shirley Temple Presents Young America', a programme about the problems of high-school dropouts.
In 1967 she ran for Congress to fill a dead man's shoes (Republican J Arthur Younger). Though her recording of 'On the Good Ship Lollipop' was used as a theme song at rallies, she insisted that "Little Shirley Temple is not running.
'IF someone insists on pinning me with a label, let it read Shirley Temple Black, Republican independent." But in the era of Lyndon Johnson, her conservative stance on taxes, law and drug addiction lost her the seat.
After her election defeat, she continued to work for the Republican party, raising funds and urging Americans overseas to back Richard Nixon. When elected, Nixon named her one of the five-member American delegation to the 24th session of the United Nations General Assembly. In this capacity she served in 1969 on the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee.
Her subsequent diplomatic career included US ambassador to Ghana (1974-76), sparking a trend for Ghanaian children to be named Shirley (including boys), and to the former Czechoslovakia in 1989.
Shirley Temple married first, John Agar, with whom she had a daughter. She married second, Charles Black (who predeceased her in 2005), with whom she had two more children. (©Daily Telegraph, London)