Shirley Temple Black — who died Monday at age 85, wasn’t just a child star. She was the child star — the sweet little girl whose movies helped brighten some of the darkest days this nation has known during the Great Depression.
It’s hard today to imagine the sensation that was Shirley — “America’s Little Darling.” She sang and danced her way to the top of the box office in such films as “Curly Top,” “Bright Eyes,” “Captain January,” “Heidi,” “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and “Little Miss Marker.” She teamed with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in four movies, and their tap dance on a staircase in “The Little Colonel” is still a legendary film moment.
For a few years in the 1930s she was more popular than Clark Gable, Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper. Her name on a movie marquee virtually assured a packed house of adoring fans. She inspired dolls, dresses, dishes — even a drink (alcohol-free, of course).
President Franklin D. Roosevelt once famously remarked that “as long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.” That has us a little worried.
Unlike so many of today’s child stars — or what passes for stars — she didn’t end up a sad caricature when her best days in Hollywood ended. Instead of getting her mug shot on front pages or struggling with drugs and alcohol, Black went on to a second career in diplomacy, including appointments by presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, respectively. By most accounts, she surprised a lot of skeptics with her grace, knowledge and eagerness to serve. In fact, her career in public service (20 years) was longer than her one in movies (19).
Black stood out in another way: as a breast cancer survivor. She had a mastectomy in 1972 and went public with her condition in hopes of educating women about the disease — long before there was a Race for the Cure or other breast cancer advocacy.
The role she cherished most, however, was as wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. (How surreal would it be to sit down with your elderly granny and watch her in a movie performing “On the Good Ship Lollipop”?)
The world has lost a treasured Hollywood legend. But her movies will allow that ringleted little dimpled dynamo to continue charming audiences for a very long time.