It’s not that Shirley Temple was a brat or rude or disrespectful or flippant. She wasn’t. She was, well, let’s see…..confident. Self assured. Precocious? I’m having trouble describing Shirley. Here’s an example of what I mean. If you asked Shirley her name, she would reply, “My name is Shirley Jane Temple and this is my mommy. What’s your name?” Too much. Too manufactured. Too cute.
Shirley’s first taste of the world of entertainment was when her mother enrolled her in Mrs. Meglin’s Dance Studio at age 3 and she became a Famous Meglin Kiddie. If any of you were shocked and appalled when the photos of JonBenet Ramsay in her pageants were revealed, they were a walk in the park compared to what Shirley had to endure as a Famous Kiddie. Mrs. Meglin and a local bottom tier movie studio joined forces to produce Baby Burlesks, a series of shorts with children in sexual situations. ‘What Price Gloria’ starred Shirley as a prostitute as did ‘Entertaining Yanks’. ‘Polly Tix’ had Shirley seductively approach the little boy dressed in a suit and say, “You can be had, Senator.” Rather than offended by the content or angry with this exploitation, Shirley’s mother made the costumes. She could be seen at the studio sewing her black satin, ostrich plumes and sequins for Shirley’s next performance. She was, after all, an unfulfilled ballerina with an unquenchable thirst for show business. And little Shirley’s goal, starting at age 3, was to quench her thirst.
In typical Hollywood fashion, Shirley was ‘discovered’ at Meglin’s by a producer looking for a child to do a walk on in a forthcoming Janet Gaynor film. Filming was constantly interrupted the day of the walk on with myriad problems; everyone was amazed at how patient, un-complaining and cooperative Shirley was. She would perform each take exactly like the one before; she would incorporate changes flawlessly and without complaint. Amazing for a child so young; child performers were notoriously difficult and inconsistent due to their short attention spans. It’s interesting and telling to be reminded of what Shirley’s first words were; not ‘’Mommy’ or ‘Daddy’ ….they were “Don’t do dat!” The Gaynor walk on was the first of many; the studio was trying to recover after the depression and needed a way to encourage the public to return to the movies. What could be more appealing than a pretty, sweet little girl?
Shirley and movie making were made for each other. Initial public reaction was positive and the new little star was eager to please and a joy to work with. Shirley was too young to read, so her scripts were handled like bedtime stories. She and her mother would go over the emotions needed for the next day. It got to the point where Shirley not only knew her lines, but also everyone else’s. Red flags began to appear to some of those with whom she worked. W. C. Fields’ famous quip, ‘never share the stage with a kid or a dog’ was recalled with terror among the B list players. The commissary was a particularly unpleasant place for Shirley; she was ignored by the adults, subjected to off-color ‘whispered’ remarks and at times roughly pushed out of the way if she happened to be standing too close to an adult. Eventually the studio built Shirley a life sized playhouse in which she ate her meals and worked with her teacher. The studio’s stated goal in segregating the child was to maintain Shirley’s ‘uniqueness’; the unwritten goal was to protect and further isolate their newest star.
Temple’s remembrances of her co-workers and co-stars are very un-childlike. Instead of, “Uncle Jimmy,” Shirley states that James Dunn, who starred with Shirley several times and in her debut in “Baby Take A Bow”, was a guy with a thin, annoying tenor voice who sweated profusely and repeated told her to stop scene stealing. Alice Faye is remembered as the blond actress who always pushed her out of the way and would not speak to her. The great Lionel Barrymore would not work with Shirley. “She stares at me and gives me the creeps” he would scream and stomp off to his dressing room. What Shirley would stare at was the blackboard with Barrymore’s lines on it that was just out of camera range; line memorization interfered with his drinking and he had his priorities. Shirley, as little as she was, could not understand why anybody would not be ready to play her favorite game…. acting. She amazed the crew one day after a bad scene with Barrymore and he refused to leave his dressing room to be with that “monster” (Shirley). She knocked on his dressing room door, lower lip extended to a perfect pout, and stated, “I’m sorry, Uncle Lionel. You’re the greatest actor in the world. Can I have your autograph please?” She then climbed on his lap and gave him a kiss. From then on, Barrymore always asked if the “dear child” was ready before a scene was shot.
In addition to scene stealing, Shirley became an expert in lighting again to the consternation of adult actors and actresses. Scene stealing (creating a diversion during a scene that draws the audience attention to you and away from the main actor/actress speaking) was no problem for Shirley. A slight movement of her head would get those blond ringlets bouncing; a pouting bottom lip drew an audible, “Awwww’ from the audience. Years of being photographed made Shirley very sensitive to lighting. She could pick up a 5 degree difference in one of the most obscure lights and was able to pick up a temperature difference between her chin and cheek. Mrs. Temple would insist on the changes because everything had to be perfect for the next scene or she would not call out, “Shirley….Sparkle!!!” Nothing happened until Shirley was told to “sparkle”.And Shirley never failed to sparkle.
The years were kind to Shirley but she couldn’t remain a child forever. Nor could the public have a child as the number 1 box office draw; people were getting tired of Shirley. Her movies after all revolved around the same plot. The studio hired a team of writers to work on projects for Shirley. Even they could not create believable stories to star a pre-pubescent child/girl with developing breasts and golden ringlets. They decided to explore (and re-write if necessary) the classics. First came “Wee Willie Winkee” (after changing the lead character’s sex to female) and Heidi. These involved major changes to Shirley and her audience. Gone were the starched ruffles and the bouncing curls, the pouting lower lip and the sweet songs. Shirley found herself the equivalent of a Famous Meglin Kiddie again; this time without really trying and with a heavy dose of drama thrown in and the Catholic Church peering in from the sidelines, ready to pounce. Her later pictures such s ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ and ‘Heidi’ relied on Shirley’s acting ability. Shirley made the transition everywhere but in the public’s mind. The Catholic Church sent a bishop to interview Shirley. Mrs. Temple thought the questions odd. It seems that the Catholic Legion of Decency thought that there was a good chance that Shirley was “a 30 year old midget.” Shirley’s answers to the bishop were sufficient to convince the church that Shirley was in fact a child. She went from number 1 as the most popular celebrity to number 5, following Mickey Rooney, Tyrone Power, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable. It wasn’t a little girl’s world any more. Mrs. Temple saw the handwriting on the wall that spelled Shirley’s demise and began using the press to complain that MGM did not have Shirley’s best interest at heart by planning for the future. Why wasn’t Louis B. Mayer casting Shirley with Tracy or Gable in films? Other stars like Gloria Jean were on loan to other studios for features, why not Shirley? Mrs. Temple would not accept the public’s changing taste as the reason for Shirley’s career slump; she blamed everything on Mayer. And there was a heavy price to pay if you crossed Louis B. Mayer. Shirley’s contract option was not picked up. Washed up at age 11.
A few movie roles came her way and she was quite good; equally good was her ability to costar with A list talent like Cary Grant with professionalism and ease. For the first time in her life, Shirley had what came close to a normal life. She enrolled in the Westlake School For Girls and, in time, was accepted just like any girl; the ‘movie star’ became just ‘Shirley’. Suddenly Shirley was not so interested Barrymore’s tantrums, lighting, re-takes and costumes. With the normalization of her personal life came the next logical step – romance. Shirley’s preference was someone totally removed from the entertainment industry. Mrs. Temple had seen to it that Shirley’s non-professional exposure to the opposite sex was non-existant. She was incredibly naïve – even during puberty she described men and women having ‘lumps’ in different places on their body. She was sure that babies were born through the mother’s navel.
Into Shirley’s life came John Agar, a handsome career military officer. This was Shirley’s first exposure to romance and she fell hard. Plus, Agar had no show business in his past and insisted he wanted nothing to do with it. Things went along smoothly for a while. Then one day Shirley came home from the studio and was greeted by a broadly smiling Agar who announced that he had a screen test scheduled for the next day. As time went by, and as a result of Shirley’s intervention, Agar was given increasingly important parts in mostly westerns. Then came the complaints that he was referred to as ‘Mr. Temple’. Shirley was hurt and angry. Agar had lied to her about his movie making desire and married her not for love, but for her Hollywood connections. They were divorced shortly thereafter.
Enter Charles Black, a well-to-do handsome business man who spent his youth in military boarding schools and, although he admitted to hearing the name Shirley Temple, he couldn’t remember where he heard it or who she was. When he discovered he was talking to Ms. Temple (a mutual acquaintance had arranged a blind date), his mouth said the acceptable niceties and apologies; his face said, “Who cares?” It was love at first conversation. Black wasn’t then, and isn’t now, the least bit interested in a show business career. In fact, Shirley’s career, though she is still offered the occasional TV or movie project, has no room for entertaining since she has entered government service. A long time friend of Gerald and Betty Ford, Shirley was proud and pleased when President Ford appointed her delegate to the United Nations and later Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia and, lastly, Chief of Protocol in the White House.
Today, Shirley is 77 years old and a grandmother. She refuses to discuss her movies, advising to “…read the books. They’re all in there.” In 2006, she was honored by the Screen Actor’s Guild with a Lifetime Achievement Award, recognition long overdue for this true Hollywood icon and entertainment pioneer.
I'm not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.