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RIP, Shirley Temple Black

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 11, 2014

The actress, who rose to fame as a child star and found a second career in diplomacy, has died. She was 85. The Washington Post obituary is here. New York Times is here. Los Angeles Times is here.

I keep thinking of all the different points at which my viewing career intersected with Shirley Temple (as she was known in her acting days). There were the classic movies, of course. I put a clip from one above and here's a link to one of my favorites, "Captain January." The scene that has stayed with me for years is the one where Shirley's character takes a placement test for school. It's around 40:00.The scene shows her naturalness, her charm and a key part of her character -- that she was an accomplished contrast to the more privileged in her world. The movies also included her four collaborations with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, splendid demonstrationns of dancing, albeit ones in a racially complicated context. One of their most famous scenes was the staircase dance, which reminds us what an amazing dancer Robinson was, and how well he and Temple worked together. Donald Bogle, the film historian specializing in African-Americans in film, said this:

"Together they were a great team, communicating sheer joy in dancing -- and also joy in dancing together. In other respects, Robinson was also a perfect movie partner for Temple: he always proved himself trustworty, good-natured, kindly, just the right sort of asexual man to care for Shirley in the midst of her trials and tribulations."  Bogle notes that Robinson's characters "were blatant stereotypes," but he had "a fundamental enthusiasm and optimism that Depression audiences could connect to." Indeed,Temple's characters have that same kind of optimism, which may add to the sense that, per Bogle, that Depression moviegoers saw in Temple and Robinson "something of an ideal interracial couple."

All that being said, my years of seeing Temple onscreen included more than those old movies. There was also an anthology series of children's tales she hosted for NBC and ABC in the late '50s and early '60s.

I am not sure exactly where that series fit with my awareness of Temple's childhood movies, but I do remember the anthologies as indicatng something I had not thought about much: that the people, especially the children, in movies got older, even grew up. But Temple was still an admirable adult.

Then there are the movies of her adulthood. I single out "Fort Apache" (trailer below) because it's a great film, with John Wayne and Henry Fonda (not to mention Guy Kibbee, also of "Captain January," and John Agar, Temple's first husband.

But others may remember her mainly for "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer," with Cary Grant. Here's a scene -- more Grant than Temple, but still a fun bit:

And I haven't even gotten to her offscreen career, which was impressive on its own. Oh, there were detractors. And Graham Greene famously ran into legal trouble over his consideration of why some adults liked her. But all these video bits reminded me how often Temple entertained, and how well her screen skills hold up.

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