By Hillel Italie
Any kid who ever tap-danced at a talent show or put on a curly wig and auditioned for Annie can only dream of being as beloved — or as important — as Shirley Temple.
Temple, who died Monday night at 85, sang, danced, sobbed and grinned her way into the hearts of downcast Depression-era moviegoers and remains the ultimate child star decades later. Other pre-teens, from Macaulay Culkin to Miley Cyrus, have been as famous in their time. But none of them helped shape their time the way she did.
Dimpled, precocious and oh-so-adorable, she was America’s top box office draw during Hollywood’s golden age, and her image was free of the scandals that have plagued Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan and so many other child stars — parental feuds, drugs, alcohol.
Temple remains such a symbol of innocence that kids still know the drink named for her: a sweet, nonalcoholic cocktail of ginger ale and grenadine, topped with a maraschino cherry.
Her hit movies — which included Bright Eyes (1934), Curly Top (1935), Dimples (1936), Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) and Heidi (1937) — featured sentimental themes and musical subplots, with stories of resilience and optimism that a struggling American public found appealing. She kept children singing On the Good Ship Lollipop for generations.
She was also a tribute to the economic and inspirational power of movies, credited with helping to save 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy and praised by President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself for lifting America’s spirits during a gloomy time.
She was “just absolutely marvelous, greatest in the world,” director Allan Dwan said in the book Who the Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Film Directors.
“With Shirley, you’d just tell her once and she’d remember the rest of her life,” said Dwan, who directed her in Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. “Whatever it was she was supposed to do — she’d do it. … And if one of the actors got stuck, she’d tell him what his line was — she knew it better than he did.”
Her achievements did not end with movies. Retired from acting at 21, she went on to hold several diplomatic posts in Republican administrations, including ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the sudden collapse of communism in 1989.
Former President George H.W. Bush, who appointed Black to the post in Prague, saluted her Tuesday for “her selfless service to our country” and her film career.
“In both roles, she truly lifted people up and earned not only a place in our hearts, but also our enduring respect,” Bush said in a statement.
Temple, known in private life as Shirley Temple Black, died at her home near San Francisco. The cause of death was not disclosed.
From 1935 to 1938, she was the most popular screen actress in the country and a bigger draw than Clark Gable, Joan Crawford or Gary Cooper. In 1999, the American Film Institute’s ranking of the greatest screen legends put Temple at No. 18 among the 25 actresses.
“I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the lifetime achievement award: Start early,” she quipped in 2006 as she was honored by the Screen Actors Guild.
But she also said that evening that her greatest roles were as wife, mother and grandmother: “There’s nothing like real love. Nothing.” Her husband of more than 50 years, Charles Black, had died a few months earlier.
Known for a remarkable ability to cry on cue, she won a special Academy Award at age 6 — and was presented with a miniature Oscar statuette — for her “outstanding contribution to screen entertainment.”
Temple and her movies were a popular sensation. Mothers dressed their little girls like her, and a line of dolls that are now highly collectible was launched.
In her 1988 autobiography, Child Star, she revealed some dark moments during an otherwise happy life and career: An MGM producer exposed himself to her when she was 12, and her first marriage, to actor John Agar, was ruined by his drinking and verbal abuse and ended in divorce in 1949. Meanwhile, her father squandered millions of dollars she earned from the movies.
She turned to politics in 1967, when she made an unsuccessful bid for Congress as a Republican. After Richard Nixon became president, he appointed her a member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. General Assembly. In the 1970s, she was U.S. ambassador to Ghana and later U.S. chief of protocol.
A few months after she arrived in Prague in 1989, communist rule was overthrown in Czechoslovakia as the Iron Curtain collapsed.
Born in Santa Monica, Calif., Temple had just turned 3 when she made her film debut in 1932 in the Baby Burlesks, a series of short films in which tiny performers parodied grown-up movies, sometimes with risque results.
Temple’s expert singing and tap-dancing in the 1934 movie Stand Up and Cheer! first gained her wide notice.
Her appeal faded as quickly as it had emerged. She missed a shot at playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck refused to lend out his greatest asset; the part went to Judy Garland. And The Little Princess in 1939 and The Blue Bird in 1940 didn’t draw big crowds, prompting Fox to let Temple go.