Mar 31, 2020
Pour One Out For Shirley Temple, Dead At 85
Shirley Temple, a child star so ubiquitous, so embedded in our collective consciousness that you will probably never find an adult who doesn’t know her name, died yesterday at 85. She was the kind of star we can’t even imagine now that we have a culture splintered and divided according to taste so that you need never run across something that’s not to your liking.
She was discovered at age 3, spurred on by a mother who made an explicit decision to turn her into a professional dancer. Temple went on to perform in 22 shorts and 23 full -length films from 1933 to 1939, a pace that is unimaginable today. The earliest of those shorts were much odder than you think, and came with punishments for the child actors that hopefully are unacceptable today.
In 1932, Shirley was spotted by an agent from Educational Pictures and chosen to appear in “Baby Burlesks,” a series of sexually suggestive one-reel shorts in which children played all the roles. The 4- and 5-year-old children wore fancy adult costumes that ended at the waist. Below the waist, they wore diapers with oversize safety pins. In these heavy-handed parodies of well-known films like “The Front Page” (“The Runt Page”) and “What Price Glory” (“War Babies”), Shirley imitated Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and — wearing an off-the-shoulder blouse and satin garter as a hard-boiled French bar girl in “War Babies” — Dolores Del Rio.
When any of the two dozen children in “Baby Burlesks” misbehaved, they were locked in a windowless sound box with only a block of ice on which to sit. “So far as I can tell, the black box did no lasting damage to my psyche,” Mrs. Black wrote in “Child Star.” “Its lesson of life, however, was profound and unforgettable. Time is money. Wasted time means wasted money means trouble.
That is much more pluck than we would ever display about being forced to spend parts of our tender years with our tender parts literally on ice, but Temple was the very definition of pluck, a sunny face during an era when America desperately needed such a thing. Look at songs like “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” a relentlessly sunny song about eating so much candy you feel sick.
(Sorry, we know it is criminal to go with the bastardized color versions of her films, but they’re restored versions and much less grainy than the black and white versions available on YouTube.)
“Lollipop” was a completely impossible thing for almost any child to experience in 1934, given the poverty gripping America. So, when Temple sang the song in Bright Eyes, it represented both an aspirational goal for children: what if you had so much food you could eat until you were sick? and a hit of nostalgia for adults: remember when there was enough food you could eat until you were sick?
The following year, Temple merrily danced her way upstairs with African-American tap legend Bill Bojangles in what is widely considered to be first time a white actress held hands with an African-American man onscreen.
America’s appetite for precocious faded as we crawled out of the Depression and began a war, and Temple inevitably grew into an adolescent, so her film pace slowed during the ’40s until she retired at 21. She came out of retirement only to perform in “Shirley Temple’s Storybook,” a television series of fairy tale adaptations that aired in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
When Shirley Temple (now Shirley Temple Black) began the second career of her life, she was only 39. She ran for Congress and lost, but two years later Nixon appointed her to be a representative to the UN. She later became Ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia, a fact you know if you ever played Trivial Pursuit. At the time, people often assumed her involvement in politics and civic life was a vanity project, but it really wasn’t. Her second career ran 20 years, which is far too long to do something just for attention.
UPDATE: Also, too, her kid, Lori Black aka Lorax, was at one time the bassist for sludge metal gods the Melvins, which is kind of awesome.
Make yourself a Shirley Temple (which is ginger ale or lemon-lime soda, grenadine, and a maraschino cherry, in case you were never a child) and pour one out for her too. Rest in peace.