Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored," where we are literally shedding tears over the death of Shirley Temple! Shirley Temple was my mother's favorite movie star. Mom was not alone in that. During the depths of the Great Depression, Shirley was the number one box office draw. Number one.
I have seen every one of Shirley Temple's child star movies at least six times. Whenever they were on our old black-and-white t.v. growing up, all movement ceased in my household and we were allowed to watch Shirley Temple. Over and over again. Reader, you'll have to trust me on this ... I can sing her songs, to whit: Codfish Ball, Baby Take a Bow, Good Ship Lollipop, Animal Crackers in My Soup, The Simple Things in Life, and The Right Somebody To Love. I may be missing a few that I could sing if you hummed a few bars.
Shirley Temple was a good role model. She was cheerful and plucky, she was guided by her heart and her wits, she often fixed things for fucked-up grownups, and boy oh boy, she could dance.
Anyone can pick up a few tap-dancing steps. But it's very difficult to tap dance with authority. Granted, tap dancing was more popular in the 1930s than it is today. Nevertheless, Shirley Temple was extraordinary in her abilities.
It's very hard to find uncut versions of Shirley Temple's movies, because several of them featured Step 'N Fetchit, and the ones that starred Bill "Bojangles" Robinson always portrayed him as an affable Uncle Tom. During my rebellious "Rebel without a Cause" years I castigated Shirley for the racism in her films and refused to watch them. Then something happened. I read Bill Robinson's autobiography. I was expecting him to wax virulent about his co-starring roles with Shirley. Instead, this man, who by his own measure was an impossible taskmaster, gave the mop-headed youngster props for her dancing. He said he never worked with an adult who could pick things up as quickly as Shirley Temple.
Call me racist if you will, but the scene loaded below from "The Littlest Rebel" is one of my favorite clips of all time. There's no phoniness in the chemistry. Shirley Temple loved Bojangles, and he -- who loved few and hated many -- doted on her.
Shirley Temple made millions of dollars in the 1930s with her films, records, product tie-ins, magazines, dolls, and clothing. Her parents spent it all, living large. This led to laws that protect child stars from exploitation by the people closest to them.
When Shirley hit puberty, her appeal at the box office plummeted. But this was no vapid kid star. She was one of the smartest women of her generation. She entered politics and eventually became ambassador to Belgium and Ghana. In both cases she became fluent in the languages.
My mother once had front row seats at an Elvis Presley concert. My mother also shook hands with Shirley Temple. No contest. Meeting Shirley (my aunt was politically connected) was the high point of Mom's life.
Child stars didn't have their heads together any more in the 1930s than they do now. But Shirley Temple did. She worked her whole childhood through and emerged unscathed emotionally because she was so smart that the work was not onerous. She was a quick study with a steady personality. And she is cute in those films. She really is.
Shirley Temple. May she have found the Summerlands.