Even a cursory glance at the numerous articles following the death, at age 85, of Shirley Temple Black reveals a fact we may not have known: America’s sweetheart was an actual sweetheart. Witness the following: despite her fame, which made it impossible for her to have a normal child’s life, she never felt entitled. Unlike today’s child stars or children of stars—the ones with the very memorable first names, the super-fly hairdoes and multiple wardrobe changes—the most beloved American actress of all times never acted the princess or thought she was unique but put her heart in doing her job well.
A true professional, from age four to twelve the adorable tike who made curls and dimples a standard requirement for child actors, danced and sang through forty-four movies and greatly contributed to lessening the Depression blues in the difficult thirties. (Her few forays into film as a teenager and young adult didn’t go anywhere).
In her heyday, at age ten, she was the seventh richest person in the country, the products she endorsed sold by the millions, her screen success kept 20th Century Fox from going under, and luminaries, from Einstein to Eleanor Roosevelt, beat a path to her door. Still, she never felt either arrogance at her celebrity or resentment at the demands placed on her. That her parents pocketed pretty much all she made didn’t bother her, not then and not in later years. “For reasons that some may find inexplicable, I felt neither disappointment nor anger,” she writes in her 1988 autobiography.
With early stardom behind her, she calmly closed that door, enjoyed her life as a wife and a mother, then entered the public realm at various charitable organizations, ran for office and finally served graciously as U.S. Ambassador. She herself saw her life as a triptych, with no part overshadowing the rest. Film lovers may be forgiven if Shirley Temple remains in our collective memory mainly as this radiant waif dancing her way through what may have been gentler times.
Saïdeh Pakravan is a senior contributor to Screen Comment and author of “100 Years of Must-See Movies“
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