There are so few left from cinema's golden age of the 1930s and 1940s. Mickey Rooney is living. So is Olivia de Havilland. Not many more.
Shirley Temple was more than a star of her own era, she was a true icon of cinema, and one of the most important and recognizable figures in pop culture. She is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, Charlie Chaplin, or Elvis Presley, and her work has delighted generations.
Putting things into context, the Shirley Temple features made for Fox studios in the 1930s are especially significant. Films like Curly Top, Captain January, Heidi, The Little Colonel, and Wee Willie Winkie were not only entertaining, her precocious presence help lift the spirits of American moviegoers during one of the harshest times in 20th century history.
The Great Depression affected every American worker. One of the very few things most could afford was a night out at the movies. It was the pure escapism of the comedies, the musicals, and the westerns that were most popular; taking the viewer away from his or her humdrum life and allowing them happy melodies, hearty laughs, and heroic fantasies.
Shirley Temple's movies seem to have all of those ingredients. They were funny, song-filled, and Shirley's childlike optimism allowed her to overcome whatever obstacle the narrative presented. Her innocence embodied the American spirit so completely, even moviegoers most heavily affected by economic woes felt that much better upon leaving the theater featuring one of her films. As a result, Shirley Temple was the number one box office draw from 1935-1938, when the competition included some of the greatest stars in the history of movies. Her dance up the stairs with the great Bill "Bojangles" Robinson remains one of cinema's finest moments.
Many forget that Shirley Temple continued to work through the 1940s as a teenager, working in such films as The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer with Cary Grant, Fort Apache with John Wayne, and Since You Went Away with Claudette Colbert. By the age of 21, her movie career was over, but in the 1950s and early 1960s she supervised Shirley Temple Storybook and Shirley Temple Show on television, where she hosted, narrated, and sometimes performed in the stories. Leaving showbiz completely, Shirley Temple (now married to Charles Black and known as Shirley Temple Black) became an American Diplomat. She said as recently as 1999, "Politicians are actors too, don't you think? Usually if you like people and you're outgoing, not a shy little thing, you can do pretty well in politics."
Not all of her life was as happy as her screen persona. Her father squandered a lot of the millions she made, her marriage to actor John Agar was difficult, and an MGM executive once exposed himself to her. She recounted these things in her 1988 autobiography "Child Star," a book that retains her spirit and optimism, despite the occasional drawback.
Shirley Temple's 85 years were a life well lived. When receiving the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement award in 2006, she said, "I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the lifetime achievement award: Start early."