Shirley Temple, an optimistic icon who knew it was an illusion


This undated photo shows film star Shirley Temple as a child. Shirley Temple Black, the former child star and diplomat, died Feb. 10 in California at age 85. (AFP/Getty Images)

Some things are best left to memory.

When I think of Shirley Temple – the child star, not the adolescent actress or grown-up American diplomat – she is always petite, dimpled and smiling. Hearing of her death Monday night at the age of 85, it was hard to imagine her as anything else.

Buried in my subconscious are the words to the songs in the Temple repertoire, deep into each verse of “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” not merely their well-known opening phrases. I can replicate the moves mimicking partner Buddy Ebsen – long before “Beverly Hillbillies” — in “At the Codfish Ball” from “Captain January,” her 1936 hit. Her movies come with happy memories, when my four older brothers and sisters were healthy and young, and we amused ourselves by re-creating the musical numbers from Temple film reruns that crowded the TV on late afternoons and weekends in the 1960s.

Our house was filled with music, all genres from the Ray Charles ballads my father favored to soundtracks from “Camelot” and other popular Broadway musicals of the day bought by my brother through the Columbia House record club. So doling out parts from “Curly Top” and “Stowaway” was not that much of a stretch.

Whichever brother or sister I could corral to play with me would be Jack Haley, George Murphy or, of course, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – gender was not a consideration. Being the youngest meant I would always be Shirley. My mother never did figure out the origin of a yard-long crack on the underside of the chest freezer in the kitchen. Despite a few lessons, it was my not so light-footed tap efforts that caused the damage to what we improvised as the perfect stage.

In later years, I packed those memories away. An occasional glimpse at one of those relics from the 1930s made me cringe. What cheered audiences during the Depression and made Shirley Temple a hero to President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not hold up. Her staged, “real-life” experiences at the time – illustrated by a photo of the child star getting an autograph from F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, on whose lap she once sat — could be as creepy as the screen versions, knowing what we know now.

In order to double down on her indomitable spirit, Temple’s characters were always suffering loss, of fortunes and parents. Any actor being cast as her mom or dad would seldom last past the first reel. Through adult eyes, the retrograde politics are hard to absorb, from the much too kindly British colonials ruling over India in “Wee Willie Winkie” to her Civil War epics, “The Little Colonel” and “The Littlest Rebel.” Even at the time, critics took note of the racist and offensive depictions of contented slaves, loyal to their “owners,” dreading freedom and a Yankee victory.

You can appreciate the exposure her films provided for the artistry of virtuoso tap dancer Robinson while noticing he usually played the servant or slave and the little one was always in charge. If Temple were a few years older — in real life or the movies — their hand-holding partnership would have triggered rage rather than fond affection.

Temple herself knew the difference between reality and illusion. It was show business, she learned early, when child stars who misbehaved were locked in a windowless sound box with a block of ice as a chair, according to a story retold in The New York Times. Many would call that child abuse. “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.”

Though her movies saved a studio, 20th-Century Fox didn’t help save her acting career once she outgrew her cuteness. But after a failed first marriage and an America that didn’t want its darling to change, she was happy to move on in every way. Her second marriage to Charles Alden Black lasted nearly 55 years, until his death in 2005.

She carved out a career as a diplomat, and used the instant recognition of her famous name and face to get things done long after the hair turned from gold to brown and lost its curl. She later learned that caregivers had broken their promise and legal obligation to protect her millions, and she kept going. It was a clear-eyed Temple who publicized her breast cancer treatment in 1972 to help remove the stigma of a disease most people feared and hid.

In remembering Temple’s legacy, it would be tempting to see it through rose-colored nostalgia for a simpler time. But neither the woman nor the conflicts of her time were that simple.

Like Temple, it’s best to take away what makes you happy – those afternoons dancing away troubles with brothers and sisters – embrace the detours and the darkness that are a part of any life, and move on.

Darn it if that doesn’t sound like the plot of a Shirley Temple movie.

 

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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