‘Child Star: An Autobiography’ by Shirley Temple Black

This review originially ran on November 13, 1988

CHILD STAR An Autobiography By Shirley Temple Black McGraw-Hill. 546 pp. $ 19.95

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EARLY IN her short but distinguished film career Shirley Temple decided that the best protective stance in the chaotic, greedy adult world of which she was the captive queen, was that of good sport. She worked hard at being one as she worked hard at her acting, and she is still doing it, which makes this book a cheerful, beguiling work, but not a very revealing one.

Certainly it is a relief to have a Hollywood memoir that is not awash with monsters, and there is much fascinating detail about the making of her string of block-buster hits, but we don’t see much behind the smiling, dimpled face and the 56 curls that bounced around it. There are no “as told to” credits in this book and no graceful tip of the hat to an editor “without whom,” so we must assume this to be first-person material.

As a writer Shirley Temple Black shows the same cheerful precision she did as a tap dancer, and if you like figures they are all here from the millions she made as performer and model for dolls and children’s clothes to the $ 41,000 that was announced as her assets when she reached her majority. Even at this point no bitterness spreads its darkness over her smiling style. She speculates briefly about the financial insufficiencies of her father and his business partner, but on the occasion of her discovery of those insufficiencies she decided a scandal would be unpleasant. Indeed, the only harsh words she seems to have about George Temple are strictures on his tendency to repeat tasteless jokes with unjustified and undiminished relish.

It is perhaps unfair to expect a performer to analyze the secret that created magic, but it is unsatisfactory to be told that the phenomenon that was Shirley Temple in full bloom was a product of simple assiduousness and going over the script with her mother in the evening.

While in the midst of Child Star I discovered one of her old movies in the television listings. It was one of her lesser efforts, The Little Princess, but I watched, enthralled at her technique. She marched through the mediocre material with an authority that would have done credit to Sarah Bernhardt. This was not just hard work -- if that alone would do it we would be up to our hips in parentally driven child stars. This was a presence and an assurance as remarkable as it is inexplicable. It was the quality we find in the early films of Jackie Coogan, a star whose after-life was less happy than hers. In her book Black confesses that she had some jealous and uncertain feelings about some of the other moppets in The Little Princess and in her straightforward way, she confesses that she did not behave well to them. She needn’t have worried. The quality, unspoiled by appearances in such early cutie kiddy epics as The Runt Page and Pollytix in Washington, remained constant through all the mechanical scripts and institutional tastelessness of major studio Hollywood.

She shows conventional respect for the famous with whom she worked, but her book is warmed with love when she talks about Bill Robinson, who swept away the tippy-tap routines of her early dance training and made her a performer worthy to be his partner. She and he rehearsed so long, so creatively, so thoroughly that when they came to perform before the cameras the joy of certainty carried them through the difficulties of the dance with exhilaration. A small milestone that she points out is that when she and Robinson held hands, it was the first time that a black male and a white female had ever achieved such intimacy on screen.

Many film biographies are filled with accounts of what we modestly, if insufficiently, call “kissing and telling.” This one is unique in recounting numerous tellings of non-kissings. It seems that a startling number of people wished, in Shirley Temple’s nymphet days, to seduce her, and her successful wrestlings and rejections and some distinguished names are recorded here.

The studios, anxious to earn big money with small waifs, regarded her approaching adolescence with deep regret and kept her in short skirts as long as possible. When she graduated, at her own request to an upswept hairdo, her employers regarded her prominent ears with horror and insisted on gluing them to her head. There was inevitably the moment whem, with cameras rolling, one broke loose.

It is perhaps unfair to ask more of Child Star than it offers, which is a straightforward account of a remarkable career, an account based on much research and what appears to be total recall, but one regrets what Black would call good taste and a hungry reader might call reticence. We don’t mind missing out on the details of her subsequent life as a diplomat, which will be chronicled in a future volume; we’re glad to hear that John Ehrlichmann was a disagreeable little boy, and we’re admiring of the fact that a well balanced and responsible person appears to have emerged from the cauldron of early fame, and our wish that that upswept hair be let down more often is probably unrealistic. Still, the memory of the deep sensual chuckle which used so startlingly to emerge from that round little face haunts us and makes us wish that it resounded more often in this good sport’s account of a remarkable life.?Heywood Hale Broun’s books include the memoir, “Whose Little Boy Are You?,” and the novel, “A Studied Madness.”

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