Dimply the best: Shirley Temple charmed a depressed nation, and it wasn’t just another song and dance

July 16, 1995

She escapes from orphanages, sliding down ropes made of bedsheets. She dances with bachelor millionaires and street bums. She’s a rebel, a stowaway, a poor little rich girl. She wears pants and sailor suits, and the shortest coat-dresses imaginable. She holds her own against the meanest battle-axes, and climbs into the laps of the grouchiest of old men, wrapping her dimpled arms around their necks and petting their thin hair.

It was something on the order of a miracle, the way she came into being, this innocent, this tonic, this creamy fatcheeks dumpling named Shirley Temple. She appeared like a vision in the movie houses of the Depression and altered the national atmosphere like the opening of a window on a sickroom. The breeze was exhilarating. Those tiny tap-dancing feet! Those bouncing curls! Those chubby thighs! And say what you want about the idiocy of Hollywood, the studio heads knew what they had: an enormous talent who made everything look easy, and a girl with charm, footwork and a spooky memory.

When Lionel Barrymore forgot his lines, she remembered them for him.

When Bill “Bojangles” Robinson taught her five complicated dance numbers in one morning, and she mastered them all, he dropped to the ground and kissed her toes.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to sound upbeat soon after taking office in 1933, the worst of times -- bread lines, hobos -- he said: “It is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”

And now, suddenly, you might find yourself coming face to face with that baby’s face again and its all-weather emotional capability -- smiling or scowling or getting all blubbery and sad. Fox Video has colorized her pictures, and has been re-releasing them, about one a month for more than a year. Now flooding the shelves at Wal-Marts and Blockbusters, the videos have attracted a growing group of collectors, according to retailers, people who show up the first Wednesday of every month for a new Shirley fix.

It seems, hard as this may be to fathom, that six decades after Shirley Temple became the No. 1 Hollywood box office attraction in 1935, and remained in that position for four straight years -- a feat matched by only one other actress in history, Doris Day -- her magic endures. And her moneymaking abilities. Nearly 6 million videos have been sold, with only 19 of her 43 feature films released so far.

“Heidi” was the first offering last April. It was Shirley’s most famous movie, made in 1937, and includes that unforgettable scene where she teaches the rich crippled girl to walk. Then Heidi’s blind grandfather comes after her during a blizzard.

“Heidi!” he yells out.

“Grandfather!” she screams, voice breaking.

“Heidi!”

“Grandfather!”

Nowadays, of course, the rich girl wouldn’t be a “cripple” -- she’d be disabled or challenged -- and Heidi’s grandfather would be called something less permanent and more upbeat than “blind.” But the innocence of these pictures is clearly part of their appeal. Everybody seems dumber and happier. And along with innocence, you get other things, like predictable story lines, oddly suggestive dialogue. There are racial slurs, too, and profoundly offensive stereotyping -- the sort of thing that makes the portrayal of Arabs in “Aladdin” look like a very small matter.

“There is some ethnic language and references

that made us nervous,” says Bruce Pfander at Fox Video, but a decision was made not to remove scenes or dub offensive words. “We’ve been keeping an eye on that, and holding our breath. If we hit a wrong note, we will get letters. So far there haven’t been problems.”

No problems? This seems miraculous, at a time when Disney’s “Pocahontas” is being criticized from every quarter for being too correct or historically inaccurate or just hopelessly dull.

If nobody’s complaining, it’s probably due to Shirley -- more engaging and compassionate than any child in movies, ever. Cartoon or human.

She is arrestingly darling. She is touchingly, irresistibly darling. She is so darling at times you find yourself aching, and at a loss for words to properly describe her. Darlingest. Darlingmost. Superdarling.

And seeing her pictures again, one by one, you can’t believe how genuine and natural she is, how happy and little-girlish. In “Captain January” (1936), as she holds hands with Buddy Ebsen and begins to tap dance with him on a flight of old wooden steps, she doesn’t have one affected, super-fakey moment, like all those smiling kids on “Barney.” She looks right into Ebsen’s face, directly and confidently, and appears to be enjoying every second.

Watching this with a couple of girlfriends, our dialogue went something like:

“So darling.”

“Really darling.”

“Ohhh, darling.”

“Precious.”

“Oh, really precious . . . “

“OH MY GOD, look at her!”

At first, you might think that she is a model for little girls, then after a few more movies, maybe a model for older girls. Perhaps the perfect woman. She is serious, but also a flirt. Heroic, but also a bit of a crybaby. She’s athletic but not masculine, even-tempered but not a pushover. She’s a little bossy, too, but always in the cutest possible way.

And then, suddenly, after watching all 19 of her recently re-released wonders, it should dawn on you that Shirley Temple is simply a model human being. Perfect in perpetuity. On the screen and in real life.

How did she do it? Simple. She lived by the Shirley System:

Whenever Possible, Have No Mother

The orphanage is where many of her movies start. Scores of little girls trudging upstairs in line . . . rows of beds . . . that dreary, institutional, Dickens feeling. Shirley always makes the most of it, though. She sings. She dances. She makes little presents for her fellow inmates. In “Little Miss Broadway” (1938), the orphanage headmistress cries when Shirley’s character is adopted and has to leave.

Usually, her parents were theatrical people. Dead actors. In “Curly Top” (1935), they were killed in an automobile accident. In “Captain January” it was a shipwreck. In “Stowaway” (1936), they were murdered by Chinese bandits. In “Susannah of the Mounties” (1939), she is the sole survivor of a wagon train massacred by Indians. In “The Little Princess” (1939), her father is reported dead fighting in the Boer Wars.

When she does have a mother, she doesn’t have much of one. In “The Little Colonel” (1935), her mom is a passionless tapeworm of a person, demure and kind of cowering, thin and pale and oblivious to her daughter’s chronic scene stealing. In “Bright Eyes,” (1934), her mother dies, leaving Shirley an orphan, and her father’s friend, an aviator, tries to adopt her. In “The Littlest Rebel” (1935), her mother is sickly and faint and when she finally dies, a feeling of relief descends on the picture.

The truth is, sadly enough, Shirley is better off without a mother. This isn’t Hollywood perversity, or misogyny or anti-momism. It’s simply that Shirley has to grow up fast, and can’t be subdued by a mother’s presence. Shirley, in order to be as adorable and inspirational as possible, has to be free to showboat and dance and sing with total freedom -- and without too many naps in between. A mom wouldn’t let Shirley talk back to judges and mean old battle-axes. A mom wouldn’t let her be so bossy. A mom would get in the way.

And she’d keep all those men from rushing in to protect her.

In a Dysfunctional Family, Be the Rock

In real life, Shirley Temple became Shirley Temple Black and, after raising three children and running unsuccessfully for Congress, she launched a career as a diplomat, serving as ambassador to the United Nations, to Ghana and to Czechoslovakia. She seemed so comfortable in these serious roles too.

No doubt this is because, even as a child of 5 and 6, Shirley played the part of diplomat and politician in her movies. She was forever negotiating, consensus-building and enabling.

In “Little Miss Broadway,” she leaves the Maubry Orphanage and goes to live in a place called “The Hotel Variety” -- a boardinghouse filled with broken-down vaudevillians. There, as in most of her movies, she becomes the center of a dysfunctional universe. She is the stable element who pulls together a disparate group of God’s castoffs, eccentrics and single adults. In “Stowaway,” her world becomes an ocean liner, and she fixes up Alice Faye and Robert Young. In “Captain January,” she is the adopted daughter of an old lighthouse keeper, and her best friends are sailors who dance for her, read her the Bible and show off their big tattoos.

In “The Little Colonel,” a group of cavalry soldiers on the Western frontier makes her an honorary colonel, and later in the movie she befriends her grandfather’s butler, played by Bill Robinson. “Bojangles” is always on her side. He sneaks her doggy up to her bedroom at night. And, even better, teaches her a mesmerizing tap dance number on a long plantation staircase.

Shirley’s happy world is a rather crazy one, a chaotic one -- not unlike the one we live in today. In many ways, she is emblematic of the sort of kid psychoanalyst Alice Miller writes about in “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” And she displays the classic behavior of a child of alcoholics -- if you really want to put her on the couch. She is overly responsible, and highly sensitive to the concerns of the adults around her.

The funny thing is, in spite of all her fun-seeking and merriment, there’s really nothing too whimsical about Shirley or the Shirley System. She is a steady, centered, reliable girl. She is never crazy or wild, or too self-indulgent. She believes in duty and fairness and kindness. And above all, she believes in hard work.

Fulfill Your Parents’ Unconscious Dreams

Factual beginnings. In 1928, a daughter was born to Gertrude and George Temple. She looked just like her father -- cherubic, dimply and short. She was a natural dancer too. Her thighs were thick and strong. Her bottom was all muscle, as she would recall years later in her autobiography, “Child Star.” Even when Gertrude spanked her, she felt nothing.

But she was never spanked much anyway. Shirley was good, even in real life. And she believed everything her parents told her -- even when they lied about her age, when they told her she was 4 when she was 5.

Later on, she said she learned about movie acting from feeling the heat of the lights on her face, and knew, after a while, how hot her face should get, how close to the lights, for certain scenes.

She didn’t just work hard, she slaved. And while she was still at it, slugging away, feeding the dream machine, Shirley worked six days a week, arriving at the studio every morning at 9. She ate there, went to school there and napped in her own four-room bungalow on the lot -- with a henhouse and bunny hutch and a white baby grand piano.

In her autobiography, she said she didn’t have many memories of actually playing with other children. “The concept of vacation was almost meaningless for me,” she writes. This was Shirley at 8.

Throughout her daughter’s film career, Gertrude Temple attended every rehearsal, every costume fitting, every take. They made 43 feature films together. Gertrude told Shirley to “sparkle” -- and that meant energy, intensity, a vividness of expression -- and she did. Exactly on cue. Before Shirley could read, Gertrude went over her lines at bedtime, and explained the meaning of all the scenes. While rehearsing, she learned to mimic her mother’s facial expressions.

“Shirley was the instrument on which her mother played,” said Allan Dwan, a director who made three pictures with the two of them.

It was written into her studio contracts that only Gertrude could touch Shirley’s hair. Every night, Gertrude set it with bobby pins, and washed it every two weeks with Castile soap and a vinegar rinse.

Her first screen appearance, at the age of 3, was in a nine-minute short called “War Babies.” Shirley played a French flirt in an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse, a garter (and a diaper).

“Good luck needs no explanation,” she says in her 1988 autobiography, but it takes almost 550 pages to explain the rest.

Enchant Millionaires With Your Singing and Dancing

Along the way, in the orphanage or just walking down the street, Shirley inevitably encounters the Bachelor Millionaire. He is enchanted by her, at times almost seems in love with her.

In “Little Miss Broadway,” she encounters Roger (played by George Murphy), who tells her that he learned to tap dance at Harvard. He is also a millionaire. And single. In “Curly Top,” her Bachelor Millionaire is a songwriting lawyer (played by John Boles). He discovers her in an orphanage and Shirley sits in his lap. She plays with his necktie while he talks. She bends the fingers of his left hand back and forth.

“How would you like it,” he says, “if you and I got to be very very good friends?”

He adopts her, and takes her to his giant white deco beach house in Southampton. There, she wakes him up one morning, wearing little satin pajamas with ostrich feather pompoms, and straddles him in bed. She tickles him.

“You can’t go back to sleep again!” she says.

Minutes later, after wrestling on the floor together, the Bachelor Millionaire goes over to the white piano, and sings her a song he’s written.

Curly Top, you little bundle of joy,

Curly Top, you’re like a wonderful toy.

You’re just so full of sunshine, folks agree,

You could supply the world with Vitamin D.

A few scenes later, she water-skis with him, sitting on his shoulders with her little thighs gripping his neck. A little later, she hula dances for him on the beach, topless.

Defend Your Honor

In his 1936 review of “Captain January,” Graham Greene, then a movie critic for the London Spectator, characterized the movie as “a little depraved, with an appeal interestingly decadent. . . . Shirley Temple acts and dances with immense vigor and assurance, but some of her popularity seems to rest on a coquetry quite as mature as Miss Colbert’s, and on an oddly precocious body, as voluptuous in grey flannel trousers as Miss Dietrich’s.”

The following year, he was sued for libel by 20 Century Fox after his review of “Wee Willie Winkie” appeared in Night and Day, a short-lived but highbrow British magazine. “Infancy with her is a disguise,” he wrote. “Her appeal is more secret and more adult.”

He lost, and had to pay Shirley $10,000.

Dance With Them That Brung You

She is usually the adopted child of an old man who has lost the confidence of everyone but her. And in spite of everything, she remains loyal. Shirley has the biggest, most gigantic heart in all babydom -- and this quality is essential in order for the entire Shirley System to function properly. In “Miss Annie Rooney,” she is constantly humiliated by her dream-spinning single dad -- and snubbed by snotty rich kids -- but she remains heartbreakingly true to him. In “Captain January,” the lighthouse captain who has adopted her is good-hearted, but a total loser and a nut. At night she croons to him, and stares right into his big watery eyes. Watching this movie for the first time, a 5-year-old friend of mine was prompted to ask her mother: “Is she in love with her dad?”

“No, darling,” her mother said. “She just likes to sing.”

Exist Above The Material Plane

The time comes in nearly all her movies when Shirley must be removed forcibly from a wonderful world of loving screwball old men, and becomes a ward of the state. Some mean old hag witch is usually behind this. In “The Little Princess,” her father rejoins the army and leaves her in a fancy boarding school, but when he is believed to have died and she is left penniless, Shirley becomes a maid/helper of the school, sleeping in a cold attic room and suddenly appearing in an entirely new wardrobe of shabby poor-girl clothes.

She floats easily from one economic realm to another. Within the span of one story line, her status is constantly shifting. She is loved, then unloved. She is rich, then poor. Or she is accepted in a rich house (her grandfather’s plantation or a Bachelor Millionaire’s beach house) but she lives humbly somewhere else.

Through all this, she is the same, acts the same, sings and dances the same -- in seedy hotel lobbies and fishing docks, in giant marble foyers and courtrooms, in dumpy stables and plantation stairways.

And along the way, she makes the best of every situation -- more importantly, she is utterly oblivious to materialism, immune to greed and unaware of prejudice. She treats everyone the same, from Abraham Lincoln (in “The Littlest Rebel”) to the butler in “Curly Top” (played by Arthur Treacher). As Treacher serves her dinner, the night she arrives at the Bachelor Millionaire’s beach house, she invites him to join them. Afterward, she calls him by her side, wiggling her infinitely cute index finger.

“Will you be my friend?” she whispers to Treacher. “And when I do anything wrong at the table, will you stop me?”

Later, when the Bachelor Millionaire gives her an expensive string of pearls, she looks at the necklace a little disappointedly.

“Pearls?” she says. “They look just like those little stones on the beach!”

Be Honest

In 1934, Shirley won a “special achievement” Academy Award. In her autobiography, she describes the experience of running up to the stage to accept it, and having humorist Irvin S. Cobb standing there, holding her statuette.

“As he spoke I could see little showers of moisture fly out in my direction, each droplet reflecting as a speck in the spotlight before disappearing somewhere on me or my hair,” she writes. “Damp, casual kisses are one of my intense dislikes, but with an eye on the Oscar I turned my cheek upward.”

She was 6.

There’s another, even more memorable moment in “Child Star.” While she was generally remembered as well-mannered and cheerful, Shirley recalls visiting Eleanor Roosevelt in the summer of 1938 at her country house Val Kill. When the first lady was bending over, not paying attention, Shirley confesses that she raised a pebble in a slingshot and hit Mrs. Roosevelt squarely on the butt.

Bring Cheer and Love

In “Bright Eyes,” she sings happily to a planeload of passengers -- “On the Good Ship Lollipop” -- and bails out just in time to save herself. In “The Little Princess,” even after she becomes impoverished and is forced to scrub floors, she is kind to her old friends and never feels too sorry for herself.

She wakes up singing in “Captain January” and wakes up smiling, wakes up with dimples and that curly mussy perfect mop of golden orphan hair, and within two minutes of the movie’s beginning, she is making her bed, too, while singing and smiling.

Shirley is independent, knows how to make herself happy, and always appears to be impossibly full of love for humankind. This quality was communicated so well that when the little actress once fell ill, 20,000 Indonesians gathered in a field and prayed on their knees for her recovery.

Know When to Quit

Eventually, Shirley Temple grew up. Her hair darkened. Her face filled out and got less interesting. Her limbs weren’t long. She’d married early, at 17, and had a baby -- and then got divorced. In her later pictures, she seems to carry herself with a sense of everyone’s disappointment. She was never as sexy as she’d been at 7, and instead of being second-rate to Elizabeth Taylor, taking lesser and lesser roles, Shirley Temple retired completely from Hollywood in 1949, at the age of 21.

She’d worked hard enough already -- a lifetime’s worth. And then, as though she deserved one more giant break in life, Shirley met Charles Black. He couldn’t have been better-looking or better-educated. He’d gone to Hotchkiss, Stanford and Harvard Business School -- and he’d never seen a Shirley Temple movie. Not one, ever.

She married him, right away, and they had two children and Shirley came to love cooking and gardening and she spent years, very happy ones, she says, as a housewife.

“Some may conclude I had too little too late, or too much too soon, and that’s why I am the way I am,” she says in her book. “Whatever I am, that’s not the reason. My attitude has always been, get it over with, and get on with life.”

Don’t Whine, Even When Your Folks Let You Down

Shirley was making more than the president of General Motors by 1938, when she was 10. By the time she was 12, she was said to be worth $4 million. Her name, as an endorsement, appeared on jewelry and soap and china and toys, dresses, coats, hats, shoes, hair ribbons, purses, underwear and drinking mugs. There was also a Shirley Temple doll, made by Ideal -- and within a few years, more than 600,000 of them were sold.

Everybody assumed she had millions and millions stashed away -- even Shirley believed it. Then she married Black in 1950 and they had to file joint taxes. They began poking around into the family finances and were told that Shirley’s trust contained a total of $44,000.

Her father had broken the law and hadn’t deposited any money into her trust account for the last eight years she worked. And somehow, nearly a million dollars in securities had disappeared. Dad spent it.

The old man sort of bumbled through an apology.

In her autobiography, Shirley describes going through the family financial records. How her parents had built houses -- places with swimming pools and badminton courts and electric merry-go-rounds and stables and a staff of 12 -- and supported leagues of hangers-on. She remembers two paternal uncles turning up at their Brentwood gate and asking for handouts.

“Picking over such corpses of the past is like the task of a carrion crow,” she writes -- and this is done quite freshly, without a sense of bitterness. “Whether siphoned off as expense or investment, my salary checks had ended up in other purses. Through all those hoary records one human theme pulsed loud and clear: Keep dancing, kid, or the rickety cardhouse collapses.”

And how’s she doing now?

Reached at her home in Northern California this week, she laughed heartily when asked if she had a financial interest in the re-release of her pictures. “There was nothing about television rights in the old studio contracts,” she said. “Probably because there was no television.” She was jet-lagged, she said, having just returned from a trip to Beijing with a delegation that included Henry Kissinger. Her diplomatic career has lasted 24 years now, and is the subject of her next book, whenever she gets around to finishing it.

“I’m delighted that kids are seeing the old films,” she said, gracious as ever, “and sharing them with their parents and grandparents. I’m glad they’re so popular too.”

“Ambassador Black,” she was told, “six million of them have been sold.”

“Are you serious? Now you’re really killing me!” And she laughed. “Did Fox send you some complimentary copies?” she asked the reporter.

Yes.

There was a pause. Did Ambassador Black receive a set?

Her laugh just got deeper, and louder. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I’m good-natured about this whole thing. Look: I’ve always said I would have paid Fox for all the fun I had making those movies. And now, well -- I guess it really seems like I did.”

Everything’s Coming Up Shirley

For a decade, she was perhaps the hardest-working star in Hollywood. Here’s a list of Shirley Temple’s feature films -- the Twentieth Century Fox classics appear in capital letters:

“Red-Haired Alibi,” 1932.

“Out All Night,” 1933.

“To the Last Man,” 1933.

“As the Earth Turns,” 1933.

“Carolina,” 1934.

“Mandalay,” 1934.

“Stand Up and Cheer,” 1934.

“Now I’ll Tell,” 1934.

“Change of Heart,” 1934.

“Little Miss Marker,” 1934.

“BABY TAKE A BOW,” 1934.

Shirley Temple’s first star vehicle, with James Dunn and Claire Trevor. Her dad’s an ex-convict accused of a crime. Sweet little Shirley unmasks the real culprit.

“Now and Forever,” 1934.

“BRIGHT EYES,” 1934.

Dueling foster parents fight over a darling orphan girl. The production is cheap, but the cheerfulness shines through.

“THE LITTLE COLONEL,” 1935.

Shirley upstages Lionel Barrymore. It’s the post-Civil War South, and an adorable girl’s household is divided. Her charm ends a family feud and puts villains in their place.

“OUR LITTLE GIRL,” 1935.

With Joel McCrea and Rosemary Ames as a doctor and his estranged wife. Guess who brings them back together?

“CURLY TOP,” 1935.

A precious orphan waif is adopted by a playboy and sets his failing business straight. Matches him up with her sister too.

“THE LITTLEST REBEL,” 1935.

She goes to Washington to talk President Lincoln into freeing her dad, a Confederate prisoner, but first -- an unforgettable tap dance with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

“CAPTAIN JANUARY,” 1936.

This time, she’s tapping with Buddy Ebsen, after being rescued from a shipwreck by a dear old lighthouse keeper.

“POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL,” 1936.

Mary Pickford did it in 1917; here, Shirley gives it a whirl. After running away from her soap tycoon father, she meets hoofers Alice Faye and Jack Haley. Then: stardom!

“DIMPLES,” 1936.

Frank Morgan is the reprobate Prof. Appleby, who captures the hearts of New York’s high society thanks to his fabulous daughter Dimples.

“STOWAWAY,” 1936.

She’s Ching-Ching, the singing orphan daughter of missionaries, and she’s stowed away on a slow boat from China.

“WEE WILLIE WINKIE,” 1937.

A spectacle, directed by John Ford, vaguely based on a Kipling story. A delightful little girl becomes the mascot of a British regiment in India.

“HEIDI,” 1937.

Here she’s a legend come to life -- the gentle, good orphan sent to live with her crusty old gramps, bringing joy and hope to all.

“REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM,” 1938.

Another storybook come to the screen -- sort of. A talented girl is exploited on the road to stardom. Variety dubbed it “Rebecca of Radio City.”

“LITTLE MISS BROADWAY,” 1938.

Into a home for vaudevillians -- where tenants include Jimmy Durante -- comes a girl who can match them all, joke for joke and dance for dance.

“JUST AROUND THE CORNER,” 1938.

Once more with Bojangles, though Shirley was looking kind of tired. A precious blond bit teaches her dad how to run a business.

“THE LITTLE PRINCESS,” 1939.

Her first filmed entirely in color. Based on the children’s classic: A perfect darling is left behind by her father in a harsh Victorian school, where she softens everyone up.

“SUSANNAH OF THE MOUNTIES,” 1939.

She’s the sole survivor of a wagon train massacre, when Mountie Monty (Randolph Scott) saves the day and loses his heart to her. It was Shirley’s last smash.

“THE BLUE BIRD,” 1940.

A woodcutter’s two children set out to find the bluebird of happiness. This fairy tale flopped in the shadow of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“YOUNG PEOPLE,” 1940.

Vaudevillian parents retire to raise their precocious daughter properly, but she turns out to be a born star. (Out on video Aug. 2.)

“Kathleen,” 1941.

“Miss Annie Rooney,” 1942.

“Since You Went Away,” 1944.

“I’ll Be Seeing You,” 1944.

“Kiss and Tell,” 1945.

“Honeymoon,” 1947.

“The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer,” 1947.

“That Hagen Girl,” 1947.

“Fort Apache,” 1948.

“Adventure in Baltimore,” 1949.

“Mr. Belvedere Goes to College,” 1949.

“A Kiss for Corliss,” 1949.

“The Story of Seabiscuit,” 1949.

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