Shirley Temple at the Movies…Yesterday, Today, and Always

There’s no business like show business – especially in the film capital of the world, Hollywood. Actors come and actors go: It has always been thus. Most have not been fortunate and talented enough to leave any lasting impression. Those who made it big in tinsel-town left their impressions in cement at Hollywood’s famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Of all those bona-fide stars, only a handful combined the brilliance and uniqueness of the pint-sized, mop-top child actress with the bright eyes and long curls who magically materialized in 1932, Shirley Temple.

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People still love her films and revere her memory, as evident to Linda and me last Saturday at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, California. The beautifully restored classic movie house, which dates back to 1925 and the days of silent pictures and traveling vaudeville stage acts, showed four of her pictures that day in conjunction with a large exhibition of Shirley memorabilia on display for three days in the theatre’s “history hall.” The substantial exhibition was but a small part of a huge collection of Ms. Temple’s important personal and movie memorabilia – all  to be auctioned on  July 14, 2015 under the auspices of Theriault’s which typically specializes in dolls and doll auctions.

IMG_4373This auction will disperse a huge, diverse collection of memorabilia, objects which were lovingly (and professionally) preserved for over eighty years at the behest of Shirley’s mother and youthful guardian, Gertrude Krieger Temple. The collection is both in pristine condition and unprecedented in quality and breadth – in keeping with the uniqueness of the whole Shirley Temple saga.

The hour-long line of dedicated fans waiting to view the free exhibit stretched down the sidewalk of University Avenue and around the corner – obviously a small price to pay for fans of the pint-sized phenom whose persona inspired several of her movie titles: Bright Eyes (the film we saw that afternoon) featuring the tune On the Good Ship, Lollipop; Curley Top featuring Animal Crackers in My Soup; Dimples; and The Littlest Rebel. And, no…the patient fans in line for the exhibit were not just women of a certain age group; there were equally as many men and all ages were represented, ample testimony to Miss Temple’s timeless appeal.

Shirley-Temple[1]Many a precocious, talented youngster has had a “run” during Hollywood’s long history, but none so young, so talented, and so completely charming as little Shirley. Who can recall any child actor who has ever performed so professionally at such a young age as Shirley did without leaving movie-goers with a lingering aftertaste of annoying, excessive precociousness?

Who could resist the little mop-top as she mugged, sang, and tap-danced her way into the nation’s heart during a time of widespread emotional and economic depression? Little Shirley was just what the doctor ordered, and millions flocked to her movies to pay fifteen cents for “the Shirley happiness cure.” The acclaimed actor, Adolph Menjou, her co-star in the early film Little Miss Marker, confessed, “This child frightens me. She knows all the tricks [of the trade].”

Her movie career was unique, enough, but her later life seemed equally unique and exemplary given Hollywood’s demonstrated ability to derail young actors and actresses before they reach adulthood. I would guess that she collected some personal scars during her young years given her extraordinarily intense exposure and her market value to the movie studios. My curiosity about her and her driven mother/guardian is piqued, so I obtained a copy of her autobiography, Child Star, published in 1988. Was she a happy, bubbly child as so often portrayed on the silver screen, or was it all just superb acting?

Despite the excessive childhood adulation and the accompanying hardships she surely endured, she forged a dignified adult life of accomplishment and public service for herself once she completely retired from motion pictures in 1950.

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Her first notable movie debut was in the 1934 film, Stand Up and Cheer. The red polka-dot dress she wore in that film was on display last week along with the similarly dressed Shirley Temple doll produced by the Ideal Company which proved very popular with sales of $45 million by 1941. The first movie completely crafted to feature Miss Temple was Bright Eyes, the film we saw last week which was released in 1934. Her career reached warp-speed almost immediately, not abating until 1940 when, as a teenager, her persona became more difficult to delineate from those of other, talented young actresses.

She was married in 1945 to John Agar who subsequently became a movie actor, himself. They appeared in two pictures together including Fort Apache in 1948 which starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Victor McLaughlin. The couple’s roles in the movie were minimal, but the film by John Ford remains a classic of the western genre – and one of my favorite movies. The couple divorced in 1949, and her husband to-be for 54 years until his death in 2005, Charles Black, soon came along in 1950.

Shirley AutoBio_1But, enough about the mere details of her life! What intrigues me about her and about any other, supremely accomplished individual, is the question: “What made them tick?” Who or what motivated little Shirley Temple and from where did that talent and charisma come which distinguished her from millions of other little girls of her era? People have wondered for decades.

I am hoping her autobiography will provide some insights and answers.

 

 

More Pictures

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 IMG_4336Shirley’s motorized car – a gift from early co-star and lifelong friend, tap-dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

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America’s First Movie Cowboy : William S. Hart

America’s first movie cowboy-hero was not Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, or even Tom Mix: Meet William S. Hart, the forerunner of them all!

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Linda and I attended our ninth consecutive Santa Clarita (California) Cowboy Festival last weekend. In past years, this was held at Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch where countless western movies were filmed over past decades. This year, the cowboy-inspired music and poetry extravaganza relocated to William S. Hart Park, in the nearby downtown of Newhall. Both Gene Autry and William S. Hart are very well-known in these-here parts, as they say. Linda and I knew a lot about Gene Autry, but almost nothing of the shadowy historical figure, William S. Hart.

Our visit on Sunday morning to the Hart “mansion” located on a hilltop perch within the park bearing his name certainly filled our knowledge gap! Linda wished to forego some of the musical feast which is non-stop at the cowboy festival in order to visit Hart’s home. We arrived early at the mansion after a bracing quarter-mile hike up a winding road. Perusing the hilltop environs of the house, I knew we were in for a fine experience when the doors were opened to the public.

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The mansion was built by Hart in 1926. He lived there with his sister until his death in 1946. He bequeathed this house, along with his considerable fortune and land-holdings to the County of Los Angeles as repayment to the people who, through the years, spent their hard-earned nickels and dimes to see his movies. Hart was well aware that those nickels and dimes made him the successful and wealthy movie pioneer that he became.

William S. Hart made his first western movie at the ripe age of forty-nine! Prior to that, he was a classical Shakespearean stage actor with roots on the east coast. His theatrical engagements took him far and wide across this nation, but he always harbored a special fascination with the wild-west and its famous characters. He was appalled at the cheesy sets, costumes, and acting of the early, silent cowboy films coming from Hollywood, and he determined he could do better. And he did  do better, serving as actor, producer, director, and occasional screenplay writer.

Hart’s cowboy characters reflected his own moralistic attitudes. The docent at the house, who shared his extensive knowledge of Hart with my wife and I, spoke of Hart’s distaste for Hollywood’s portrayal of Indians as mere savages and for the cruelty exhibited toward animals “used” during filming. Shooting animals for the sake of sport repulsed him. His good friend, Will Rogers was the opposite of Hart in many ways. To goad his good friend, Rogers once presented him with a very large Kodiak bearskin rug (complete with head), and asked sardonically what he was going to do with it! Hart, both a respecter of animal life and a pragmatist, reasoned that the bear was already dead and there was nothing he could do about it except to display the remains of its former majesty on his living room floor!

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IMG_3917_PSAnother Hart anecdote from our tour docent involved the famous aviatrix, Amelia Earhart. Soon after moving in to his newly constructed home in 1926, the peace and tranquility of his hilltop haven was severely disturbed by a lone, private aircraft which suddenly appeared one day, and leisurely circled his home for some period of time. With his anger building over this pesky “aluminum fly” circling round and round overhead, he noted the requisite “tail number” of the aircraft and went to the Newhall sheriff to register his complaint. Three days later came a knock on his front door. Hart was startled to be face-to-face with Amelia Earhart who had come to apologize for her transgression! They soon became good friends.

IMG_3919_PS_CROPHart was also friends with the great western artist, Charles Russell, as well as the frontier legends, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Early in Hart’s career, he had obtained the pistols which belonged to that most famous of outlaws, Billy the Kid. An interesting letter from Charles Russell is displayed. Russell invites Hart to come see him if his travels bring him “near his campfire.” In rather clumsy syntax, Russell confesses how ill-at-ease he feels expressing himself with pen and paper. He “writes” using his artist’s tools; indeed, the letter is peppered with little vignette jewels from the artist’s fine hand.

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Hart made dozens of films from 1914 until his last movie, Tumbleweeds, in 1925. His only sound film was a 1935 reissue of Tumbleweeds which featured a spoken prologue by Hart. Retired from film by 1926, Hart spent the final years until his death in 1946 writing books with a western theme. The newer, flashier breed of movie cowboy successors had, by the early nineteen twenties, replaced Hart and the darker, more serious western dramas pioneered by him.

Careers (and lives) are typically short-lived in Hollywood. That was true of Hart’s movie career, as well, but his presence and the innovations he brought to western film-making earned him a justly deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For a time, his star burned very brightly.

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Visiting his home, one sees the reflection of a life which valued tradition over trendy, sensible over excessive, contemplative over ostentatious. For me, the visit and our introduction to William S. Hart was a pleasant, fascinating experience. If you are ever “near his campfire” in Newhall, California, be sure to pay him a visit.

A Most Unbelievable Encounter, Thanks to Lawrence Welk

I would like to relate one of the most interesting experiences I have ever had in all my seventy-three years on this good earth. It involves family genealogy – always an intriguing topic.

Just a bit of family background will set the stage. Our young family of four moved from Chicago, Illinois, to California in 1948 – when I was eight years old. Virtually all our relatives lived and remained in Chicago, except for two of my dad’s three brothers. One, my Uncle Gil, had settled in the Los Angeles area by the late nineteen-forties. In those days of infrequent travel and poor communications, Gil and his young family were the only relatives we saw to any extent after moving to California – and that occurred on only a few occasions over the decades. I, sadly, never saw my grandparents after 1951 when we made a short vacation visit.

Unlike my wife’s extended family and so many others that we know, I have only vague memories of my family roots in Chicago, and virtually no keepsakes in the form of letters, mementos, diaries, etc. from my distant past. I have done some sleuthing on Ancestry.com and was able to pull up immigration papers and old Chicago addresses concerning my forebears. Otherwise, much of my family history has remained an intriguing mystery to me; the personalities who comprise that history, live only in the shadows of my mind and memory.

I was long aware that there was one other distant relation living in Los Angeles in the early part of the last century, and that was the brother of my paternal grandfather – my Dad’s uncle who happened also to be named Gil(bert). He and his wife Louise had settled in the Los Angeles area by the nineteen-twenties. Chicago was his birthplace.

“Gil and Louise” were, to me, only names, having never seen them before even in photographs. Little did I know about a year ago, that I was about to meet them up-close-and-personal. How would I even know that I had met them? That is where the fun begins!

Last year, I was on our living room floor doing stretching exercises (yoga) in front of our television. One of Lawrence Welk’s many old, weekly, live television shows was playing on our DVR (digital video recorder). Being a big band fan, I enjoy much of his music; where else can one see and hear a top-flight big band performance these days?  Of course, the many Welk shows I have recorded from recent PBS re-broadcasts date way back from the mid-fifties to the early- eighties. Lawrence Welk loved his music, pretty ladies, and dancing, in that approximate order; accordingly, his live studio audiences were periodically caught on camera as they happily danced to Welk’s trademark “Champagne Music.”

The particular show I was watching was called “From Polkas to Classics.” The band was playing a somewhat mundane, but bouncy dance number, and the camera was panning the dancers, couple by couple, quite close-up.

All of a sudden the face of an older gentleman dances into the picture with his lady partner in-tow. In mid-stretch, I took one glance and sat up with a start! I blurted out, “That is a Kubitz!” I did not know who it was, but I knew it had to be a “Kubitz” based on body-type and, especially, the facial characteristics and expressions.

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Immediately, using that wonderful feature called “electronic rewind,” I went over and over the fifteen or twenty seconds of footage, even stopping at certain points to “freeze the frame.”

Who is that person? I knew almost immediately that, despite the strong facial resemblance, it could not be my Uncle Gil because this gentleman was too old, in the nineteen-sixties, to be him. After some thought, I settled on a possibility: My dad’s Uncle Gil…and his wife, Louise! These kinds of identity questions are often fraught with uncertainty: “Looks a lot like so-and-so, but…maybe not.” No, I was absolutely convinced – at first glance – that I was seeing a family ancestor for the first time – based solely on looks. It was truly startling.

I needed to do some detective work, so I set to it. To begin with, the Welk show in question was taped in Hollwood, in 1967. Further sleuthing revealed the fact that Gilbert Irving Kubitz died in 1969, in the Los Angeles area, at the age of seventy-nine. Age, location, and circumstances all support my belief that I had just met my Great-Uncle Gil through the magic of television and the subsequent technology which allows such images to be preserved and reproduced at will.

The facial features and expressions, in all respects, eerily called to mind my father – now gone since 1992. When that face danced into the camera range, I knew immediately that the message I was receiving was not merely electronic in nature, but genetic, as well. Along with my dad, the images ring true with my uncle Gil and my grandfather, Elmer Kubitz – even though I saw little of them both. Gil and his wife, Virgie, who are now both gone, were here for my mother’s funeral service in 1989. My vivid recollections of Gil, at that time, lend so much additional credence to my contention that the television images are those of Great-Uncle Gil Kubitz. The similarities to my dad, my grandfather, and my uncle are striking.

After viewing the pictures, my cousin Nancy – originally from Chicago, also – said she is convinced that the images are, indeed, of Great-Uncle Gil and Louise. Nancy spent many of her young years around Grandpa Elmer and verifies the uncanny resemblance that certainly would identify them as brothers.

If I have made a mistake in identity, I sincerely apologize to the person(s) in the images – but I do not think so! I could not be more certain. Genetics is a powerful force.

Note: I posted earlier on my Chicago and family background in Chicago Roots, July 14, 2013, available in my blog archives.