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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
But, 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.