The Little Girl Who Saved the Big Studio
By Ed Garea
The death of Shirley Temple Black at the age of 85 on February 10 has opened up a treasure trove of memories for the film fans. Many movie buffs watched her films as children; they were frequently shown on television in the mornings or afternoons on Saturday and Sunday. My mother was a huge fan of Miss Temple’s work and often made me watch with her when I could have otherwise spent the hours with a good horror film on another channel or engrossed in the latest copy of Mad or Famous Monsters of Filmland. But I’m glad she made me watch, as the films deepened my appreciation of musicals.
Over the years her films came to be regarded as family classics and were hawked on VHS and later DVD to the public in frequent advertisements, assuring the purchaser that not only would he or she receive the original black and white versions, completely restored, but as a bonus would receive a colorized version of each films, as kids today are reluctant to watch anything not in color.
If anyone could have been said to born a movie star, it was Shirley Temple. Born in Santa Monica, California, on April 23, 1928, to businessman George Temple and his wife, Gertrude, she was prepped for bigger and better things beginning at the age of 3, when her mother enrolled her in dancing school.
In 1932, she was spotted by an agent from Educational Pictures and was chosen for a role in Baby Burlesks, a series of rather sexually-suggestive shorts in which children played all the roles. The children, all around the ages of 4 and 5, wore adult costumes that ended at the waist. Below they wore diapers outfitted with oversized safety pins. The shorts were rather obvious parodies of popular films, with Shirley imitating such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and Dolores Del Rio.
As Educational Pictures was pretty much a shoestring operation, proper behavior was strictly enforced; any child that misbehaved on the set was locked in a windowless sound box with only a block of ice on which to sit. Shirley served her share of time in the box, claiming later in her autobiography that the experience did no lasting psychological damage and taught her the lesson that wasted time is wasted money.
After Baby Burlesks ran its course, Shirley was schlepped to a series of casting calls and auditions for bit parts that won her a few small roles. But age was threatening to erode her earning potential and as a remedy, her mother cut a year off Shirley’s age. She said in her autobiography that at her 12th birthday party in 1941 she was surprised to learn that she had really turned 13.
It was in 1934 that her career began to gather steam. She was chosen to play James Dunn’s daughter in Fox’s Stand Up and Cheer, one of many Depression musicals that suggested the best way to deal with the everyday misery is to sing and dance your way to happiness. Her initial Fox contract called for a salary of $150 per week, with an additional $25 each week for Gertrude. The contract also contained an option for seven more years and the stipulation that she was to provide her own tap shoes.
The critics gushed over Stand Up and Cheer, and Shirley made an additional eight movies in 1934, the earnings of which saved the studio from certain bankruptcy. However, it was with the release of Little Miss Marker, an adaptation of a Damon Runyon story for which Fox had loaned her to Paramount, that she became a star. Besides being a box office hit for a studio that badly needed one that year, the film also established the template for future Shirley Temple films.
In Little Miss Marker, Temple plays a child left with a bookie as a marker for her father’s gambling debts. As the film progresses she goes on to reform a gang of gamblers, bookies and race fixers. This carried over to her future films: she was cast as a sort of miniature adult who dominated the adults around her, solving problems with uncanny common sense and infusing them with her sense of unbounded optimism. Each of her films onward would simply be a variation of that basic story.
Besides being cute, Shirley was also given a trademark song to sing in each film, the better to sell records. So powerfully was she identified with some of the songs that even today when a film buff hears “On the Good Ship Lollipop” or “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” he or she cannot help but associate Shirley Temple with the music.
She was also supplied with a plethora of dancing partners, including Buddy Ebsen, Jack Haley, and George Murphy. But her best-remembered partner was the legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, an African-American veteran of the Broadway stage, and one of the people credited with tutoring the great Eleanor Powell in tap dancing while working together on Broadway. His staircase dance with Shirley in The Little Colonel, the first of four films they would make together, is considered one of the greatest in the history of film musicals, and Robinson would always be remembered for his work with her.
She was so ensconced in the public’s mind by 20th Century Fox that any criticism of her could result in retribution against the critic. The studio famously sued novelist Graham Greene for his review of Wee Willie Winkie in the magazine Night and Day (which he edited as well). His crime was to question whether she was really a midget and exposed an uncomfortable truth when he wrote that her “well-shaped and desirable little body” was being displayed for the enjoyment of middle-aged male admirers.
Although the studio could certainly overcome any human obstacle in its way, it was powerless against nature, and as Shirley aged her box office appeal diminished. It’s been said that the best decisions are the ones not made, and in the case of MGM this certainly proved to be the case. MGM, having the rights to The Wizard of Oz, was bound and determined to have Temple play Dorothy Gale, but Fox refused to loan her out; instead they made plans to star her in a fantasy film of their own, The Blue Bird. MGM instead was forced to go to Plan B and cast Judy Garland as Dorothy, a move for which the gods of posterity would thank them.
But while The Wizard of Oz didn’t exactly light up the box office when released, it still fared much better than The Blue Bird, which made its way to the screen in 1940. A lengthy consideration of the pathetic box office returns combined with an appraisal of her advancing age led Fox to drop her contract at the ripe old age of 12.
Now outside the protective cocoon of the studio, Shirley found the real world a lot tougher than the one created for her movies. She enrolled in the seventh grade at the private and exclusive Westlake School for Girls, where she had trouble at first fitting in with her classmates. But after she began to relax she became a popular and sought-after companion, enjoying a happy and productive five years at the school.
Meanwhile, MGM signed her eight-months later and cast her in their 1941 comedy-romance, Kathleen. It was in the mold of her earlier films, only now she had to deal with the additional problems of adolescence. Kathleen did not live up to the studio’s fiscal expectations, so she was loaned to United Artists in 1942 for Miss Annie Rooney, and made two films on loan-out to David O. Selznick: Since You Went Away and I’ll Be Seeing You (both 1944). In 1945, she starred in Columbia’s Kiss and Tell, again on loan. But the changes from an adorable little blonde moppet to a rather ordinary brunette teenager resulted in her audience losing interest in her movies.
Her private life also took another turn when, supposedly determined to be the first in her Westlake class to become engaged, she accepted the proposal of 24-year old Army Air Corps Sergeant John Agar Jr. a few days before turning 17. They were married on September 19, 1945.
“Act in haste, repent in leisure.” (I’m full of pithy quotes today.) That would be the motto of her marriage to Agar. While she adjusted to the new realities of married life and films, her husband wasn’t as fortunate. Years of being ignored and being dubbed “Mr. Shirley Temple” took their toll and Agar began drinking as a hobby. Following in the footsteps of his wife, he also went into acting, but lacked his wife’s charisma and acting ability, soon working his way down the ladder to where he was headlining Z-Grade films such as The Brain From Planet Arous and The Puppet People, and, most famously in the annals of bad movies, Zontar: The Thing From Venus, which gained a cult status, being featured on SCTV.
He did appear with his wife in John Ford’s classic Western, Fort Apache (1948), but while she had a featured role as Philadelphia Thursday, the daughter of Henry Fonda’s character, Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday, Agar was given the decidedly minor role of Second Lieutenant Michael Shannon O’Rourke, which did nothing for their already troubled marriage.
They divorced in December 1949, a year after the birth of their daughter, Linda Susan Agar. Less than a month later she met and subsequently married Charles Alden Black, a 30-year old assistant to the president of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company and a certified member of San Francisco’s blueblood community. Shortly after their marriage he was dropped from the San Francisco Social Register as punishment for marrying an actress, but the marriage took, lasting 55 years until his death in 2005.
Another casualty of her marriage to Black on December 6, 1950, was her career in films, which she gladly gave up in favor of being a wife and mother. Charles adopted Linda, and she and Charles had two children of their own: Charles Alden Black Jr., born in 1952, and daughter Lori Alden Black, born in 1954. Both daughters were born in Santa Monica, California, at the same hospital, not to mention delivered by the same doctor who delivered Shirley years before.
During the Korean War, Black served as a Navy lieutenant commander and Shirley and the children followed him to Washington. Later, when she entered the diplomatic service, he would travel with her to her diplomatic postings.
As the ‘50s progressed, her films began to show up on television, grabbing huge ratings. This prompted her to accept an offer as host and occasional performer on a television series titled Shirley Temple’s Storybook, an anthology of adaptations of fairy tales. The series ran from 1958 to 1961.
Outside of show business, diplomacy, and politics, she is best known for her work with the Multiple Sclerosis Society, of which she later became president. She became interested in serving for the Society after the disease struck down her brother George, who was making a name at the time as a professional wrestler. She also worked to found and develop the San Francisco International Film Festival, but resigned in 1966 as a protest over a decision to screen the Swedish filmNight Games, which she derided as “pornography for profit.”
Living in Washington spurred an interest in politics, and in 1967 she made an unsuccessful run for Congress to fill the seat left vacant by the death of California Republican J. Arthur Younger, losing in the primary to the Pete McCloskey. One newspaper headline read: "McCloskey Torpedoes Good Ship Lollypop."
In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed her to the five-member delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. In 1974 she accepted the position of Ambassador to Ghana, where to all accounts she performed in an outstanding manner, despite the reservations of professional diplomats concerning her appointment. After her tenure in Ghana (1974-76), she was later appointed as ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989.
She also had a well-publicized bout with breast cancer, during which she underwent a mastectomy. After the operation she held a news conference in her hospital room to discuss her experience and urge women who discovered lumps in their breasts to see a doctor instead of sitting home afraid to talk about it. The American Cancer Society credited her with helping to make it acceptable to talk about the disease.
Survived by her children, she stands today as a shining example that there can, indeed not only be life after the movies, but that the life can be a rich and accomplished one.
According to Groucho Marx, his brother Harpo offered Shirley’s parents $50,000 to let him adopt her. They declined the offer.
During the filming of Little Miss Marker, co-star Adolphe Menjou reputedly referred to her as “an Ethel Barrymore at six,” and complained to director Alexander Hall about her “making a stooge out of me.”
Director Allan Dwan told Peter Bogdanovich, in his book Who the Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Film Directors, that she was a quick study. All he had to do was tell her something once and she’d remember it. And if one of the actors gut stuck for a line, she’d tell him what the line was. “She knew it better than he did.”
From 1936 to 1939 she was America’s most popular movie star. Clark Gable was a distant second. Her popularity spurred a line of “Shirley Temple” dolls, which were the best-selling dolls of that decade. (Today collectors highly prize them.) She had sat on the laps of over 200 famous people, reportedly preferring the lap of J. Edgar Hoover. Amelia Earhart shared chewing gum with her, and she had several conservations with Eleanor Roosevelt. She received more mail than Greta Garbo and was photographed more often than President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood created a special drink and named it for her: the Shirley Temple, a nonalcoholic mixture of lemon-lime soda, grenadine, topped with a maraschino cherry. Reportedly, she didn’t care for it.
When MGM picked up her contract, she was entering adolescence. She wrote in her autobiography that producer Arthur Freed summoned her to his office. Once there, he unzipped his pants and exposed himself to her. As she was ignorant of male anatomy she giggled loudly and he threw her out of the office.
Director John Ford, who got along splendidly with her during the filming of Wee Willie Winkie in 1937, gave her a hard time on the set of Fort Apache, reportedly asking her where she went to school and if she graduated.
When she came to Prague as ambassador she was surprised to discover that there had been a Shirley Temple fan club there 50 years ago. Numerous officials brought their old membership cards for her to autograph.
Daughter Lori played bass guitar for the rock band The Melvins and went by the moniker, “Lorax.” On a related note, Shirley appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Her career was the subject of a series of sketches on the Carol Burnett Show, where Carol played “Shirley Dimple.” She was also parodied on Saturday Night Live in a skit where she was played by Laraine Newman as the ambassador to Ghana. There, she cutely talks Ghana’s president, played by Garrett Morris, out of waging any more wars.