To learn shortly after awakening this morning that Shirley Temple Black had passed away at the age of 85 was a bit of a shock. More surprising was the pang I felt; our remaining Golden Age stars are becoming fewer and fewer, older and older, and to learn of their passing is something we ought to expect. Yet learning Shirley Temple Black had taken a peaceful homegoing, surrounded by her family at her home, truly saddened me. Somehow, my surprise at the sadness makes it worse, but I doubt I’m alone in this.
Perhaps it was her vibrant cheerfulness, natural charm, and spiritedness that so endeared her to me, or the knowledge that she had
remained married to her husband for so very long, considering her roles as wife, mother, and grandmother to be the greatest and most important she ever had (a mindset that, sadly, has long been missing in Hollywood). It’s difficult to say, really—though I suppose that, in a way, Shirley was the original Miss America, who rose to prominence and popularity during a time when our nation greatly needed the sparkling joy she graced silver screens from sea to shining sea with. Is it any wonder quite a few felt a twinge to learn she had died?
Like so many, Shirley Temple’s films were among those I cut my teeth on as a child. Best-remembered in my case are The Little Princess (gobsmackingly, this is now in the public domain) and Heidi; the former I’d watch over and over, borderline fearing, every viewing, that Captain Crewe would not recognize dauntlessly hopeful little Sara in time. And of course there are her musicals—her dancing with the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, with whom Black remained friends until his passing, is just as delightful today as it was in the 1930s (their dancing is so smile-inducing I’ve closed this post with it; Robinson did the choreography. As someone who can waltz and that’s it, I’ve always loved watching the tap dancers of the 30s and 40s!).
It has only been over the past several years that I’ve been able to see films she made later in her career (Fort Apache I no doubt saw as a child, but simply did not recognize a nearly grown-up Shirley!), and I will confess to loving several of those I’ve seen—1944’s Since You Went Away with Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotten, Monty Wooley, Hattie McDaniel, and Jennifer Jones (what a cast, right?!) and I’ll Be Seeing You, another film with Joseph Cotten also starring Ginger Rogers and Spring Byington, being especial cases. Temple was very good and very well-received alongside Myrna Loy and Cary Grant in The Bachelor and The Bobby-Soxer—leading many to wonder why her career ended shortly thereafter.
For some reason, Temple had a difficult time transitioning from adorable “Curly Top” to a beautiful young woman with real potential for glamour; Ann Althouse has even suggested that Marilyn Monroe adopted the femininity exhibited by Temple in That Hagen Girl as her own (not having seen the film, I’ll withhold judgment, but considering Temple’s other late performances, think this theory may consider merit).
One film I’m not seeming mentioned at all is the 1949 comedy Mr. Belvedere Goes To College. Though hardly a Since You Went Away or Captain January, it’s an entertaining film co-starring Clifton Webb wherein Temple plays a college newspaper reporter. The turn is interesting due to her character’s personal situation and her beau’s reaction to it—and also because, though this is a comedy, her role is fairly straight despite her lifetime of playing in comedies and musicals!
Her last few scripts were not good—even 1949’s The Story of Seabiscuit, having nothing whatsoever to do with the real story, is notable only for 1) actual footage of Seabiscuit’s races, including his match versus the great War Admiral and 2) Shirley Temple looks lovely and gets to wear some equestrienne-esque gear. In an era that still rewarded solid plot and good writing, it was a flop.
Of course, as alluded to earlier, Temple married (twice—her first husband became an alcoholic and as a result the pair split not long after their first child was born; Shirley married Naval officer Charles Black, who’d never seen one of her films, and they remained very happily married until his death in 2005). She was a proud and happy wife and mother, and through it all, retained the personality traits so many fell in love with—
“Over 38 years I have participated in her life 24 hours a day through thick and thin, traumatic situations, exultant situations, and I feel she has only one personality. She would be catastrophic for the psychiatric profession. You can wake her up in the middle of the night and she has the same personality everybody knows. What everybody has seen for 60 years is the bedrock.”
I love knowing that what we saw and can, happily, still see on the screen was genuine. And no wonder the whole family looks so happy in the photo above!
In our own age, when soul-hardening cynicism seems to be doing all it can to nip joy in the bud, it might do us well to look back on a star like Shirley Temple Black—famed and beloved for her smile, her spirit and winsomeness, and her truly sunny, curl-haloed optimism even in the face of real adversity, she grew up to be a sensible, intelligent woman not afraid to face the facts and change course when necessary. When the spotlight no longer sought her out, she did not whine or mope; Shirley Temple Black found joy and delight serving others—her family, her nation, and those with illnesses like cancer and MS. She unfailingly conducted herself with class, though never without her trademark spunk.
One could do far worse seeking out role models.
Thank you for all the smiles, Shirley. You will be missed.
Update TCM will be airing a tribute to Shirley Temple Black on March 9.