Shirley Temple: A Cute Cocktail of Talent and Charm

10 minute read

If you think of the 1930s in film as the decade of Gable and Lombard, Cagney and Harlow, Stanwyck and the Marx Brothers, think again. The biggest star — no. 1 in the 1936, ’37 and ’38 exhibitor polls — was a three-time box-office champ before she was 10. Shirley Temple, singer, dancer and prime exemplar of Movie Cute, owned the ’30s.

Temple, who died Monday, Feb. 10 at 85 at her Woodside, Cal., home, was a one-kid film phenomenon. She turned Fox, the movie studio that employed her, from bankruptcy to a position of overflowing profit. In an era when love songs topped the charts, Temple had major pop hits with “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and “Animal Crackers in My Soup” — numbers tailored to her precocious showmanship. The “56 perfect ringlets” she sported (one of her highest-grossing films was Curly Top) incited coiffure mania among little girls or, more likely, their mothers.

(SEE: Shirley Temple’s Life in Pictures)

Child actors preceded and followed her, but she was The One: the Shirley template. When she was six, she received an honorary Academy Award “in grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment.” At seven she met President Franklin Roosevelt, at his request. But her closest screen friend was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the black dancer who appeared with Temple in five films. In that racially benighted era, she may have been the first white actress to hold a black man’s hand on screen.

Dolls and dinnerware sets with her likeness sold in the millions. Adult moviegoers cherished her go-getter spirit; she was the child they dreamed of (with an income that would float any family in the Depression). Fans her age, at a restaurant with their parents, could order a “cocktail” of ginger ale and grenadine: the “Shirley Temple.”
(READ: Lily Rothman on the Shirley Temple cocktail)

In a way, the first child star was a grown woman: Mary Pickford, the most popular actress of the silent-film era. Born in 1892 and in charge of her own productions for her entire career as a star, from 1914 until talking pictures took over 14 years later, the “girl with the ringlet curls” virtually invented movie stardom; she was mobbed by fans who bought calendars and massage creams with her face on them. A brilliant portrayer of innocent grit, often in orphan roles, Pickford forged the path that Shirley followed. Four of the properties she filmed in her twenties (The Poor Little Rich Girl, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Little Princess and Daddy-Long-Legs) would be remade as Temple talkies.

Jackie Coogan was the first child star who was actually a child. Cast at six by Charles Chaplin to costar in The Kid (1921), he soon had a million-dollar contract at Metro. Like so many kid actors, Coogan outgrew his precocious appeal, and when he reached maturity in the 1930s, he asked his mother and stepfather for the $4 million or so he had earned in movies. They said no; as a minor, he had no legal claim to his riches. The California legislature soon passed the Child Actors Bill, also known as the Coogan Act, which mandated trust funds for kids in show business. Coogan received only $126,000 of his stash, and later gave this advice to child actors: “Stay away from mothers.”

(READ: a 1935 story on the Jackie Coogan case by subscribing to TIME)

In 1931, the year before Shirley Temple broke into movies, Jackie Cooper, 8, starred in The Champ with Wallace Beery and Skippy with Robert Coogan (Jackie Coogan’s seven-year-old brother). For the latter he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor; he remains the youngest nominee in that category. Cooper survived child stardom to headline his own TV series, Hessessey, and to win two Emmys for directing (M*A*S*H and The White Shadow). Yet when his young son was to sign an MGM contract, Cooper overruled the boy’s mother, saying, “It’s no way for a kid to grow up.”

But Shirley Jane Temple wanted that way. Born in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica, on April 23, 1928, she got her drive from her mother Gertrude, a prototypical stage mom who sent Shirley to dance class when she was three. Within a few months, Shirley had made her movie debut in early 1932 in the surpassingly weird series of shorts called Baby Burlesks.

To rope in audiences during the first years of the Depression, early-talkie Hollywood would try anything, no matter how odd. The Dogville comedies, produced by MGM, put canines in pants and dresses and have them walk on two feet and “talk” with the aid of wires in their mouths. Baby Burlesks, from the deceptively named Educational Films, had kids act like grownups — Bugsy Malone with toddlers. The word “Burlesk” didn’t mean a show with strippers but, here, a parody of popular movies: Runt Page for The Front Page, and Red Haired Alibi for Red Headed Woman. A gifted mimic, Shirley did vamping impersonations of stars like Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, oozing a bizarre form of infant sexuality in low-cut frocks, alluring stares and come-hither dialogue.

(SEE: Shirley Temple in the mega-weird Baby Burlesks series)

Fox would tone down the suggestiveness, but Shirley continued to stoke erotic fantasies. A Salvador Dali painting titled Shirley Temple, The Youngest, Most Sacred Monster of the Cinema in Her Time, portrayed the girl’s face on the body of a bosomy sphinx-lioness, a bat perched on her head, the legend reading “Shirley! At last in TECHNICOLOR.” And in 1937, the novelist Graham Greene, reviewing Wee Willie Winkie in the British magazine Night and Day, wrote: “Her admirers — middle-aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.” Fox successfully sued Greene and the magazine, which was assessed a fine of £3,500. To avoid trial, Greene fled to Mexico, where he wrote The Power and the Glory.

Though some observers read her chipper charm as a vamp’s wiles, Shirley would achieve her own power and glory as an antidote to the perceived excesses of the pre-Code era — the period from 1930 to 1934 when movies took advantage of lax regulation to trumpet racy plots involving low women, bad women and — above all — strong women. A stricter set of guidelines was introduced in July 1934, by which time Temple had signed by Fox (soon 20th Century-Fox) for $150 a week, just as she exploded from featured player into stardom. If Mae West embodied pre-Code, Shirley was Code. A little child, not a sultry woman, would lead America.

(SEE: The top eight Shirley Temple performances)

At Fox, Temple first attracted notice in the musical revue Stand Up and Cheer. She was billed seventh, just below “Aunt Jemima” (Italian-American vaudevillian Tess Gardella, who performed in blackface), but outshone the rest by selling the Lew Brown-Jay Gorney song “Baby, Take a Bow.” Her breakout was a loanout to Paramount for Little Miss Marker, based on a Damon Runyon story. Stealing the movie from wily pro Adolphe Menjou, who called her “an Ethel Barrymore at six,” she played a child given to gangsters as collateral for a debt her father had incurred. The gangsters take custody of little “Marky” when the father commits suicide.

Little Miss Marker cued the standard Shirley plot. “That would be to have her, very soon in the movie, lose her parents,” film historian James Robert Parish said in on the hour-long Biography on Temple. “They’d be run over by a car, they’d get shot or drowned — anything to get rid of them, so that she’d be a lovable little waif.” Whereas the Baby Burlesks concocted an alternate universe with no adults allowed, Temple’s feature films were nearly the opposite: she was often the only child, exiled not just from the traditional family but from peer friendships. She was an orphan of the screen, and the moviegoer’s duty and pleasure was to adopt her, for an hour and a half. Shirley’s bosses knew, as Walt Disney did, that putting a child in isolation and peril created audience empathy and financial profit.

(SEE: The five Shirley Temple movies you can stream right now)

Seen today, her movies look canny in tapping her appeal but a little rote in repeating motifs from film to film; each picture was more or less a remake of the preceding one. When she had a top director, like John Ford in Wee Willie Winkie, she gave more natural performances. (Film historian Joseph McBride has argued that Ford should have won his first Oscar not for The Informer but for Wee Willie Winkie.) And Temple, a terrific dancer who could sell a song to the deaf, is at her best in musical numbers, especially her duets with Robinson.

What she was not, precisely, was an actress. Unlike, say, Margaret O’Brien, her 1940s successor in the child-star sweepstakes, who had the uncanny gift for seeming to live inside a child’s hopes and fears, and of communicating those raw feelings, Temple was more an expert simulator of whatever emotion the director called for. Finding the truth in a character — tough work even for an adult actor — was less important to Shirley than pleasing the widest audience. She did that, sensationally.

As a miniature bundle of resolute energy, she had conquered the world. When stardom ebbed, after the expensive failure of the 1940 The Blue Bird, she segued fairly gracefully into teen roles: as Claudette Colbert’s younger daughter in the David O. Selznick home-front war drama Since You Went Away, flirting with Cary Grant in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer and as Henry Fonda’s daughter in the Ford Western Fort Apache.

(READ: Corliss on John Ford at Fox — with Shirley Temple)

And then she got out. Unlike the more recent Disney and Nickelodeon “cinemoppets” (TIME’s old phrase for child actors), who get most of their later exposure in lurid tabloid headlines, Temple navigated her post-child-star years without scandal. She was married for five years to actor John Agar, her costar in Fort Apache. Nine days after their divorce, in December 1950, she wed businessman Charles Black, who said he had never seen a Shirley Temple movie. At 22, she retired from films. They remained married until his death in 2005. She became a Republican fundraiser, an Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia and — after surgery for breast cancer — was one of the first celebrities who publicized her experience to promote awareness of the disease.

Millions of little girls in the ’30s treasured her as their ideal self in movies; they never outgrew Shirleymania. But she herself did, to pursue an exemplarily private public life. So we raise a glass — ginger ale and grenadine, please — to Shirley Temple, the child star who grew up.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at