Shirley Temple Black (born 1928) was an American who devoted her career first to films and then to public service. The United States ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 till 1992, she was still remembered by millions of fans for her success as a child movie star in the 1930s.
Shirley Temple was born in Santa Monica, California, on April 23, 1928. She was the youngest of three children. Her father was a bank teller. As a child Shirley Temple began to take dance steps almost as soon as she began to walk, and her mother took her to dancing school when she was about three and a half years old. She also took her daughter on endless rounds of visits to agents, hoping to secure a show business career. Persistence paid off. Little Shirley obtained a contract at a small film studio and one of the great careers in film history began.
Her first contract was with Educational Pictures Inc., for whom she worked in 1932 and 1933. She appeared in a serial entitled Baby Burlesks, followed by a two-reeler, Frolics of Youth, that would lead to her being contracted by the Fox Film Corporation at a salary of $150 per week. The first full-length feature that she appeared in for Fox was 1934's Carolina. It was another Fox release of that year that made her a star: Stand Up and Cheer. Although she only appeared in a subsidiary role, she made a big hit in this picture by singing and dancing "Baby Take a Bow." She appeared in eight other full-length films (not to mention her ongoing work in serials and short subjects) that year, including Little Miss Marker and Bright Eyes. The first of these is especially notable because it was her first starring role. The culmination of 1934 was the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences award of a special miniature Oscar to her "in grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the year, 1934." One cannot help but assume that the industry-dominated academy was most impressed by her status as the number one box office draw of the year, but her special Oscar was unique in that it represented the first and only time that an Oscar has been awarded on the basis of a poll of the film-going public.
Film Star of the 1930s
Through the rest of the decade Shirley Temple's star soared. And it was not only her delectable dimples and 56 corkscrew curls that would keep her at the top of the box office listings. She was a spectacularly talented child, able to sing and dance with style and genuine feeling. Gifted with perfect pitch, she was a legendary quick study who learned her lines and dance routines much faster than her older and more experienced co-stars. She would make 15 films in the next six years, becoming one of the most popular stars of the Great Depression years and making over $30 million for the newly organized Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation. The company's chief executive, Darryl Zanuck, arranged for a staff of 19 writers to exclusively develop film projects for her. Studio wags described her character, which evolved through such films as The Little Colonel (1935), Captain January (1936), Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Heidi (1937), and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), as "Little Miss Fix-It" whose cuteness and precocious presence of mind helped grown-ups through real-life difficulties. And as her popularity rose, so did her salary—to $10,000 per week.
But unfortunately little of the built-up popularity would be hers to claim by the time she was an adult. As she reports in her autobiography, her father's questionable management of her funds, coupled with both of her parents' healthy regard for their own interests, enabled only a fraction of the immense fortune that she earned to accrue to Shirley herself. By 1940 she had appeared in 43 feature films and shorts and an entire industry had sprung up whose products celebrated the glories of Shirley Temple: dolls, dresses, coloring books, and other sundry merchandise. She also earned enormous sums by commercially endorsing all sorts of products. These endeavors brought in an even larger amount of money than her studio salary. She got more fan mail than Greta Garbo and her picture was taken more frequently than President Franklin D. Roosevelt's. Shirley Temple will always be a symbol of the nation's longing for good times and good cheer during the severe economic woes of the Great Depression.
By the decade's end she was no longer quite a child, and when The Blue Bird (1940) proved unpopular at the box office and the next film that she starred in fared poorly as well, Twentieth Century-Fox devised a means of getting rid of the "property" that had saved the fledgling studio from bankruptcy. She would try to maintain her acting career through the 1940s but never again would she come even close to the stardom of her childhood. Film audiences would simply not allow the adorable girl who had sung "On the Good Ship Lolly Pop" and "Animal Crackers (in My Soup)" to grow up.
There had never been a child star so talented as she. Actress, singer, and dancer—Shirley Temple was a unique performer. The "industry" that rose up to promote her did not exist to support her stardom so much as it was a reflection of it. Moreover, Shirley Temple's true greatness as a screen idol has survived to the present day as her films are revived on television and re-released on videocassettes. New generations of fans have grown up marveling at her talent wholly apart from any studio hype or pressurized product tie-ins marketed to bedazzle them. Her matchless and enduring talent has proven to be enchantment enough.
It is arguable that nothing could have been done to preserve the lustre of her magic. Yet her ongoing struggles as an adult would prove her to be as heroic in her own life as she had ever been on the screen. A difficult first marriage to actor John Agar caused her to mature quickly. Almost immediately thereafter came the realization that her parents had been looking out for their own best interests rather than hers.
As she had done in so many of her films, she rallied. After marrying the successful California businessman Charles Black in 1950, with whom she raised her children (Linda from her first marriage and Charles and Lori from her second), she embarked on a career in television. The success of her two children's series enabled her to pursue her commitment to children's issues with vigor. In 1961 she cofounded the National Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies.
Her concern over domestic social ills caused her to realize that life as a private citizen could not satisfy her desire to make the world a better place. She ran for Congress in 1967 and was defeated. This was only the beginning of her involvement in public service. In 1969 she was appointed to serve as a representative to the United Nations. Her exemplary work at the UN led to a second career for Shirley Temple Black. In 1972 she was appointed representative to the UN Conference on the Human Environment and also served as a delegate on the Joint Committee for the USSR-USA Environmental Treaty. The next year she served as a US commissioner for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Black overcame a great challenge in 1972 when she successfully battled breast cancer. When she publicly disclosed that she had a mastectomy, she gave courage to millions of women. Two years later she was appointed ambassador to Ghana, where she was warmly received by the people of that nation. Upon completion of her tour of duty in Africa, President Ford made her the US chief of protocol. In all of her various diplomatic functions, Black's intelligence, spirit, and zeal contributed greatly to her country's prestige and furthered its world position. Democratic President Carter paid tribute to her tact and flawless taste when he chose her (Black had been a lifelong Republican) to make the arrangements for his inauguration and inaugural ball in 1977.
But the triumphs of her adult life no more ruffled her poise and grace than her earlier tribulations. Her marriage and family life with Charles Black was as rewarding to her as her career as a diplomat was distinguished. Indeed, by 1981 she was such an established pillar of the public service community that she became one of the founding members of the American Academy of Diplomacy. In 1988 she was appointed Honorary Foreign Service Officer of the United States, the only person with that rank. She went on to serve as the US ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 until 1992. Such honors are ultimately the true measure of her career's meaning. Latter-day film industry recognition such as the Life Achievement Award of the American Center of Films for Children or the full-sized Oscar that she was given in 1985 were echoes of a past that, while still resonant for "Shirley Temple," were not quite relevant for Shirley Temple Black. According to Black, her more than 25 years of social service have been just as enjoyable as her years in Hollywood.
Black is working on a book about her diplomatic career, which, she told Susan Bandrapalli in a 1996 Christian Science Monitor interview, she expects to take quite some time to complete. Her first book, A Child's Story took eight years to write. Black also stated that she was concerned about the lack of civility in the world today and said, "People should show more kindness and understanding."
The title of a recent biography (American Princess) does not do her justice. Through her lifetime of service in the arts and public life, Black has exemplified the spirit of self-sacrifice and persistent striving that Americans have aspired to for generations. She is truly an American heroine.
Further Reading on Shirley Temple Black
Shirley Temple Black wrote a candid and tasteful autobiography, Child Star (1988), detailing her years in Hollywood. Anne Edward's American Princess, published the same year, is an adequately researched, if slightly sensationalized, treatment of her life. Jeanine Basinger has written a study of her films, Shirley Temple (1975), which comments briefly on her life but is mostly concerned with sketching her film career. Another satisfactory examination of her movies is The Films of Shirley Temple by Robert Windeler. Black's career as a diplomat and as an environmental and children's rights activist keeps her in the headlines of magazines and newspapers, and nostalgia for her days of childhood stardom will no doubt keep her name in the columns of other journals as well. See Christian Science Monitor (April 25, 1996), People Weekly (November 28, 1988).