Today is the 85th birthday of Mrs. Shirley Temple Black, the most popular child star in history, and one of the few who didn’t disintegrate or self-distruct. Her life is both well-known and well-chronicled elsewhere. I just wanted to take a minute to point out a few aspects of her career that I find interesting and may interest our readers:
* The earliest phase of her career, from 1932 through 1934, was spent making comedy shorts at Educational Pictures, the Poverty Row studio that also employed Buster Keaton, Andy Clyde, Harry Langdon, and many other comedians. Shirley (all of 3 and 4 years old) starred in two series for the studio. Baby Burlesks were funny parodies of popular films of the day (e.g., a western, a Tarzan picture), starring all-baby casts. The effect was kind of like Hal Roach’s Our Gang, and kind of like those shorts series starring animals. The kids are cute, and barely know what they’re saying. The other series Frolics of Youth was essentially a domestic situation comedy about a family; Shirley was a pesky little sister named Mary Lou. These series are both pretty delightful; I used to watch them with my kids when they were younger. (Although, sometimes the love scenes in the Baby Burlesks cross a line most reputable producers would stay away from today.)
* Bright Eyes (1934) is the film with Temple’s iconic song and dance number “Good Ship Lollipop”. The number is a classic not only because of Temple’s adorable (perhaps too adorable) performance, but because it’s brilliantly staged…I just love the stop and start tracking shot following Shirley up the airplane aisle, capturing all the amused faces of the passengers. If you’ve not seen the film, it may surprise you to learn that it’s kind of a weepie downer, dealing as it deals with DEATH.
* Temple’s co-star in several pictures is the great dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who appears in The Little Colonel (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), and Just Around the Corner (1938). These parts were both groundbreaking and problematic. These were among the first starring turns for an African American in Hollywood films, but they were also “Uncle Tom” roles. Robinson would take a lot of heat about it from some quarters.
* Temple, who had been a box office gold mine throughout the Depression years, began to lose her lustre for audiences around 1940 (aged 12). She soldiered gamely on for another decade; as she reached the other side of adolesence she found new appeal as a very attractive young woman. Notable pictures from this phase included the screwball comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer with Cary Grant (1947), and the western Fort Apache (1948), directed by John Ford who had earlier directed her in Wee Willie Winkie (1937). Fort Apache allowed Temple to star opposite her then husband John Agar, whose chief virtue in the film is making his wife appear a Duse in comparison. The reality was, though she was attractive and energetic, she really couldn’t act. After 1949′s A Kiss for Corliss she dropped being in movies for awhile.
* In 1950 she married millionaire Charles Alden Black and had two children. From 1958 through 1961 she came out of retirement to produce, host and occasionally act in her own television show Shirley Temple’s Storybook. See my review of that show and her version of The House of the Seven Gables here.
* Her last acting gig seems to have been a performance in a pilot for a sit-com called Go Fight City Hall in 1965. It wasn’t picked up, but she decided to fight city hall herself by going into politics as a Republican. She ran for congress unsuccessfully in 1967, and later served as Ambassador to Ghana, Ambassador to Czechoslavakia, and Chief of Protocol of the United States.
Here she is doing the famous “stair dance” with Bill Robinson in The Little Colonel:
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc