Shirley Temple: First Child Franchise
Before Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan, there was Shirley Temple. In 1930’s Shirley Temple was the symbol of wholesome family entertainment that spread across several films and a multitude of merchandise during the Great Depression. With her golden curly hair, adorable dimples and sparking personality, Temple transfixed a nation for five years and became one of the most successful brands and film franchises of the 20th century.
Shirley Temple never starred in a sequel or even a film serial format that was popular over 70 years ago. She didn’t have to. From her first starring vehicle “Bright Eyes” and its star-making show stopper “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” the first child franchise was born.
Temple was not the first child star, but she was a featured contract player at 20th Century Fox where studio head Darryl F. Zanuck crafted her career into a series of movies that are mostly forgotten today but left an indelible mark on Hollywood.
The formula became almost routine, where the usually orphaned Temple would win the hearts of grumpy older men with her sugary sweet charm and innocence. Never once reprising a role, audiences paid on average 15 cents to escape the turmoil of 1930’s reality to a cookie cutter world created by a caravan of “Shirley Temple writers.”
She was Jon Benet Ramsey before the ludicrous child pageant shows of the past 20 years, except her story had a happy ending. Raised by a backstage mother, her trademark hairstyle was patterned after silent film star Mary Pickford. She was taking singing, dancing and acting lessons by the time she was three. After she became a major movie star, Temple’s likeness could be found everywhere, including dolls, handkerchiefs and candy. Little girls wanted to be her, parents wanted their daughters to be like her.
She was so popular, Zanuck turned down MGM’s offer to star Temple in “The Wizard of Oz.” Budgets on her film quadrupled during the height of her career. She was a bigger box office draw than Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. She worked with the iconic director John Ford in “Wee Willie Winkie,” her personal favorite.
By the time she was a teenager in the early 1940’s, she earned over $3 million. Her income was placed into trust funds, so by the time she was 21, Shirley Temple was a very rich young woman. But there was never a sign of pretentiousness, entitlement, or arrogance found in most child stars of today. No major scandals, never any drug or alcohol arrests checkered her past. She was married twice, but the second one stuck, lasting over 50 years.
If Shirley Temple was a star today, would she become one of the bumper crop of Disney Channel stars that seem to relish the negative publicity? Would she had a nervous breakdown and publicly shave her head? Or appear in court with another DUI? It would probably be unavoidable.
When Shirley Temple outgrew her cuteness, and became an awkward teenager and average looking woman, the former superstar simply walked away from it all and became a wife and mother. There were several attempts to revive the dormant acting career, but she knew it would not be a permanent return to entertainment and remained content with her status in life.
It is easy to dismiss her personal success to being a child star from a different time. But the ratio of bad kids to her one triumph story is probably equal to the movie kids of today. Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and most of the Little Rascals had many tragic twists and turns that rival Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan.
Stating that Shirley Temple’s environment in a world of conservative values and innocence contributed to her mature demeanor is a combination of ignorance and denial. Hollywood of the 1930’s was as diabolical and seedy as it is today. What was portrayed on the silver screen was not taking place in the dank, alleyways of Tinseltown, and as a little girl, Temple was exposed to it on a regular basis.
Was she one of the lucky kids? Does she have a certain chemical mix comparable to future child stars Ron Howard or Butch Patrick that was immune to the temptations of being a star? Many actors had similar childhoods as Shirley Temple, but she made it out and had a normal life without the headlines despite the early exposure.
Most will recall her 56 curls of blonde hair, the movie clips of a tap dancing doll or the post-acting career as a diplomat. What should be remembered is the stability she bought to the art of childhood performers. Shirley Temple’s life and career should be a blueprint and her biography should be assigned reading in the literature classes in acting schools. Shirley Temple should be remembered as the graceful star off the screen as much as on it.
She wielded much more power in her time than most celebrities today. Presidents praised her contributions to society and the public adored her. Sadly, there are no Shirley Temples today. No one to influence future generations the way she did. She leaves behind not the just the movies clips and dancing numbers, but a little piece of hopefulness every child should aspire to have.