In the classic 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson’s character, Norma Desmond, utters the movie’s most famous line: “I am ‘big.’ It’s the pictures that got small.” Such could be said of child star turned U.S. diplomat, Shirley Temple Black. Black died Monday. She was 85.
She was indeed big. A tiny starlet in ring curls and dimpled cheeks, Temple tap danced, sang and wooed her way into film history. Even so, in the current age of fleeting YouTube fame, it may be difficult to conceive of Temple’s impact on Depression-era audiences.
According to the American Film Institute archives, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt noted her place in the public’s heart, “…for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”
Making over 50 films — 40 by age 12 — Temple held her own against the likes of much bigger (and older stars). She matched Bill “Bojangles” Robinson step for step in four films.
Temple and Robinson first paired as foils for curmudgeonly Lionel Barrymore in 1935’s The Little Colonel. This is the film where a 7-year-old Shirley tap dances up and down a long staircase alongside Robinson.
In a 1998 interview with the Washington Post, Temple described her approach to dancing with Robinson: “I would learn by listening to the taps. I would primarily listen to what he was doing and I would do it.”
The year 1935 is also when Temple became the model for a doll that sold 1.5 million copies per year. So too, were her dresses. Her likeness was also emblazoned on many other items, such as paper dolls and dishes.
In a 1989 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Temple speculated on the source of her grounded and very un-Hollywood approach to fame. She attributed this balance to her “super mother” who “kept my head on straight” and “just dusted off” the adulation.
Again, in the present age of Lindsay Lohan, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, it’s difficult to remember that fame need not be concomitant with vulgar ostentation, excess and recklessness. Just as many of Temple’s early contemporaries became faded cautionary tales, healthy child stardom today appears equally as narrow and perilous as the metaphorical razor’s edge.
When Temple matured, movie roles became more scarce. Owning to the influences of stable parenting, the actress transitioned from child star to public citizen.
Temple married businessman, Charlie Black in 1950 and was then known as Shirley Temple Black.
She also became very active in political causes with the Republican party. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1967. Two years later, she was appointed as the U.S. delegate to the United Nations by President Richard Nixon.
From 1974 to 1976, Temple served as the U.S. ambassador to the West African nation of Ghana and later served as White House chief of protocol for President Gerald Ford. She was ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992. Temple told the Washington Post in 1998 that this was “a substantive job” and the best she ever held.
Temple occupies a singular place in American popular culture. For many she won’t be remembered as the capable diplomat. Rather, she stands frozen as a darling tyke with chubby dimpled cheeks, blonde curls and prodigal talent. Whatever our remembrance, Temple will not be forgotten.