February 11

Shirley Temple, iconic child star, dies at 85

The talented and adorable entertainer was America’s top box-office draw from 1935 to 1938, a record no other child star has come near.

By Martha Mendoza
The Associated Press

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Shirley Temple was 8 years old in this 1936 photo. Publicist Cheryl Kagan says Temple, known in private life as Shirley Temple Black, died at age 85 surrounded by family at her home near San Francisco.

The Associated Press

“When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles,” Roosevelt said.

She followed up in the next few years with a string of hit films, most with sentimental themes and musical subplots. She often played an orphan, as in “Curly Top,” where she introduced the hit “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” and “Stowaway,” in which she was befriended by Robert Young, later of “Father Knows Best” fame.

She teamed with the great black dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in two 1935 films with Civil War themes, “The Little Colonel” and “The Littlest Rebel.” Their tap dance up the steps in “The Little Colonel” (at a time when interracial teamings were unheard-of in Hollywood) became a landmark in the history of film dance.

Some of her pictures were remakes of silent films, such as “Captain January,” in which she recreated the role originally played by the silent star Baby Peggy Montgomery in 1924. “Poor Little Rich Girl” and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” done a generation earlier by Mary Pickford, were heavily rewritten for Temple, with show biz added to the plots to give her opportunities to sing.

In its review of “Rebecca,” the show business publication Variety complained that a “more fitting title would be ‘Rebecca of Radio City.’”

She won a special Academy Award in early 1935 for her “outstanding contribution to screen entertainment” in the previous year.

“She is a legacy of a different time in motion pictures. She caught the imagination of the entire country in a way that no one had before,” actor Martin Landau said when the two were honored at the Academy Awards in 1998.

Temple’s fans agreed. Her fans seemed interested in every last golden curl on her head: It was once guessed that she had more than 50. Her mother was said to have done her hair in pin curls for each movie, with every hairstyle having exactly 56 curls.

On her eighth birthday — she actually was turning 9, but the studio wanted her to be younger — Temple received more than 135,000 presents from around the world, according to “The Films of Shirley Temple,” a 1978 book by Robert Windeler. The gifts included a baby kangaroo from Australia and a prize Jersey calf from schoolchildren in Oregon.

“She’s indelible in the history of America because she appeared at a time of great social need, and people took her to their hearts,” the late Roddy McDowall, a fellow child star and friend, once said.

Although by the early 1960s, she was retired from the entertainment industry, her interest in politics soon brought her back into the spotlight.

She made an unsuccessful bid as a Republican candidate for Congress in 1967. After Richard Nixon became president in 1969, he appointed her as a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. In the 1970s, she was U.S. ambassador to Ghana and later U.S. chief of protocol.

She then served as ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the administration of the first President Bush. A few months after she arrived in Prague in mid-1989, communist rule was overthrown in Czechoslovakia as the Iron Curtain collapsed across Eastern Europe.

“My main job (initially) was human rights, trying to keep people like future President Vaclav Havel out of jail,” she said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. Within months, she was accompanying Havel, the former dissident playwright, when he came to Washington as his country’s new president.

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