Shirley Temple Black, the pudgy-cheeked child movie star who was a fount of gumption and cheer throughout the Great Depression, died Monday at the age of 85, a family spokesperson said in a statement. “We salute her for a life of remarkable achievements as an actor, as a diplomat, and most importantly as our beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and adored wife of fifty-five years,” the statement said.
Even during some of the roughest financial times this country has ever seen, little Shirley Temple was able to put smiles on moviegoers’ faces with her trademark head of of 56 curls and those silver-bullet dimples. Before every big scene, her mother would tell her, “Sparkle, Shirley, sparkle!” And so Shirley Temple did. The only daughter of a Los Angeles banker and a housewife mother, Temple first broke into motion pictures at the tender age of 3, imitating popular stars of the day in hammy comedy shorts called Baby Burlesks. Just three years later, after the runaway hits Stand Up and Cheer and Bright Eyes, she became the youngest actor ever presented with an Oscar (albeit an honorary one).
When she was 5, Temple signed her first long contract with Fox, printing her name starting with a backwards S. In her terrifically wry 1988 memoir Child Star, Temple Black recalled, “Starlets have to kiss a lot of people, including some unattractive ones. Often, starlets are knocked down to the floor or pricked by their diaper pins. The hours are long. Some of the positions that must be assumed are downright uncomfortable. Your hair and teeth must always be clean, and the same goes for your white socks.”
Her first big hit was 1934’s Stand Up and Cheer, alongside popular song-and-dance man James Dunn. Whether singing about lollipops and peppermint bays in 1934’s Bright Eyes, or tap dancing up a flight of stairs with her favorite costar, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, in 1935’s Little Colonel, she was at once roly-poly cute and smoothly professional. “This child frightens me,” declared costar Adolphe Menjou, who played a gangster holding Temple’s wisecracking orphan character ransom in 1934’s Little Miss Marker. “She’s an Ethel Barrymore at 6!”
For four years straight, from 1934-37, audiences declared her their favorite movie star. After Baby Take a Bow premiered in New York in 1935, President Roosevelt summed up Temple’s soothing appeal: “When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during the 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.”
The Temple trademark raked in millions of dollars of revenue when stamped to records, magazines, children’s clothes, breakfast cereal, dolls, and of course the signature nonalcoholic drink imbibed by children on special occasions to this day. Her last great success as a child star for Fox came in 1939’s The Little Princess. She retired from the movies once and for all in 1950 at age 22. By that time, she had married her first husband, actor John Agar, with whom she had a daughter, Linda, in 1948. Shortly after divorcing Agar in 1950, she wed WWII hero and business exec Charles Black and had two more children, Charles Jr. and Lori. (Black died in 2005 of complications from bone marrow disease.)
Even after leaving acting, she remained in the public spotlight. An active Republican who ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. House seat in California in 1967, she was appointed U.S. ambassador to Ghana under Gerald Ford and as ambassador to Czechoslovakia under George H.W. Bush. In 2006, Temple Black was presented with a SAG Life Achievement Award. “When I was 3 years old, I was delighted to be told I was an actress, even when I didn’t know what an actress was,” she told the roomful of her peers. “I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the lifetime achievement award—start early!”