Shirley Temple Biography

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Birth Name: Shirley Temple
Born: 04/23/1928
Birth Place: Santa Monica, California, USA


She was born Shirley Jane Temple on April 23, 1928, in Santa Monica, CA, to banker George Temple and his wife Gertrude. With Shirley the third child after two sons, Gertrude would quickly project her own ebbing theatrical dreams onto her daughter, whom she would famously urge to "sparkle" before nearly every performance. Gertrude claimed her daughter's first words were lyrics of a song by crooner Rudy Vallee and, when Shirley was only three years old, her mother enrolled her at the Meglin Dance Studio in Los Angeles. Her mother also took a heavy hand in defining her daughter's trademark appearance, including setting her hair in what would become her famous curls, and also added a year to her birthdate to pass Shirley off as even younger. It caught the attention of talent-spotters for Educational Studios, who cast the young Temple in their "Baby Burlesks" short films, a series of oddly ribald spoofs of feature films starring preschool-age actors playing adult characters. The work, however, came with an eerie twist on early Hollywood child labor; Temple, when she acted up, would be given a time-out in a solitary confinement box with only a block of ice to sit on, which, years later in her autobiography, she would write off as a "profound" lesson that "Time is money. Wasted time means wasted money means trouble."

Between Baby Burlesks and bit child roles in a studio films, Temple had racked up 20 credits in her first two years in the business when an exec from Fox Film Corp. spotted her and put her under contract. She made her major feature debut in "Stand Up and Cheer" (1934), an oddball ensemble film that featured her sparingly but tendered her first song-and-dance number with "Baby, Take a Bow." Her first bona fide starring role would come on a loan-out to Paramount for "Little Miss Marker" (1934), based on a Damon Runyon story, which featured her as a child, left at a racetrack as an IOU, charming her way into the hearts of hardboiled gamblers. She returned to Fox for "Baby Take a Bow" (1934), exploiting her previous breakout number, though plot-wise she remained subordinate to James Dunn (with whom she performed the title track in "Stand Up and Cheer") and Claire Trevor. But with her next outing, "Bright Eyes" (1934), Fox found a winning formula.

The movie placed her front and center as a daughter of the maid to a snobby wealthy family, who make her their ward when her mother dies, and whose grizzled old patriarch she ends up charming. The move featured her first rendition of "On the Good Ship Lollipop" - which became a hit single - as well as an overwrought finale where adults realize her transformative influence, in this case via a custody battle. The next year's "The Little Colonel" (1935) would see her first team-up with Bill Robinson, the venerable African-American dancer consigned routinely to crude stereotypes (which frequented Temple's pictures). It featured what would become their famous dance down a staircase. Not long after, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded her a special "juvenile" Academy Award for her debut work in 1934. With that and the finalization of the merger of Fox and Twentieth Century Pictures, new production chief Daryl Zanuck made Temple the frontispiece of his efforts to build the new Twentieth Century Fox into a major player.

Zanuck marshaled some of the studio's top talent around Temple, even if it yielded by-the-numbers film templates. She played orphans in "Curly Top" (1935), "Captain January" (1936), "Stowaway" (1936), "Dimples" (1936), "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" (1937), "Heidi" (1937), "Little Miss Broadway" (1938), "Susannah of the Mounties" (1939) and "Young People" (1940); if not orphaned, typically she played the never-say-die child of a beleaguered single parent, usually galvanizing the cast with a treacly number. Her movies produced a succession of radio hits including "Animal Crackers in My Soup" and "When I Grow Up" from "Curly Top," "Swing Me an Old-Fashioned Song" from "Little Miss Broadway," and "Goodnight My Love" from "Stowaway." She worked again with Robinson on three more films, most eerily returning to a Southern setting with him in "The Littlest Rebel" (1935), in which she plays the daughter of a noble ex-Confederate, the latter wrongly imprisoned by invading Northerners until she and Bojangles appeal to an amenable President Lincoln for help. Marred additionally by unconscionable African-American stereotypes, and Temple herself performing in blackface, the whole venture added insult to injury when shots of Robinson and Temple simply holding hands were considered improper and cut from prints shown in the South.

During her peak years, Temple became a phenomenon. Shirley Temple dolls sold in the outfits she wore in her movies, and mothers bought Shirley Temple dresses and accessories for their daughters. Kids and teetotalers could order a sweet, non-alcoholic cocktail called the Shirley Temple. In 1936, Fox revamped her contract to give her a stunning $50,000 per film, and her proliferating fans showered her with 16,000 letters a month at one point. President Franklin Roosevelt even invited her to a barbecue at his home in Hyde Park, NY, though her stalwart Republican parents disliked FDR and his New Deal. Temple's own rightward leanings were catalyzed early when the top cop in the country, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, befriended her and prompted an aspiration of her becoming an FBI agent. While her movies accounted for more revenues at the box office than any other actor from 1935 to 1938, Fox execs and Gertrude Temple execs kept her insulated from the mania, cloistering her in her own bungalow to prevent her from getting a swelled head and growing up too fast, letting her raise rabbits that she would rent to the studio. While she did often use her coquettish wiles to charm her directors and producers, she later said it endeared veteran director John Ford to her when he dismissed such attempts and treated her as any other actor on the set of "Wee Willie Winkie" (1937).

Toward the end of her Fox run, as she entered adolescence, her box office drawing power was directly proportional to her cuteness. When MGM began mulling its lavish production of "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), Temple was considered for the lead role of Dorothy, but an initial MGM test of her vocal skills found them wanting for the lavish musical production envisioned. The notion of a loan-out of Temple in exchange for an MGM loan to Fox of superstars Clark Gable and Jean Harlow went inert upon Harlow's tragic death in 1937. But Zanuck, seeing the big success of "Oz," attempted to field his own children's fantasy pic the next year, "The Blue Bird" (1940) with Temple as the star, but it would prove her first major flop and portend her end at Fox. When she sought a new studio in 1941, she had a curious meeting with MGM's Arthur Freed wherein, she later revealed, he exposed his genitals to her, to which she responded simply by laughing and leaving. Out of the studio system, she went to school with other students for the first time, returning intermittently to do films, such as the solemn homefront melodramas "Since You Went Away" (1944) and "I'll Be Seeing You" (1944) which curiously saw the onetime top box office draw billed fourth and third, respectively.

At age 17, she met one of her classmates' older brother, a young G.I. named John Agar, and in September 1945 they married amid a media frenzy, attended not only by movie moguls, California governor Earl Warren, and thousands of well-wishers. Temple envisaged a "normal" married life, but tabloids followed their every move and Agar soon became interested in acting. Meanwhile, Temple found top form as randy co-ed hot for a much older Cary Grant in the screwball comedy "The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer" (1947), then did another complex turn in the dated soaper "That Hagen Girl" (1947) with Ronald Reagan. In 1948, she and Agar scored dual supporting roles in John Ford's "Fort Apache" (1948), with Temple playing the daughter of Henry Fonda's Custeresque cavalry officer, smitten with Agar as one of his officers. They would do one more film together, "Adventures in Baltimore" (1949), before the marriage imploded. Though Temple had found soon after their nuptials that Agar could be a surly drunk, he compounded it with philandering that became ever more brazen. When she went into labor with their daughter Susan, she drove to the hospital alone. She filed for divorce in late 1949 and retired from the cinema.

Only a few months later, on vacation in Hawaii, she met Charles Black, a maritime businessman and avid surfer, and fell in love at first sight, she claimed later. Black impressed her by knowing little of show business, familiar with neither her name nor her movies. After a whirlwind courtship, he proposed. She called J. Edgar Hoover to do a background check on him - Black turned up crime- and subversion-free - and she married him in December 1950, adding his last name. At this point she also discovered that her father had mismanaged the $3 million fortune she had made with Fox and supposedly safely stowed in a trust fund, with only $44,000 left. She would have one more dalliance with show business in the late '50s, hosting and occasionally taking a role in the anthology TV series "Shirley Temple's Storybook" (NBC/ABC, 1958-1962). During the same period, she helped co-found International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies, a disease that had hit close to home by afflicting her brother George, Jr.

In 1967, upon the death of California congressman, she ran in the special election for the vacant seat, advocating an escalation of the Vietnam War. She lost, but with Richard Nixon's election the next year, he appointed her a U.S. delegate to the United Nations. Later, while working with the President's Council on Environmental Quality, she found a lump at on her left breast and was diagnosed with cancer, undergoing a mastectomy in 1972. She went public with the ailment, encouraging what would become a regular female health regiment of breast self-exams. Two years later, she was appointed U.S. ambassador to Ghana, and in 1976 became the State Department's first female Chief of Protocol, essentially the head instructor for newbies to the U.S. diplomatic corps. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed her ambassador to the Czech and Slovak Republic. Over the years, she built a dense résumé that included stints or affiliations with the Council on Foreign Relations, the Council of American Ambassadors, and the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University - not far from her Woodside, CA home. In 1998, she was a recipient of the esteemed Kennedy Center Honors. Charles Black died in 2005 of a bone marrow disease. The next year, the Screen Actors Guild presented her with the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award where she received a tremendous standing ovation.

By Matthew Grimm




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