On stage and off, Shirley Temple served her country well

In an unlikely confluence of history and movie magic, no less than the President of the United States had this to say about America’s most popular film star during the depths of 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,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1934.

The patrician president was slightly off in his calculations. A movie ticket at the time was actually closer to a quarter.

But the value of Shirley Temple Black’s impact on the American psyche at its lowest was immeasurable.

The former child star died Monday, two months shy of her 86th birthday. Some thought she was already dead. Others thought she was older.

Perhaps that’s because from 1935 to 1938, the winsome moppet was the top film star in the country, a record that came before she was 10. Not the top child star — but any star — in an age of movie royalty that included the likes of Clark Gable, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

So awesome was Shirley Temple’s fame, she practically kept Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox afloat, with help from Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor.

The loss of her baby teeth was an event; one popped out as she sank her hands and feet in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, according to her 1988 autobiography.

A crazed woman once aimed a gun at her in a theater. In the late ’30s, Temple Black recalled, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself stopped by to take her fingerprints in case anyone had the idea of kidnapping a motion picture money machine.

She was tipped off to the existence of Santa Claus by a department store version who asked for the movie star’s autograph, according to the Associated Press. She even had a child’s cocktail named after her, complete with a maraschino cherry.

And here’s the truth about “The Wizard of Oz,” from Temple Black herself and film historian Aljean Harmetz. Like it or not, Shirley Temple would have starred in that timeless film — regardless of whether she fit the role of Dorothy — had fate not intervened.

Harmetz’s version is that Zanuck would not lend his prized star to MGM for “Oz.” Temple Black herself recalled it differently:

“If Zanuck would loan me, (MGM head Louis B.) Mayer would loan Jean Harlow and Clark Gable to Zanuck,” she wrote in her memoir.

MGM had recently lost its songbird, Deanna Durbin, and its executives weren’t entirely sold on Judy Garland as Dorothy. But when screen siren Harlow suddenly died in 1937, the deal was off, according to Temple Black.

“Nothing was left for Mayer but to go with his already rejected option of Judy Garland. Sometimes the gods know best.”

Yes, they do.

By that time, Shirley Temple was only 11, but not so much the cute child star anymore. She later made a few grown-up films — 1944’s classic “Since You Went Away” showed she could handle adult emotion — but even being paired with Cary Grant couldn’t offset the reality of adulthood.

Still, a failed first marriage to a fellow actor was followed by a chapter in Temple Black’s life that could have been penned by Hollywood screenwriters.

She married war veteran and businessman Charles Black in 1950. He had no idea she had been a child star and good-naturedly accepted his role as the spouse of a famous woman.

They raised three children in a happy union that ended with Black’s death in 2005. Their years together included her roles as a Republican party fundraiser and U.S. ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia, the latter just as the Iron Curtain came down in Europe in 1989.

She also served as chief of protocol under President Gerald Ford. Ironically, as Ford’s wife Betty later would, Temple Black made public her 1972 struggle with breast cancer to help destigmatize the disease.

She told women at the time not to “sit home and be afraid,” according to the New York Times.

In her 85 years, Shirley Temple Black served her country well politically, socially and, most importantly, as a ray of light in perhaps the country’s darkest time.

“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,” fellow child star Roddy McDowall told the New York Times.

It’s hard to fathom that kind of need now. Then again, have you ever heard anyone walk up to a bartender and ask for a “Shirley Jones”?

(Originally published in the Courier-Post)

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