R.I.P. Shirley Temple

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Some of my earliest movie memories are of watching Shirley Temple movies on the little black-and-white TV in my cousins’ basement den. Channel 56. I would not be who I am today if Channel 56 hadn’t existed. We didn’t watch them as quaint archives, or remnants of a simpler time. We didn’t watch them ironically. We watched them as entertainment. They still work as sheer entertainment. We adored her. She was so engaging, so adorable (and I was about her age when I first watched those movies), and when she cried, we’d all fall silent. Because when she cried, shit got real. They weren’t the porcelain perfect tears of a well-trained prodigy. Her sadness, when it came up, seemed to emerge from a deep well of the reality of the fictional situation. You couldn’t distance yourself from it. At least I couldn’t. She was a phenomenal performer. It is impossible, still, to watch her movies and not get sucked into who she is being, what she is bringing to the screen. She carried the weight of the industry on her wee shoulders and it didn’t appear to be a burden. It’s just that she was so damn GOOD at this show-biz thing. It came naturally.

My old friend and vaudevillian expert Trav SD has a wonderful tribute up on his site.

Shirley Temple’s movies are woven into the fabric of my childhood. Thank you for all the joy you have given to your audiences. It still exists. How many performers could say that 80 years after their heyday?

Rest in peace.

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11 Responses to R.I.P. Shirley Temple

  1. Amy says:

    Nice tribute, Sheila.

    I came to Temple’s movies as a forty-something – my childhood bias against “old movies” didn’t start falling away till later high school and college, and then I had all of that child-of-the-late-sixties bias against feel-good movies to reckon with. (I’m a little bit wiser today.)

    In a way, I’m glad I waited. Once I actually sat down to watch her movies, I was so pleasantly surprised. “Real” is exactly the word that came to my mind to describe her presence onscreen, never mind the way her films were marketed.

    She was born a year later than my (still-living) mom, which makes me a little wistful. A piece of my mom’s childhood reality left us today.

    • sheila says:

      Thanks for sharing, Amy!! I’m glad you went back and re-visited them – she was such a super-nova star and it’s easy to take that for granted, or not really get what the big deal about her was.

      Another thing about her movies: many of them are super-dark. Real hardship, the Depression licking at the heels of the screen.

  2. Sylvia says:

    When I was little, in the ’50s, I loved all her movies so much! Because of her, I begged my mother for curls until she gave me a Toni perm in the kitchen. (Oy, the smell! and the pain of the tight rollers!) Another memory is the book “Susannah of the Mounties,” the movie edition with wonderful black and white photos of her in the endpapers and in the book. She was real to me.

    • sheila says:

      Sylvia – Toni Perm, oh my gosh!! Her curls really were amazing.

      She was so real. Such a real onscreen presence – no wonder she became a star.

  3. Dan says:

    The last thing I saw her in was that movie she did with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, but of course I remember the films on Ch. 56.

    I think one of the most astonishing and impressive things about her is how she left childhood stardom behind for a whole other life, and seemed to escape relatively unscathed (I don’t think anyone hits that level of fame without being marked in some way, for good or ill).

    • sheila says:

      Yes! The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer!!

      It is so impressive that she didn’t go off the rails, or become a recluse – she seemed to enjoy her life, and also had a sense of humor about herself. (Her comments on the drink named after her were always quite funny). She was famous, enjoyed her fame, and then moved on. Pretty amazing.

  4. Rinaldo says:

    I didn’t escape the fallout of being in college in the 60s and 70s — she was a name you rolled your eyes at reflexively, or enjoyed Carol Burnett’s spoofs of her movie routines (and I still do enjoy those — genuinely funny)… without, in my case, ever having seen the originals. When I finally did, I was fortunately old and smart enough to smack myself upside the head for having been so ignorant. She really was all the things she was supposed to be: delightful, talented, touching, real.

    Fortunately, I had at least enjoyed another side of her talent unabashedly when I was younger, in the early 1960s: her TV series Shirley Temple’s Storybook, in which she would host and sometimes appear in a retelling of a children’s story. A few of the episodes are available on DVD. That was actually the first I knew of her.

    • sheila says:

      Shirley Temple’s Storybook pre-dates me but I definitely remember seeing some of them in re-runs.

      It’s funny: I watched her movies before I knew she was a big deal. Somehow her name had filtered down through osmosis but I had no idea about why. I just loved those movies, and they had so many things that captivated me as a child – plucky orphans, little girls who make their own way, tough little kids who stand up to grownups … The fact that she was so super-cute made it even more of a slam-dunk.

      You’re right, though: one of the things about her is so touching she can be. There are, of course, affected parts of her persona – she was so cute and knew how to play it up. But if it had JUST been that, then nobody would have cared about Shirley Temple – her name certainly wouldn’t be famous today.

  5. Rinaldo says:

    One moment in Shirley Temple’s career that isn’t that widely known: she was approached to play Laurey in the original state production of Oklahoma! in 1943. Despite the legend that they didn’t want stars, the story was the star, and all that, it’s now clear that the Theatre Guild did hope to attract some stars to the project, and those efforts failed, they went for the other PR image. In his book about the show, Tim Carter reports that they reached out to Shirley’s mother in hopes that she might welcome such a move at this point in her career (which was indeed proving problematic for her). Mrs. Temple wrote back with regrets, saying that the story looked promising and the sort of thing they’d want to be associated with, but that the role and situations were a little too adult for Shirley at age 15.

    • sheila says:

      I had heard about that!! Wow, makes you wonder. It probably would have changed the history of that musical. Not for worse, necessarily – but her stardom might have overshadowed the revolution that Oklahoma actually was.

  6. Rinaldo says:

    argh… STAGE production.

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