Child star legend Shirley Temple dies at 85

Shirley Temple starred in "The Little Princess," one of her many hits through the 1930s. Credit: Provided
Shirley Temple starred in “The Little Princess,” one of her many hits through the 1930s.
Credit: Provided

For four years, from 1935 to 1938, the top box office draw at the movies was Shirley Temple, the button-cute little girl star of such films as “Bright Eyes,” “Curly Top,” “The Littlest Rebel,” “Dimples,” “Wee Willie Winkie” and the films of “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and “Heidi.” She eventually faded from the spotlight, as all kids do.

But unlike many child stars she lived a long and happy, even prosperous life. Temple died late Monday night, says her publicist. She was 85 years old.

Born in 1928, Temple began her career at the age of 3, when she entered dance school — and, perhaps more importantly, when her mother started curling her hair into ringlets in the style of Mary Pickford. At 6, she signed to the Fox Film Corporation, where she made the bulk of her pictures. Her breakthrough was 1934’s “Stand Up and Cheer.” The film wasn’t that far from truth: The president of the United States thinks the real cause of the Great Depression is a lack of optimism, and launches a new “Department of Amusement” to cheer everyone up with shows. Temple is among those who auditions and performs.

She quickly rose to lead roles, and through a number of hits became the perceived top source of cheer during hard times. No less than Franklin D. Roosevelt chimed in on her signature power: “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.”

Temple was not without her critics, among them the author (then critic) Graham Greene, who called her a “complete totsy” and charged that her biggest fans were lecherous “middle-aged men and clergymen.” Temple and Fox actually sued for libel and won. Temple donated her winnings, which were dispersed when she was 21, to a youth center in England.

Like many child actors, Temple’s fame was all but destined to be short-lived. As she grew older, she tried to ease into more mature roles. But audiences weren’t having it, and 1940 saw two consecutive flops: “The Blue Bird” and “Young People.”

In her young adulthood, she did appear in two very good films. In 1947’s “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” — arguably the last screwball comedy — she plays a teenager in love with Cary Grant, who is really in love with her mother (Myrna Loy). Written by future trash novelist Sidney Sheldon, it also features this repeated exchange. The next year she had a small role in John Ford’s terrific Cavalry film “Fort Apache,” with Henry Ford and John Wayne.

Still, by 1950 she had official retired from movies. She occasionally did TV, including a fairy tale show called “Shirley Temple’s Storybook.” She also — like many celebrities — got into politics. After getting involved in the Republican party, she ran for Congress, but lost. But she did serve as a representative to Richard Nixon, and even as ambassador to Ghana.

She battled breast cancer in the early 1970s. But it would be natural causes that took her, aging even as her youthful self lived on in perpetuity.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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