The jury is still out as to whether or not curly haired Shirley Temple was the most talented child star in movie history; there is little doubt, however, that she was the most consistently popular. The daughter of non-professionals, she started taking singing and dancing classes at the age of three, and the following year began accompanying her mother on the movie audition circuit. Hired by the two-reel comedy firm of Educational Pictures in 1933, she starred in an imitation Our Gang series called the Baby Burlesks, performing astonishingly accurate impressions of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich; she was also featured in the films of Educational's other stars, including Andy Clyde and Frank Coghlan Jr. In 1934 she was signed by Fox Pictures, a studio then teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. After a handful of minor roles she created a sensation by stopping the show with her rendition of "Baby Take a Bow" in Fox's Stand Up and Cheer. She was promptly promoted to her own starring features, literally saving Fox (and its successor 20th Century Fox) from receivership, and earned a special Oscar in 1934 "in grateful recognition to her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment." With such tailor-made vehicles as Bright Eyes (1934), Curly Top (1935), The Little Colonel (1935), Dimples (1936), and Heidi (1937), Temple was not only America's number one box-office attraction, but a merchandising cash cow, inspiring an unending cascade of Shirley Temple dolls, toys, and coloring books. She also prompted other studios to develop potential Shirley Temples of their own, such as Sybil Jason and Edith Fellows (ironically, the only juvenile actress to come close to Temple's popularity was 20th Century Fox's own Jane Withers, who got her start playing a pint-sized villain in Temples' Bright Eyes). Though the Fox publicity mill was careful to foster the myth that Temple was just a "typical" child with a "normal" life, her parents carefully screened her friends and painstakingly predetermined every move she made in public. Surprisingly, she remained an unspoiled and most cooperative coworker, though not a few veteran character actors were known to blow their stacks when little Temple, possessed of a photographic memory, corrected their line readings. By 1940, Temple had outgrown her popularity, as indicated by the failure of her last Fox releases The Blue Bird and Young People. The following year, MGM, who'd originally wanted Temple to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, cast her in Kathleen, another box-office disappointment which ended her MGM association almost before it began. Under the auspices of producers Edward Small and David O. Selznick, Temple enjoyed modest success as a teenaged actress in such productions as 1942's Miss Annie Rooney (in which Dickie Moore gave her first screen kiss) and 1944's Since You Went Away. Still, the public preferred to remember the Shirley Temple that was, reacting with horror when she played sexually savvy characters in Kiss and Tell (1945) and That Hagen Girl (1947). Perhaps the best of her post-child star roles was spunky army brat Philadelphia Thursday in John Ford's Fort Apache (1947), in which she co-starred with her first husband, actor John Agar (the union broke up after four years when Agar began to resent being labeled "Mr. Shirley Temple"). She returned to 20th Century Fox for her last film, Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949), in which played second fiddle to star Clifton Webb. Retiring on her trust fund in 1950, she wed a second time to business executive Charles Black, a marriage that would endure for several decades and produce a number of children. In 1958 she made a comeback as host of The Shirley Temple Storybook, a well-received series of children's TV specials. Her final show business assignment was the weekly 1960 anthology The Shirley Temple Show, which though not a success enabled her to play a variety of character roles -- including a toothless old witch in an hour-long adaptation of Babes in Toyland! The staunchly Republican Temple went into an entirely different field of endeavor when she entered politics in the mid-'60s. The bitter taste of an unsuccessful congressional bid was dissipated in 1968 when she was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She went on to serve as U.S. ambassador to Ghana (1974-1976) and Czechoslovakia (1989), and during the Ford and Carter years kept busy as the U.S. Chief of Protocol. In the 1980s, she went public with information about her mastectomy, providing hope and inspiration for other victims of breast cancer. Still one of the most beloved figures in the world, Temple seemingly went to great pains to dispel her goody two-shoes image in her candid 1988 autobiography Child Star, in which she cast a frequently jaundiced eye on her lifelong celebrity status, revealing among other things that several well-known Hollywood moguls had tried and failed to force their manhood upon her once she was of legal age (and even before!). Temple received several lifetime achievement awards towards the end of her life, including the Kennedy Center Honors in 1998 and the SAG life achievement award in 2005. She died in 2014, at the age of 85.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Started dancing at the age of 3.
- Was featured in numerous one-reelers before starring in her first full-length film, The Red-Haired Alibi, in 1933.
- Was Hollywood's box office champ from 1935 to 1938.
- Received a special miniature Academy Award in 1934 and remains the youngest recipient of any Oscar.
- In the 1930s, licensed her likeness to many products, including the Shirley Temple dolls.
- Popularized the film songs "On the Good Ship Lollipop" (from Bright Eyes) and "Animal Crackers in My Soup" (from Curly Top).
- Was considered for the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz but her studio, Fox, refused to lend her to MGM.
- Last feature film was A Kiss for Corliss in 1949.
- In 1958, she premiered her television series, Shirley Temple's Storybook, which she hosted.
- Served in diplomatic roles such as United States Representative to the United Nations and Ambassador to the Republic of Ghana.