Plucky Shirley is the mascot of a ragtag group of pilots. Her mother works as a maid, serving a mercenary couple waiting for wealthy Uncle Ned to croak, thus enriching them and their horrifically bratty daughter. Temple’s first big hit includes her signature song “The Good Ship Lollipop.” Fox Archive Print.
Shirley Jane Temple was born April 23, 1928 in Santa Monica, California. When she was not quite three years old, her mother enrolled her in Ethel Meglin’s Dance Studio, which was on the Mack Sennett studio lot. For 50 cents, or maybe $1 a week (the amount varies) she, along with many other hopeful children, would be taught the skills so valuable to the motion picture industry, automatically becoming a Famous Meglin Kiddie. She performed in the dance recitals attended by movie scouts, and auditioned at the studios. Although her mother, Gertrude Temple, always maintained that she had no show business aspirations, her modesty was deceptive, because she did everything a dedicated stage mother would do to get her child in the movies. In 1931, Shirley landed the lead in a series of Poverty Row Baby Burlesks, short parodies of famous movies. She debuted in “The Runt Page” in which babies in diapers are filmed silently while dialogue…much of it from the actual play The Front Page is dubbed over their faces, much like the bizarre Dogville shorts, which did approximately the same thing with mutts.
Shirley had a professional crisis when her Poverty Row studio went belly up in the Depression. “From the day I learned to walk, almost half my life had been working in movies. Almost all I knew came from Meglin’s Dancing School, eight Baby Burlesks, five comedy shorts, six walk-ons, and one bit part. My earnings were $702.50 but unfortunately, my employer was now bankrupt. I was out of a job, with no future in sight, and still too young to get into kindergarten. All in all, it was a tough spot for any five year old” (Black 31).
But, she soldiered on, auditioning at Fox, where she was given a specialty number, “Baby Take A Bow” in the film As Thousands Cheer. She tap danced in a starched polka dot dress with actor James Dunn. Because the number had to be shot in two days, the dance director incorporated routines that she already knew from the Meglin Studio. She loved to dance, so that wasn’t a problem, but the Hollywood professionals were stunned that she could lip sync to her playback song perfectly, a skill that stumped many adult performers. When filming was done, she was in the head office signing a seven year contract for her and her mother. Yes, her mother was also under contract, to do her hair, help her memorize her lines, and to provide the instruction she always did before the cameras rolled, “Sparkle, Shirley.”
The films she made for 20th Century Fox would make her Hollywood’s #1 box office attraction of the 1930s, and make millions for the studio, saving it from bankruptcy. Ironically, the perfect childhood she embodied on screen was far from her own, which was spent working like any seasoned trouper. “I went to work every day…I thought every child worked, because I was born into it” she recalled (Edwards 70). After As Thousands Cheer, Fox did not have a script for her, so (after altering her birth certificate to make her a year younger, thus even more precocious) she was loaned out to Paramount for Little Miss Marker, and Now and Forever, two excellent and smash hit films that confirmed their hunch that she was a little gold mine.
The first film tailored for her at new studio was Bright Eyes. Filmed at the Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale CA, American Airlines and Douglas Aircraft Company supplied a DC-2 passenger plane for taxiing on the runway—Shirley’s contract stipulated she was forbidden to do anything as dangerous as fly. She sang “The Good Ship Lollipop” in a mock up of the DC-2, with the University of Southern California football team playing the other pilots, as stagehands bounced the set, simulating a ride. The film cost $190,000 and earned back that money in three weeks, in a day when movie tickets cost a dime. The song would sell 400,000 copies of the sheet music, more than the previous record set by Bing Crosby and Jeanette MacDonald.
A stunt which should have been relatively safe nearly resulted in disaster. Shirley and her co-star, again James Dunn, were supposed to have bailed out of a plane, clinging together. They were hoisted in the rafters, as a manufactured gale roared around them. They drifted downwards in a harness as the wind machines roared. When they reached the floor, someone opened a sound stage door that was supposed to be air-locked, and the winds were sucked out the open door, dragging Dunn and Temple across the floor of cluttered soundstage. Dunn turned on his back, letting Temple ride on top of him, luckily they both avoided injury.
Shirley was very fond of James Dunn, with whom she had shared the stage in “Baby Take a Bow.” She remembered, “…he liked games, was cheerful, and never used baby talk.” At first, he resisted her charms. “All actors dislike working with children,” Dunn had wailed when we were first matched up several months earlier. “My worst fears were justified the minute I set foot in front of the camera with her.” He later relented, “It’s ridiculous, a child can’t understand dramatic import in film lines and grasp what the business of the studio is all about. Yet, she behaves exactly as if she did” (Black 68). He even agreed to marry her, when she proposed after a fit of jealousy when starlet Alice Faye stopped by to flirt with him.
Playing her nemesis in the film was a child actress fresh from Georgia, Jane Withers. Jane’s mother had been forbidden a stage career, and made her future husband promise that any child of theirs would go on the stage. Jane was headlining her own radio show in Atlanta, billed as “Dixie’s Dainty Dewdrop” when her mother heeded the siren call of Hollywood and signed up her daughter at the Meglin dance studio. Supposedly, Mrs. Temple had approval of Shirley’s little co-stars, and was satisfied with Jane because she wasn’t pretty, like Shirley was. But, she was unprepared for the immense appeal Jane’s bratty behavior had on the screen, and, in fact child movie patrons identified much more strongly with Jane than with perfectly well-behaved Shirley. Studio publicity manufactured a feud between the two little actresses, although Shirley herself remembered the pleasure of having another child to play with on the set. Perhaps the feud was really between the girls’ mothers; Mrs. Temple was furious at how little Jane stole scenes from her precious Shirley. Jane Withers recalled, “our director, David Butler, said he always felt his hands were tied, and he had a gag in his mouth throughout that whole movie. He told me, ‘you stole the picture. When we were working with you, we knew it would happen and we knew it was going to be absolute misery for all of us” (Edwards 68). Afterwards, there was some controversy about whether Shirley would be gifted by the property department either the elaborate doll or the doll carriage that belonged to Jane in the film, over Jane’s objection. It’s hard to sort out the fan magazine piffle from fact at this juncture. But, when you see this film, you can see that the spirited interplay between the two young actresses is what makes this whole film so enjoyable. Jane Withers knew the picture made her career, in an interview for A&E’s Biography said, “I thank God every day for Shirley Temple.”
Shirley and her mother had a ritual to help her memorize her dialogue. At bedtime, Shirley lay in bed with her eyes closed, as her mother read the script, acting out all the parts. Then, she’d go back and read the cue lines, for Shirley’s response. The day before a scene, Shirley would recite her own lines, while her mother played the rest of the cast. They would run it through three times, and by that time, Shirley not only knew her own lines, but everyone else’s too. “One-take Temple” would sometimes annoy more experienced actors by feeding them their lines when they froze.
Her 56 curls were painstakingly set every night by her mother. On Sunday, her blonde hair was washed in the bathroom sink with a shaved curl of Castile laundry soap, melted in a pan on the stove and applied “warm and mushy.” After the scrubbing, a vinegar rinse was applied. Her mother dipped her fingers in water and rolled up the curls while her father read to her from the Wizard of Oz books (Black 69).
Her parents were determined, as their daughter’s stardom became more and more astronomical, that she be shielded from the admiration that might make her head swell. She was kept away from her adoring public as much as possible, unless somebody like Amelia Earhart or Eleanor Roosevelt came to call. Her allowance was $4 a week. The many gifts that were sent to her were donated to charity, without her ever having seen them. Of course, part of this imposed isolation was driven by the fear created by the Lindbergh kidnapping.
In 1935, she was awarded a special miniature Oscar for her work in The Little Colonel. She found out later that she had been nominated for Best Actress, and had been favored to win over the other nominees. The three were Claudette Colbert for It Happened One Night Norma Shearer for The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Grace Moore for One Night of Love. There had been a bit of controversy, because both Myrna Loy (for The Thin Man) and Bette Davis (for Of Human Bondage) had been snubbed. The Academy withdrew Shirley's nomination, and decided to award her a special Oscar. Even at her tender age, the fact that her award was half the size of the others did not escape her attention. “What did I get this for, good acting?” she asked her mother. “For making the most pictures of anyone last year. For quantity, not quality.” (Black 101). But, perhaps this kind of tough love would have benefited child stars like Lindsay Lohan, or Miley Cyrus…at the very least help them keep their britches on as teens.
Part of the fantasy that the studio wove was that little Shirley just behaved naturally while the camera was running. She’s just a little girl playing make believe like other children, the story went. Somehow, the fact that it took a lot of work to appear natural on the screen was forgotten, or perhaps, it was just a rationalization for her exploitation. Her favorite of her own films was Wee Willie Winkie, in part because she won the admiration of the dismissive John Ford, already respected as one of Hollywood’s great directors, and Oscar winning actor Victor McLaglen. She was offended when her mother gave an interview after the film opened saying, “We may take her out of the movies when she begins ‘acting’ rather than just being herself.” What did they think she was doing already? (Black 188).
But, the studio could not stop their little darling from growing up. Shirley, clearly maturing and lacking appropriate scripts, was washed up at Fox by the time she was 11. At her twelfth birthday party she got an unexpected surprise. Her mother told her she was really 13. She continued acting through her teens and early 20s. Married at 17 (she said that her competitive nature drove her to want to be the first girl in her high school class engaged) she was a mother at 19 and divorced from her alcoholic, womanizing husband, John Agar, at 21. And, yes, when she asked her parents where the millions were from her movie career, the trust that the judge was ordered to deposit half her movie earnings, and her licenses fees for dolls, toys and dresses, it was all gone, all except about $40,000. Happily, she remarried to Charles Black, this time for keeps, had two more children, and a career in public service, at the UN, as a White House Chief of Protocol (for Gerald Ford) as an ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. Leaving show business, she never looked back.
She has been styled the Princess of the New Deal, as her smiling face reflected what a Depression weary nation sought for their own children, happiness and prosperity. Her co-star Gloria Stuart described her as “a real tonic” in her day and Shirley had no bitterness about her child star experience, her parents or her vanished millions. She really was one of a kind, and, with this screening, I hearby spearhead the Shirley Temple revival. Join me on the Good Ship Lollipop.
Sorry the scanning is all cattywampus, but the book was pasted into the scrapbook crooked, and it was hard to orient correctly on the scanner.
This is the Shirley Temple doll which belonged to DA, my mother-in-law. As a little girl, she was sick in bed for a year, and the doll was a gift to celebrate her recovery. Shirley was a most treasured possession, bought during the Depression when money was tight. Shirley resides in a wooden doll trunk crafted by DA's father, with many lovingly made dresses, as well as accessories, pets, baby dolls, quilts and blankets and clothes for every occasion, most made by her mother. The last time DA dressed her Shirley Temple doll, she left her in this outfit. Although it has no tag, it has the look of a purchased dress.
The doll is wearing a button for her own fan club. Note that the signature on the button is similar to, but not the same as, the one that signs her precocious autobiography, above.
This dress was purchased, there is a tag from the Ideal Toy Company, an official licensee. She sits on a hand quilted coverlet.
Here is one of the many home made dresses. Locked in a trunk for 70 years, the Art Deco pattern and colors are still fresh.
All photos (except single frame image from film) are from a Shirley Temple scrapbook. "The Story of My Life" by Shirley Temple was pasted in (crooked) and is reproduced in full here.
Sources include Child Star: An Autobiography by Shirley Temple Black, Shirley Temple: American Princess by Anne Edwards, Shirley Temple Black: a bio-bibliography by Patsy Guy Hammontree, Shirley Temple: The Biggest Little Star, A&E Biography, 1996, Hollywood’s Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era by Diana Serra Cary.