Shirley Temple is hard to imagine today in Hollywood, or in Topeka or Cleveland, for that matter. She was the sweetheart of an innocent age and a hopeful place that deserved her more than ours, and it’s difficult to recall the grip she had on the nation’s heart in a time of misery and desperation.
Shirley Temple Black, who died this week at age 85, demonstrated that a child shall lead them to stardom done right. The little girl who danced down the stairs with Bill Robinson — “Mr. Bojangles” — and captured the nation’s heart gave America a wink and a little girl’s smile to soften the throes of the Great Depression.
Franklin D. Roosevelt observed that “as long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.” And it was so. From the age of 6, she won over the theater crowds to the delight even of the silver screen’s harshest critics. Her grace was just what the country needed.
“I class myself with Rin Tin Tin,” Mrs. Black once described herself with the self-deprecating modesty that warmed her charm. “At the end of the Depression, people were perhaps looking for something to cheer themselves up. They fell in love with a dog and a little girl. It won’t happen again.” Indeed.
Her turn at the top of Hollywood’s A-list came to an end, as all such things must. She gave up show business at the age of 22, when most stars are just hitting their stride, and turned to what she found to be far more important, family and public service.
She was a mother, a grandmother and eventually a great-grandmother, and succeeded at all three. She was a delegate to the United Nations and an ambassador to Ghana. She was President Gerald R. Ford’s chief of protocol, the first woman to hold the post. She was President George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to Czechoslovakia, where she had a front-row seat to watch the fall of communism.
In a town where celebrity marriages are often measured in months, sometimes weeks and occasionally days, Mrs. Black was devoted to her husband, the late Charles Alden Black, for 55 years.
Today’s child actors frequently become ambassadors of immorality. To name just one, Miley Cyrus, who at age 11 was the Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana,” a wholesome character playing a teenage pop singer. She grew older, but not wiser.
She listened to her managers who told her to deliver increasingly tawdry performances, just for the shock value. Miss Cyrus continues to turn in one vulgar and tasteless performance after another, pursuing fame and wealth.
Shirley Temple, the brightest and most bankable star in Hollywood in its golden years, shunned the cheap and the frowzy.
She held firmly to her values, once resigning from the executive committee of the San Francisco International Film Festival to protest a screening of the Swedish film “Night Games,” which she called “pornography for profit.”
America could embrace another Shirley Temple, unlikely as that prospect may be.
With the news of disappointing jobs reports, people losing their health care, higher debt and taxes, a cruise on the “Good Ship Lollipop” to the “sunny beach of Peppermint Bay,” a magic place with “lemonade stands everywhere,” is just what we need. Shirley would make everything right. She always did.