Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Death of a Movie Icon

Today we remember the life of one of the biggest stars in the history of motion pictures, perhaps the biggest star of all of the great stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood and who helped audiences forget the economic dire straits the country was going through. This star accomplished all that before hitting her teens. Shirley Temple (also known by her name from her second marriage, Shirley Temple Black), 85, died last night, according to her publicist.

It is difficult to overstate how important Shirley Temple was during her heyday of the 1930s. Millions loved her, and her films continue to be widely screened today. She helped keep her studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, afloat during the Great Depression. She also inspired a cottage industry of collectible dolls and other items long before that became commonplace. There was even a non-alcoholic beverage named after her.

Temple started out in the motion picture business very young, about four years old, as I recall, and it didn't hurt that she really was a child prodigy. She was scary smart. She was old beyond her years, yet despite having an ambitious mother, she wasn't spoiled by her success. She was one of the few child stars who didn't wind up screwed up in one way or the other. We all thought she'd live forever, so it was a shock indeed to find out she was "only" 85 years old at the time of her death, not that terribly old by today's standards. However, she will always live forever through her films.

Who could ever forget her pairing with dancing great Bill "Bojangles" Robinson?

A smart woman, Temple realized as she was growing up she wasn't going to remain a movie star forever. The roles got fewer and fewer as she got older. She did work on some major films as an adult including co-starring with John Wayne and first husband John Agar in the 1949 western classic, Fort Apache. Temple was also very good opposite Cary Grant in the 1947 film, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. She retired from the big screen after 1949's A Kiss for Corliss.

Unfortunately the marriage to Agar, which produced a daughter, was turbulent; Temple later filed for divorce. She then married businessman Charles Black, and she had two more children. This marriage would be a happy one. It lasted some 55 years until his death in 2005.

Finding happiness in her personal life didn't mean Temple would fade away from public view. She hosted a television anthology back in the late 1950s to the early 1960s. She also became active in Republican politics although she lost a run for the House of Representatives in 1967. This was a minor setback. She became a representative to the United Nations under President Nixon, ambassador to Ghana during President Ford's administration, chief of protocol in charge of President Carter's inauguration and inaugural ball, and ambassador to what was then known as Czechoslovakia under President George H.W. Bush. An ordeal with breast cancer also kept her in the headlines.

Many fans also recall she co-starred in a film with a fellow future politician who became president of the United States. Temple co-starred with Ronald Reagan in the 1947 film That Hagen Girl. The story was basically about the power of rumors to destroy reputations, especially when the rumors weren't true. In this underrated film, Temple played a young woman who vicious gossips claimed was the illegitimate daughter of a young attorney, played by Ronald Reagan. The rumors, of course, turned out to be false, and by the end of the film, Temple and Reagan become close and presumably romantically involved, boarding a train to probably get married. It's not actually made explicit where they were going and what they were going to do at the end of the film; it was implied. Of course that would have stirred up even MORE gossip in the town, gossip that would not be unlike what Woody Allen would go through with the much-younger Soon-Yi Previn decades later.

That Hagen Girl was featured in the 1978 Medved book The 50 Worst Films of All Time, but it doesn't deserve the rotten tomatoes thrown at it. The book mentioned the rumor that Reagan and Temple couldn't stand each other and didn't get along, but that was probably not true, either. At the time of the filming, Ronald Reagan went through the greatest personal tragedy of his life, losing a baby with his then-wife Jane Wyman, so it is highly unlikely he cared to pick fights with any co-stars. He also got ill following one of his scenes in the film.

While That Hagen Girl had been unseen for years, especially when Reagan ran for and became president, one can now see it on YouTube or purchase it on DVD.

The film:

More about Shirley Temple from the New York Times with some interesting tidbits about her early years:

In “Child Star,” her 1988 autobiography, Mrs. Black said her mother had made a “calculated decision” to turn her only daughter into a professional dancer. At a fee of 50 cents a week, Mrs. Temple enrolled 3-year-old Shirley in Mrs. Meglin’s Dance Studio.

In 1932, Shirley was spotted by an agent from Educational Pictures and chosen to appear in “Baby Burlesks,” a series of sexually suggestive one-reel shorts in which children played all the roles. The 4- and 5-year-old children wore fancy adult costumes that ended at the waist. Below the waist, they wore diapers with oversize safety pins. In these heavy-handed parodies of well-known films like “The Front Page” (“The Runt Page”) and “What Price Glory” (“War Babies”), Shirley imitated Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and — wearing an off-the-shoulder blouse and satin garter as a hard-boiled French bar girl in “War Babies” — Dolores Del Rio.

When any of the two dozen children in “Baby Burlesks” misbehaved, they were locked in a windowless sound box with only a block of ice on which to sit. “So far as I can tell, the black box did no lasting damage to my psyche,” Mrs. Black wrote in “Child Star.” “Its lesson of life, however, was profound and unforgettable. Time is money. Wasted time means wasted money means trouble."

“Baby Burlesks” was followed by five two-reel comedies and a year of casting calls and bit-part auditions, which garnered young Shirley half a dozen small roles. By Thanksgiving 1933 she was growing older. She was 5½, and in the previous two years she had earned a total of $702.50. Her mother did the sensible thing: she shaved a year off her daughter’s age. Shirley would be shocked to discover, at a party for her 12th birthday in April 1941, that she was actually 13.

She will be missed.

Let's all sing together:

1 comment:

Alessandro Machi said...

I just saw "Little Colonel" very recently, what a neat film.