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Meeting Shirley Temple

by Leonard Maltin
February 11, 2014 4:00 PM
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Shirley proudly displays her honorary Oscar
Shirley proudly displays her honorary Oscar

Shirley Temple didn’t think of herself as a living legend. By the time I met her she was happy being a wife, mother, grandmother…and author, with the publication of her fascinating autobiography Child Star in 1988. (She intended to pen a follow-up chronicling her life as an adult and her career in the diplomatic service, but it never came to fruition.) The first time I visited her at her comfortable home in Woodside, California she disarmed me and my Entertainment Tonight crew by offering us home-made sandwiches. She was the most unpretentious woman I ever met who happened to be world-famous.

Having just read her book I was full of questions, and having seen her speak at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1985, I hoped to unravel a contradiction: she said that when she was a child, moviemaking seemed like play. But she also proudly proclaimed that she’d been working her whole life.

“It seemed normal to me,” she explained. “When you start something at the age of three, you think everyone does that.”

I then asked if there was a particular moment when she realized her life wasn’t normal. ‘Yes,” she said. “It was a crowd in Boston in 1938 and I was ten years old. That particular crowd had been waiting for me for almost three days because I was sick with a high temperature and I’d been in bed. I could hear the crowd down on the street because they were calling, ‘Shirley! Shirley!’ and ‘We love you’ and things like that. When I came out of the hotel, finally, the crowd suddenly started rushing us. They broke and they started for us, and it was a different kind of a feeling; it was an anger and a growl and a hysteria. People in front were getting knocked down, and I was worried about the children in front.

Work or play? Shirley on the set in the 1930s
Work or play? Shirley on the set in the 1930s

“I’d had a lot of crowds before but my mother always said, at a premiere, ‘They’ve come to see all of the stars.’ And I said, ‘Well, why are they saying ‘Shirley, Shirley, Shirley?’ She said, ‘Because your films make them happy.’ So I didn’t really think it was for me until this particular crowd. They were clawing at my legs and they were pulling on my curls and they were taking pieces of my dress. It was a wild scene.”

Who couldn’t fall in love with this little girl? Shirley as "The Littlest Rebel" (1935)
Who couldn’t fall in love with this little girl? Shirley as "The Littlest Rebel" (1935)

Shirley laughed as she described this terrifying moment fifty years later. Perhaps it was because she’d lived through so much since that time. She also admitted that going out in public hadn’t changed that much. “I do get pinched a lot,” she said, laughing again. “Mostly it’s women, my peer group and older even than I am, and I’m old. They tend to want to touch. If I go on a tour I’ll get pinched on the arm, the back, the cheeks, the chin. They say ‘You’re so cute,’ or ‘You were so cute,’ they usually say. Then they hang on, and I come home black and blue. It’s a hazard.”

I was also intrigued by her astute, child’s-eye observations of the world around her at 20th Century Fox in the 1930s. She related best to grown-ups who treated her as a colleague and didn’t condescend. That applied to costars and the endless parade of visiting dignitaries who were taken to meet her.

“Don’t forget, I was so short that I became an expert in belts and shoes and people’s hands and handbags. I learned that I liked the working crew the most, more than the stars. I liked the guys that I worked with very, very much. It was my extended family. The crew worked on almost all of my films. We had a marvelous time. I had a Shirley Temple Police Force and all of the crowd and various celebrities I would have join my force. I was very careful that they kept their badges polished, and if they lost them, there was a big fine. If they gave them away, there was a bigger fine. We had just so much fun. I teased them a lot, too, particularly the cameramen, who had a lot of trouble with me.

“I like working-class people the best, always have. When I saw work shoes I would know that that person worked. I was very worried about people with shiny, pointy shoes as a child, because I felt that they probably weren’t worth a great deal, they didn’t work hard.”

Shirley Temple at her home in Northern California in 1998
Shirley Temple at her home in Northern California in 1998

It never surprised me that Shirley Temple wound up working for two U.S. presidents as a diplomat: she was a diplomat from the age of five, when she had to smile for a photographer, sitting on the laps of visitors she didn’t know or care for. That requires the highest level of diplomacy. It also demands a native intelligence, which Shirley possessed from the start.

Since the news of her death broke in the wee hours of the morning, I’ve been asked repeatedly to explain her great popularity. While it’s true that she lifted people’s spirits during the depths of the Great Depression, that doesn’t explain why a new generation fell in love with her decades later on television. It wasn’t just the golden curls or her singing and dancing. Shirley Temple had that elusive commodity known as star quality. Revisit one of her movies, or share one with a child, and you’ll see how timeless it is.

Unlike some child actors, Shirley Temple had a stable family life while she was growing up. After an ill-advised first marriage, she found happiness with her second husband, Charles Black, and raised a family of her own.

I feel awfully lucky to have spent some time with her. She was charm personified: a confident woman who was comfortable in her own skin. On my second visit to her home I got to witness her teaching one of her granddaughters a time step!

When she was presented with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement award in 2005, she gave a thank-you speech that embodied her sense of self—and sense of humor. She concluded, “I'd been blessed with three wonderful careers: motion pictures and television, wife, mother and grandmother, and diplomatic services, for the United States government. I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the Life Achievement Award: start early!”  

Shirley and Ideal Toys were in business together for many years, and her dolls became best-sellers all over again in the television era
Shirley and Ideal Toys were in business together for many years, and her dolls became best-sellers all over again in the television era
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  • normadesmond | February 13, 2014 4:39 AMReply

    when she got that sag award in 2005, all i could think was, "here is this older, but by no means old woman standing here today in 2005 and she was a movie star in the NINETEEN THIRTIES! hell, talkies were still cutting edge!" when she got that award, if she'd been so inclined, she probably could've found work in front if a camera, she may have even been able to become big AGAIN. that bridging of time floored me, still does.

  • Lee | February 12, 2014 3:10 PMReply

    I was surprised when Susan Sarandon praised Shirley Temple. I would've expected Sarandon to not care for Temple, considering Temple's vocal support of the Vietnam War.

  • Walt Mitchell | February 11, 2014 11:27 PMReply

    Thank you from me, too, Leonard, for this wonderful and insightful column! I never met Shirley, but I wish that I could have done so! She was a great star, but even more importantly, she was a wonderful *human being!*

  • Steve Rubin | February 11, 2014 9:38 PMReply

    She was not only an ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, but in many ways, she was Hollywood's finest ambassador. How could you not start out life as a movie fan after watching her pictures. I remember my mother saying that her mother - my grandmother- had a picture of Shirley Temple on the mantle back in Milwaukee. We always hear about the sleazy, one dimensional, superficial side of Hollywood, but we forget that Shirley forged a career and projected good values to generations of movie lovers. And, her movies remain timeless, as does her talent. What a career, what a life! R.I.P. Shirley.

  • gloria | February 11, 2014 8:47 PMReply

    Talented, intelligent, adorable, irreplaceable. And always with us through film. A blessing indeed. I'm grateful.

  • Norm | February 11, 2014 8:25 PMReply

    I think the picture of Shirley and LM says it all...Quite a woman...(tear)

  • Larry Cinerama Smith | February 11, 2014 4:14 PMReply

    Thanks Leonard for sharing your personal story of meeting Shirley Temple Black. I wish I could have been there. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of watching her movies rerun on TV and falling in love with that happy person. With all the things that can go wrong making a movie it’s amazing when one works out right, let alone 40 good movies all before she turned 18! She was a gifted singer, actress and dancer. It’s all the more wonderful to see that she added mother, grandmother and diplomat to her resume. What a charming life she had, and no bitterness even though we now know it was no bed of roses. A lot of hard work went into making it look that easy. Thank goodness her films survive and continue to be discovered by children and adults who find movies can take them back into that time tunnel called the past. I plan to watch all her films again soon. Thanks again Len & Shirley!

  • Joseph Z. | February 11, 2014 3:58 PMReply

    there will never be another like her. That generation got her while this generation has Honey Boo Boo and the like. such a sad news story but it's glad that she has lived for everything she did

  • mike fontanelli | February 11, 2014 3:27 PMReply


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