Farewell, Shirley Temple
The most successful child star of all time has died at the age of 85.
With all this longevity about the place, we find ourselves, most every week, lamenting the last representative of a long-distant era. But the death of Shirley Temple really does set one back. When Joan Fontaine died a few months ago, we noted that she had not been a player since the 1950s and we sombrely closed one more book. But, though she had an active after-life as a diplomat, Temple had not really figured since the Great Depression. Mickey Rooney, still with us at 93, is eight years older, but he turned up in a hit — The Muppets — as recently as 2011. It’s like hearing that F Scott Fitzgerald has passed.
Let’s not get too sentimental about Shirley. She was a formidable presence in the history of American film. Indeed, by some calculations, she was the biggest star of the 1930s. A decade later, she retired from movies as a decrepit 22-year-old. But, in truth, there aren’t too many of her films that you would willingly now sit through. Her best picture, John Ford’s Fort Apache, featured her in a supporting role towards the end of that brief first career. She once compared herself to Rin Tin Tin. That was a little unfair. She was a gifted juvenile actor. Rin Tin Tin was just some dog or other. There was, however, some smidgeon of insight to her self-deprecating quip. The dog and the girl were usually the victim of high-end stunt casting.
Let’s stop being mean. Temple’s celebrity reminds us of how powerful and resonant Hollywood was in its golden years. For once, that old cliché about hard times triggering light-hearted art seems to make some sense. The great Busby Berkeley musicals filled cinemas with hectic, beautifully organised escapism. Temple’s films really did seem to remind impoverished cinemagoers that there might, eventually, be light at the of the Depression’s seemingly endless tunnel.
It’s also cheering to note that, unlike so many child stars, she didn’t slip into drink ‘n’ drugs hell when the camera turned away. We would, of course, have preferred if she’d turned to the Democrats rather than the Republicans. But to end her second career as US ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution is some sort of achievement. It seems unlikely that Macaulay Culkin or Lindsay Lohan will ever head in a similar direction.
Her death also reminds us of one fascinating “what if”. It is still often suggested — and equally often disputed — that Fox refused to loan her to MGM for the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz. Would the film still have worked? Might she then have become a gay icon? How that have sat with the Republican Party? We’re wasting our time here. Go gently, Shirley.