Obituary: Gifted child star with dazzling global appeal

Shirley Temple Black

Shirley Temple, who has died aged 85, found fame as a child actor in the 1930s when she appeared in films as a bright-eyed, curly-topped, dimpled cherub, whose singing and tap dancing seemed perfect antidotes to the Great Depression.

Thirty years later she embarked on a second career in politics and became a significant figure in international diplomacy.
Shirley Temple's message was "be optimistic", the title of the song she sang in Little Miss Broadway (1938). Her biggest hit songs were On the Good Ship Lollipop , from Bright Eyes (1934), which describes a child's dream of a candy shop, and Animal Crackers in My Soup , from Curly Top (1935), sung at an orphanage while skipping between tables at lunch as the kids beat time with their knives and forks. (She was adept at playing plucky orphans.)

President Franklin D Roosevelt was impressed: "During this depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that, for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles."

Talented mimic
In Stowaway (1936), she displayed her considerable talents by impersonating Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson and Ginger Rogers (dancing with a Fred Astaire doll). She also demonstrated her dancing skills in numbers with the great tap-dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in four musicals. His deceptively easygoing tapping proved the ideal accompaniment to little Shirley's shuffle, as in the Polly Wolly Doodle stair routine in The Littlest Rebel (1935).


She was born in Santa Monica, California, to George Temple, a bank employee, and his wife, Gertrude (nee Krieger), who saw nascent talent in her three-year-old daughter.

In 1931, Shirley was enrolled in a dance school in Los Angeles, where she was spotted by a studio agent. With her blonde hair styled in ringlets in imitation of the silent film star Mary Pickford, she was signed by Educational Pictures to appear in a series of one-reelers called Baby Burlesks , imitating films by Marlene Dietrich and other stars. Thanks to her ambitious mother, after bits in a few features Temple was offered a contract with 20th Century Fox before she was six years old.

She appeared in seven movies during 1934 and received a special Oscar “in grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the year”. She became a national institution: there were Shirley Temple dolls, toys and clothes (including a line in bathing suits). “I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six,” she recalled. “Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked me for my autograph.”

Temple continued to dispense sweetness and light in Heidi (1937), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) and The Little Princess (1939), her first film in technicolor. Yet already she was beginning to show her age and would soon be past her commercial prime.

Louis B Mayer wanted her to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but when Fox wouldn't release her, the producer, Arthur Freed, insisted they try the 16-year-old Judy Garland (six years older than Temple). The Blue Bird (1940) was Fox's answer to MGM's The Wizard of Oz , but the film was an expensive failure and marked the end of Temple's star power. Temple's parents bought up the remainder of her contract and sent her, at the age of 12, to Westlake school for girls, an exclusive country day school in Los Angeles.

Career in politics
Contrary to the myth, Temple was not all washed up at 12, and made a fairly easy transition on screen from cute child to pretty teenager. David O Selznick put her under contract for two films in 1944, Since You Went Away and I'll Be Seeing You . In the former, she played Claudette Colbert's sassy daughter, and in the latter Ginger Rogers's chatterbox niece.

In Fort Apache (1948) she was Henry Fonda's daughter. Her young soldier suitor was played by a newcomer, John Agar, whom she had married three years previously.That marriage ended in 1949. In 1950 she married the wealthy businessman Charles Black and retired from acting.

After bringing up her three children, she returned to the public eye in politics as Shirley Temple Black. A close friend of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, she became active in the Republican party in California, where, in 1967, she ran unsuccessfully for the US House of Representatives, voicing her support for the Vietnam war.

She later became US ambassador to Ghana (1974-76) and White House chief of protocol (1976-77) during Gerald Ford’s presidency, foreign affairs officer with the state department under Reagan and ambassador to Czechoslovakia (1989-92) under George HW Bush.

In 1972, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She decided to announce it to the media, becoming one of the first prominent women to speak openly about the illness.

Her husband died in 2005. She is survived by their son, Charles, and daughter, Lori; and her daughter, Susan, from her marriage to Agar.

Born: April 23rd, 1928

Died: February 10th, 2014