Old Hollywood Spotlight: Shirley Temple

For as long as I’ll live, Shirley Temple will always hold a special place in my heart. She was, after all, my introduction to Old Hollywood and the world of acting. As a curly mop-haired toddler, I instantly identified with Shirley and her desire to make people happy. But Shirley Temple was more than just an actress. She was also a humanitarian who served multiple times as a US ambassador to various countries. As varied as her careers were, though, she will always be known as America’s Little Darling.

By Michael L. Kaufman at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Born on April 23, 1928, Shirley didn’t wait long to make her acting debut. At the age of three, Shirley landed a reoccurring role in a series of shorts called Baby Burlesques (the shorts were parodies of popular movies with toddlers appearing in the adult roles). Three years later, she landed a contract with 20th Century Fox, which led to her starring in a string of hit movies, including Stand Up and Cheer! (1934), Baby Take a Bow (1934), and Bright Eyes (1934). Not only were these movies extremely popular, but they acted as a form of much needed relief since America was in the throes of the Great Depression. As soon as the lights went down, audiences escaped their troubles and drifted off into a world full of bliss and innocence as Shirley sang and danced on the screen. In fact, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was so impressed by Shirley’s ability to cheer up audiences that he called her “Little Miss Miracle,” noting that, “As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.”

In 1940, Shirley was 12 years old and had already made 43 films. But, as she started to go through adolescence, audiences became less and less accepting of Shirley. To them, Shirley was supposed to stay the same cute little girl who sang “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and sang about animal crackers in her soup. The idea of Shirley being anything else was impossible and unwanted in their minds. So, Shirley, who was once the number one actress in America, saw her stardom decline as fewer people went to her movies. Even though she wasn’t as popular, she still continued to make movies until 1949, with some notable titles including Since You Went Away (1944) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947).

Shirley, the U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia, talking to MAJ Carolyn May, the European Command representative for the Defense Department's Office of Humanitarian Affairs (circa 1990). Photo by: By SSGT DAVID S. NOLAN, USAF [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Shirley, the US ambassador to Czechoslovakia, talking to MAJ Carolyn May, the European Command representative for the Defense Department’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs (circa 1990).
With her acting career winding down, Shirley turned her attention to other aspects of her life. In 1950, she married her second husband, Charles Black. From that moment on, she would always be known as Shirley Temple Black, both in her personal life and in her professional life. Her personal life wasn’t the only thing that experienced change, though.

In the 1960s, she decided to reinvent her public persona by entering into politics. While she was unable to win the 1967 race for a US congressional seat, she did become the US ambassador to the United Nations in 1969, a position that lasted until 1970. As the ambassador, Shirley concentrated on issues involving refugees and the environment. She would later serve as the US ambassador to Ghana (1974-1976) and as the US ambassador to Czechoslovakia (1989-1992).

Shirley was also the chief of protocol of the United States from 1976-1977. As varied as her positions were, Shirley worked tirelessly, and in 1988 she received a special honor: she “became the only person to date to achieve the rank of honorary US Foreign Service officer.”

Sadly, Shirley Temple Black died on February 10, 2014, at the age of 85. Nevertheless, the joy she brought to audiences in her movies and the achievements she made in her political career will continue to live on, inspiring future generations.

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