It was a great burden to place on anyone, forget about a child: Not only carrying movie after movie, but helping lift the spirits of a nation.
But Shirley Temple, armed with optimism that sprung with the buoyancy of her trademark curls, sang and danced moviegoers' troubles away, her spirit and the flicker of the film projector providing a glimmer of light during the Great Depression’s darkest days. Perhaps even more impressive, the biggest child star of them all defied the path of the few before her and too many after her to become an adult success story as Shirley Temple Black when the movie house cheers ended.
The singer of "On the Good Ship Lollipop," who died Monday at age 85, set a course that secured her legacy as a screen legend for whom, just like her plucky characters in escapists flicks, everything somehow turned out alright in the end.
The Temple template offered up Dickens-light American movie fare with plots following a comforting formula: A loveable orphan (or little girl trying to save her family) helps, with some musical numbers and well-placed tears, save the day – all in 90 minutes or less. There were variations of course, from the Runyonesque cynical sentimentality of "Little Miss Marker" to “Heidi,” which captured the drama of the classic children’s book.
Shirley Temple popcorn films, though, weren’t about plots, but moments – many of which became iconic: Shirley, in a plaid dress sweetly crooning about a candyland fantasy “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” Impishly singing, like an innocent Betty Boop, about animal crackers in her soup. Taking Bill “Bojangles” Robinson's hand, dancing up and down the stairs, while taking audiences of the day on a leap forward.
The comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” pre-dated Shirley’s 1930s movie stardom by about a decade. But Shirley was the embodiment of what “Annie” would become in the 1970s Broadway musical, curls and all.
In the stage show, Annie helped President Roosevelt see his way to "Tomorrow." In real life, FDR credited Shirley with spreading sunshine to the masses: "As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right."
As Shirley got a special Oscar in 1935 at age 6, kids around the country and beyond got dancing and singing lessons. They also got dolls and toys featuring her dimpled face.
Hollywood, even then, treated its stars like merchandise – and children were no exception. Kids from the silent film era already had been left behind, most notably Jackie Coogan (later to play Uncle Fester in “The Addams Family”), who emerged as the sad poster boy for mistreatment of child actors.
But Shirley never lost herself, even as her star dimmed by age 12, leading her to quit movies for good nine years later.
She went on to become a diplomat, charity fundraiser and mother and grandmother as Shirley Temple Black. She seemingly was content with memories of her days as little girl who helped lift a nation before lifting herself.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.