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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Just Off The Wire ...

Shirley Temple Leaves Us

The young cannot know what an enormous star died last night. For that matter, neither can I, or most of us who weren't around when Shirley Temple was hands-down leading boxoffice for most of the 30's. I guess she was the last truly major name from that decade still around, other than Mickey Rooney (depending upon definition of "major," of course, as there is still Jane Withers and Gloria Jean, among child players who achieved prominence, but not at Temple's level). There were two if not more distinct screen careers Shirley had, a first and most successful as child sensation, then as ingĂ©nue working for Selznick and loaned for likes of Fort Apache, probably the most notable teenage part she had along with Since You Went Away. I can't claim to have watched her kid stuff that used to be on afternoon television, probably the only vintage group I'd studiously ignore, but how to wed an adolescent boy to travail and concerns of a seven-year-old girl? Temple pics were but fitfully funny and much about loss; parental, economic (being Depression conscious), and hardship visited upon moppetry that was common lot even in dream factory merchandise.

What clips are shown as TV tribute will likely be she and Bill Robinson dancing up the stairs, anchor persons exchanging baffled look over how such remote persona could have enchanted a long-ago nation. I'll bet not one of a hundred of those reporting her death ever saw a Shirley Temple movie. There were attempts at marketing her for newer generations with colorization, release of DVD's, carpet-bombing of the Fox Movie Channel. Did any of devices work? From what I hear, there are still Shirley Temple fan groups, but charter membership must be long gone. She wrote a blunt memoir back in 1988 that left blisters on some big names. The marriage to John Agar was the biggest event since Cleopatra swept into Rome, but you had to be there to know its cultural impact, and I wasn't. Everybody wants to live long, but for movie stars, even biggest ones, it can a tough sunset. Shirley Temple had sense and stability plus family for support, so a public's forgetting probably didn't matter so much. She wasn't like Mickey Rooney forever trying to convince everybody that he once was the biggest star in pictures.

I reproduce these ads to show just how big Shirley Temple was. 30's folk without dimes scraped them up somehow to see whatever she was in. The pictures being formula didn't matter a toot. I suspect grown-ups went for her more than their kids, ST a hopeful child giving same to adults. Theatres didn't have to stage-support Shirley, or worry lots about double-featuring, she being money's worth alone. Her stuff was sock right to the end of a decade, and I'll bet Fox sold whole seasons just on basis of Temples promised. Years later NTA, leaseholder of 20th backlog for TV syndication, had a dedicated package of eighteen Shirley Temple features that was sold into 212 broadcast markets during the sixties, Saturday/Sunday afternoons reliably loaded with her. If I chose to watch The Brain Eaters on Channel 12 instead of Curly Top on Channel 9, well maybe that was my loss.

Also see Greenbriar's Shirley Temple Glamour Starter from 7/2/06 HERE.


Blogger KING OF JAZZ said...

One of her lesser known movies you might find of interest--YOUNG PEOPLE (1940), with Charlotte Greenwood and Jack Oakie. Temple was beyond the cute moppet stage then, and the movie worked better as an ensemble among old pros.

1:58 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer shares some thoughts about Shirley Temple:

The death of Shirley Temple was the last story on the BBC's radio broadcast this morning and the first on NPR's "Morning Edition" show which followed it. You're probably right in thinking that few if any of the readers or hosts had a personal familiarity with her films or the enormous popularity she enjoyed. She was a phenomenon, and so often that is merely the product of a time, when the time always passes on. I believe that what made her a star, however, will prove more enduring. When I was a boy, her movies were available on television and I loved them. Probably "Heidi" was the first movie that brought me to tears. Her anguish at being parted from her grandfather may have been standard fare for a Temple picture by then, but it was real to me. I suppose that was one of the reasons she was so popular. She was spunky and intelligent and more than a little adorable, but she was also very real. Joy came easily to her, but she could also be hurt, and the circumstances she found herself in were not far removed from what many in her audience would be struggling with when they left the theater. You'd wonder why they'd want to watch her pictures in the first place, if it was only to be reminded of what awaited them. The answer must be in the way she transcended her losses and hardships, and demonstrated over and over again the saving power of love. Recently, TCM showed "Bright Eyes," probably her first starring vehicle, with all the elements that would become part of the formula. And yet there was such care in showing that her character was just a little girl, with a little girl's needs. She would kneel in prayer the night before Christmas, probably something that would seem incongruous today in any movie or show dealing with children, but as much a part of her as giving an old curmudgeon a hug. Such love must have a source. She would grow up, of course, and while her talent was not diminished, the way people appreciated it was. She was not an adolescent blossoming into womanhood, as Elizabeth Taylor would. For them, she would always be a little girl, someone they would not want to lose. She was quite good in "Since You Went Away," "The Bachelor and the Bobbie Soxer," and "Fort Apache," but such roles were in the nature of a transition from child star to the uncertain stardom of an adult. At the age of 21, when most actresses would just be starting out, hoping to be discovered, she had already decided to retire. Later she made a good marriage and devoted herself to service and good causes, which only demonstrated, once again, how truly the camera can reveal a person, even one so young as she was.

Daniel Mercer

2:18 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Don't forget she also hosted "Shirley Temple's Storybook" on NBC in the very early early '60s. I think we watched that only because it was one of the few weekly series in color.

If you have to watch any of her movies, go with "The Littlest General," where Lionel Barrymore, as usual, tries to steal the movie. That's the picture where Shirley dances on the staircase with Bill Robinson, a more impressive feat than it might sound. Plus a Technicolor climax!

5:08 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

I'm not an admirer of Shirley Temple, but I did enjoy reading Dan Mercers touching, perceptive tribute. I'm heartened, too, by the huge media send off and news coverage here in Ireland and across the water in England. Movie Stars of the Golden Age get short shrift when they pass, nowadays. But, the mention of her name does make people smile. I get giddy, too, when I remember the great London critic C.A. Lejeune's witty summary in the Guardian years ago - "and, of the art of Shirley Temple, I, for one, have had ample."

5:58 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson recalls Shirley Temple in short subjects and television:

I remember the movies showing every weekend on TV and watching pretty faithfully. I wasn't particularly interested in Shirley herself. I bought her sincerity and perkiness but viewed her more as the stone in stone soup; a decent excuse to put all kinds of actors and songs in one movie. Looking back, I realize those films would be unwatchable if Shirley didn't have the charisma and ability to hold it together.

Particularly fascinated by those nutty production numbers. Especially "Little Miss Broadway", where an art deco courtroom turns into a miniature Times Squares with rear projection footage behind the judge. As a kid tried to figure some plausible way the characters in the story could have set that up before the hearing.

Shirley did a series of shorts (before the movies?) where toddlers in outsized diapers would do broad movie parodies. Thanks to PD those are everywhere; the ones I've seen are just sort of creepy.

As an adult she did a television anthology series where she'd introduce and/or star in fairy tales and the like. Found her version of "Babes in Toyland"; it plays like a cheap variety show and Jonathan Winters is mostly wasted. Major interest is Shirley herself, who after introducing the show as her pretty self, returns as a cackling comic witch. Hardly a great performance but she seems to be enjoying the hell out of it, perhaps liberated by old crone makeup. Not even thuddingly lame jokes slow her down.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

I'm more interested in the directors Shirley Temple worked with than I am in her, but having seen her in Ford's Wee Willie Winkie and Dwan's Heidi and Young People, I have to say that I respect her. She was, at least in the hands those directors, a genuinely good actress.

Her turn in Ford's Fort Apache is less appealing to me. She's still a '30s performer on the cusp of the method acting revolution. While she would be appropriate from the standpoint of her age co-starring with Marlon Brando or Monty Clift, her style would never have meshed with them. She was smart to retire when she did.

7:53 PM  
Blogger opticalguy said...

I was, as a child, a fan of Shirley Temple's films but outgrew them. The MAD Magazine-like take on her that Carol Burnett did on her show ("Little Miss Show Biz" in 1972) kinda pointed-out why adults (after her heyday in the 1930s) had trouble with her movies. I'm glad someone mentioned SHIRLEY TEMPLE'S STORYBOOK (1958-1961) which I vividly recalled even though I saw them when I was very young. Happily viewable DVDs of her shows (in very early, very crude video color) have turned-up. The adaptation of THE LAND OF OZ (pretty much retooled as a vehicle for Jonathan Winters) was kinda cool but there were a few that had moments that scared the "pee-waddens" out of me as a kid. THE TERRIBLE CLOCKMAN and parts of THE LITTLEST MERMAID were pretty cool for "live on tape" early video.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Chortle! I'm getting a kick out of the curmudgeon-comments on this site at the advent of Shirley Temple's passing. Praise of the most qualified "I-never-actually-cared-for-her-that-much-myself" sort you're not likely to hear in the mass media on this day. But for once (maybe the first time!), John, I think you are way off the mark thinking the general public unfamiliar with her actual screen appearances. Unlike plenty of vintage Hollywood stuff, her films have been front and center for years, positioned not for nostalgia value but as super G-rated family/kiddie fare.

I grew up in the fifties and sixties with four sisters, and believe me the Temple films were inescapable. My kids, raised in the eighties and nineties, saw colorized versions, not necessarily at my house, but staying with friends. Those re-colored jobs were not 'film club' popular... they were WalMart/Disney Channel popular. As to today... well, visiting my now thirty-something son and his family last month I discover one of the few live action films my barely five year old grand daughter ever talked about was HEIDI!

I suspect, John, if you did a little informal interviewing with local TV news personalities, you'd find that some who couldn't tell the difference between Garbo and Harpo still remember seeing a Temple film of some sort in their childhood, or with their own kids.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

I'd rather watch "The Brain Eaters".

1:50 PM  

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