THE PASSING OF A DISTINGUISHED LADY
BRINGS MEMORIES OF A REMARKABLE CHILD
Undoubtedly, Shirley Temple’s best remembered songs are “The Good Ship Lollypop” and “Animal Crackers in My Soup.” But the one that most affected my family was “Goodnight, My Love.”
Written by George Motola and John Marascalco, the song was featured in the 1936 film, “Stowaway.” My wife and I learned it from a soundtrack compilation LP titled “Little Miss Shirley Temple.” And singing it became a nightly ritual when our kids were small. Our daughter has taken up the practice with her children.
I don’t know if most kids today ever experience the films of Shirley Temple. They’re available in those DVD “special collections” advertised on TV, of course. But it’s hard to imagine youngsters raised on “Sponge Bob” or “Phineas and Ferb” giving themselves over to the cornball innocence and sweet improbability of a Shirley Temple flick.
Don’t get me wrong — I love “Phineas and Ferb.” I watch it whenever I’m with my grandkids, and I can attest to the show’s cleverness and wit. (“Sponge Bob” is another matter. I can’t explain why, exactly, but that show gives me the sort of icky feeling I used to get from Pee Wee Herman.)
Shirley Temple was a phenomenon — an extraordinarily gifted child with a powerful screen presence who was enormously popular. If you’re not old enough to remember her fame, consider this point made by the Associated Press…
“A talented and ultra-adorable entertainer, Shirley Temple was America’s top box-office draw from 1935 to 1938, a record no other child star has come near. She beat out such grown-ups as Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford.”
And her influence was durable. In the 1950s, I was a regular on a weekly kid’s television show, “The Children’s Hour,” produced by WCAU in Philadelphia. Much of our musical repertoire consisted of songs made famous by Shirley Temple. And a lot of the girls on the show were pretty much Shirley Temple knock-offs — frilly pinafores, bouncing ringlets, the whole bit — and this was two decades after her heyday.
The spirit of those Shirley Temple movies, too, persisted: darling children striving to overcome difficult circumstances for the sake of family love, and teaching the adults around them to be more loving in the process. You can see it in Disney films of the 1960s. Think “Pollyanna.” What was Haley Mills but a somewhat older Shirley with an English accent?
Could a precocious little kid make it on innocence and lovability today? There are plenty of talented juvenile performers around, but the modern version of precociousness seems to require a certain edge of worldly cynicism and premature sexual awareness. It’s not a particularly appealing representation of childhood, but it’s what we’re mostly given with today’s theatrical tykes.
No wonder child actors burn out on drugs. It’s tough to make it as an adult performer when the world thinks of you only as a foul-mouthed little rug rat.
Shirley Temple faced a different twist on that problem. She never successfully crossed over to grownup roles because her image as everybody’s dream child was etched too deeply into the public mind. Nobody would accept a teenage Shirley kissing boys.
She did enjoy a brief TV career in her thirties hosting “Shirley Temple’s Storybook,” an anthology of dramatized fairytales, as well as making guest appearances on such programs as “The Red Skelton Show” and Mitch Miller’s “Sing Along with Mitch.” But she wisely chose to withdraw from performing in favor of raising her family and pursuing charitable and public-service interests.
Though she was divorced once (from actor John Agar, whom she had married at only 17), her life remained blessedly free of scandal. Her second marriage, to Charles Black, a business executive and former Navy intelligence officer, lasted 55 years until his death in 2005.
Shirley Temple Black became active in the Republican Party, and had political ambitions. In 1967 she lost a special election to fill a vacant congressional seat from California. This was amid growing Vietnam War ferment, a time more congenial to the views of the anti-war Pete McCloskey than to a conservative former child star.
Richard Nixon appointed her U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1969. And she later held other diplomatic posts, including ambassadorships to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.
Regardless of her accomplishments and exemplary life as a distinguished lady, it is of course the image of an endearing little girl dancing and singing with all her heart which the name Shirley Temple evokes. It’s an image of childhood purity innocent enough to lend its name to a non-alcoholic drink (generally a Coke with a cherry in it), and which today denotes the fading charms of a very different entertainment industry.
I don’t think a Shirley Temple is possible in today’s movies — not short of a moral revival of extreme proportions and a social restoration to match.
Good luck with that.
But hey! — at least we’ve got those old movies to watch.
May the Lord take Shirley Temple Black to His bosom — and give comfort (and fond memories) to the many many people whose lives were touched by that little curly top.
Goodnight, my love.
Take a couple of minutes to re-experience an immensely talented and beguiling little girl singing the song that will always occupy a place of special significance in my family. Hard to believe this was 78 years ago…