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Shirley Temple Black, R.I.P.

Posted on | February 11, 2014 | 20 Comments

Before there was Dance Moms, before the Disney Channel became the incubator of young show-biz talent, there was Shirley Temple:

Shirley Temple Black, who as a dimpled, precocious and determined little girl in the 1930s sang and tap-danced her way to a height of Hollywood stardom and worldwide fame that no other child has reached, died on Monday night at her home in Woodside, Calif. She was 85. . . .
Ms. Black returned to the spotlight in the 1960s in the surprising new role of diplomat, but in the popular imagination she would always be America’s darling of the Depression years, when in 23 motion pictures her sparkling personality and sunny optimism lifted spirits and made her famous. From 1935 to 1939 she was the most popular movie star in America, with Clark Gable a distant second. She received more mail than Greta Garbo and was photographed more often than President Franklin D. Roosevelt. . . .
After marrying Charles Alden Black in 1950, she became a prominent Republican fund-raiser. She was appointed a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969. She went on to win wide respect as the United States ambassador to Ghana from 1974 to 1976, was President Gerald R. Ford’s chief of protocol in 1976 and 1977, and became President George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989, serving there during the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Shirley Temple ended her acting career at age 22 after her marriage to Black, who was in fact her second husband. At 17, she married John Agar, with whom she appeared in John Ford’s 1948 classic, Fort Apache.

The New York Times asserts that Shirley Temple’s movie career ended because the “public had lost interest,” yet her appearances as a teenager (I’ll Be Seeing You, The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer) and young adult (Honeymoon) showed promise.

Her basic career problem was two-fold: As a child, she had been a superstar, a phenomenon, whereas as an adult, she was just another actress; furthermore, while she had won acclaim for her precocious performances as a singer and dancer, her singing never became the kind of asset that would have qualified her for leading roles in musicals. So it would have been difficult for her ever to have replicated her childhood stardom as an adult, which is not the same as saying she could not have continued working as an actress. One wonders, for example, whether she might have enjoyed a career in a 1950s sitcom (a la Lucille Ball), but this is speculation, because it seems she was simply tired of Hollywood, and her second husband was happy to have her as a wife and mother.

Shirley Temple’s biography is also interesting for what it illustrates about the role of marriage as a defining social institution in the era before the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. She was a teen bride and a teen mother, still only 19 when she gave birth to her first child Susan in 1948. John Agar, an Army veteran seven years older than his wife, had difficulty adjusting to the role of “Mr. Shirley Temple” and developed a drinking problem. Shirley Temple filed for divorce in 1949 and thereby became what we would now call a “single mother.” But she didn’t stay single long, marrying Charles Black only a few months after her divorce was finalized. Her second marriage lasted 55 years, and she became the mother of two more children — “Happily Ever After.”

We have a lot fewer fairly-tale endings — and a lot less happiness — nowadays because the decline of marriage has changed our culture’s entire system of beliefs and behaviors regarding sex, love and parenthood. The most significant indicator of this cultural shift is the median age at first marriage which, in 1950, was about 21 for women and 23 for men, but is now nearly 27 for women and over 28 for men. Explaining what that shift means in terms of any young person’s prospects for marriage has been the subject of extensive research by Maggie Gallagher (The Abolition of Marriage), Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (The Divorce Culture), and David Popenoe (Families Without Fathers), among others. The fact that 40% of U.S. babies are born to unmarried women is the most obvious statistical result of this shift. What is less easy to document as a sociological phenomenon is the increased prevalence of loneliness and misery among young people. However, the causes and effects of the decline of marriage are deliberately obscured by liberals in media and academia who scarcely bother to conceal their contempt for the traditional culture of marriage-based families. But I digress . . .

Charles Black was fortunate to marry “America’s Sweetheart,” and he praised his wife’s good sense and emotional stability: “Over 38 years I have participated in her life 24 hours a day through thick and thin, traumatic situations, exultant situations, and I feel she has only one personality. She would be catastrophic for the psychiatric profession.”

In an era where tabloid headlines are full of the latest starlet misadventures — is Selena Gomez in rehab or out of rehab today? — Shirley Temple Black’s wonderful life story reminds us that it was not always thus, and that the old-fashioned culture of wholesomeness and decency she represented was not a myth, but a reality.

 

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Comments

  • RS

    What is less easy to document as a sociological phenomenon is the increased prevalence of loneliness and misery among young people.

    The problem is, Progressives have been quite successful in reducing relationships to the question of sex. To paraphrase Wendy Shalit in A Return To Modesty, if sex is all people seek, it’s all they’re going to get. Those of us in the midst of long, happy marriages know there is so much more than that. Yet as a society, we’ve cheated our children of that truth. It’s like trying to conquer Everest, but never leaving basecamp.

  • http://evilbloggerlady.blogspot.com/ Evi L. Bloggerlady
  • http://boogieforward.us/ K-Bob

    Must have been a fantastic person.

    She was bigger in her day then the Beatles were in theirs. When my Mom was a girl, she was a huge fan of Shirley Temple, like all kids were.

    (If you had any decent Shirley Temple memorabilia or collectables yesterday, it just quadrupled in value.)

  • http://boogieforward.us/ K-Bob

    I don’t get the attention Hoffman got from passing. (I also don’t get how he won an academy award. The only things I saw him in he creeped me out. And not in that “A” list actor way of following the script to intentionally creep viewers out, either. He just seemed “wrong.”)

  • Mm

    Those movies always make me smile.

  • http://evilbloggerlady.blogspot.com/ Evi L. Bloggerlady

    PSH was a good actor.

    But Hollywood loves these tragic self destructive narratives because it is full of and run by self destructive types. A successful happy Republican is not as appealing to them as a suicidal gay icon like Judy Garland.

  • http://evilbloggerlady.blogspot.com/ Evi L. Bloggerlady

    Hey look K-Bob one of them popped up to down ding us!

  • http://wizbangblog.com/ Adjoran

    Back in the day when there were only three or four channels even in most cities, her movies were the standard fare for weekend afternoons in the ’60s and ’70s. Perfect to keep the kids amused on a rainy day. Everybody loved her.

    RIP.

    In that clip from “The Little Colonel,” the first of her four movies with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, she was only seven years old. Amazing how she was able to keep up on the stairs with one of the greatest tap-dancers in the world.

  • http://boogieforward.us/ K-Bob

    What a strange topic to down-ding people on.

  • robertstacymccain

    She was an amazing talent.

  • http://boogieforward.us/ K-Bob

    They prefer their famous people to be full of pain, riddled with angst, and to die poor.

    My heroes are people who are prosperous nobodies with great families.

  • Quartermaster

    Drinking wasn’t the only reason she left Agar. There was a great deal of tension between them on the matter of their careers. She eventually left Hollywood, but at the time his career was on the rise and hers had basically ended. Few child stars make it as adults.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    Wonderfully put, Stacy.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    She put the cute in ‘cute smile’.

  • DaveO

    Tonight at happy hour: a Shirley Temple. Now the guy’s version is the Roy Rogers, but tonight’s order was a Shirley Temple.

  • Zohydro

    I just heard about this on TV…

    Shirley’s first gig was in a series of shorts called “Baby Burlesk” (sic). Seems a bit fishy to me…

  • Nan

    I watched Bright Eyes a few weeks ago with my mom and because she couldn’t remember Shirley’s age, I read up on her. I thought it was interesting that her son said his dad just laughed when people called him “Mr. Temple.” Name recognition was likely a huge factor in her marriage to the first husband; even with his career taking off, she always had greater name recognition.

  • http://wizbangblog.com/ Adjoran

    Hal Roach made a fortune with kids’ shorts, starting in the early ’20s. The legend is he was doing a kids project with over-coached little demons with stage moms, ready to give the whole gig up, when during a break he watched a group of neighborhood kids in a vacant lot across the street arguing about who would get which stick to play with, and realized there was better stuff in kids being kids.

    But the phony kids-in-adult-roles stuff like the above continued even as Roach’s “Our Gang” became a franchise worth millions in today’s dollars. Since it ran from 1920s into the early 1940s, there were several “classes” as kids came and went. Interestingly enough, both Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney tried out and failed to make it, but Jackie Cooper and Robert Blake both passed their auditions.

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