Shirley Temple Black: From Good Ship Lollipop to ship of state
THE SOFT, BLOND, curly hair is only a faded memory.
Still present are the smile, the dimples, the fancy footwork and the "sparkle" that made Shirley Temple Black arguably the most popular child film star ever.
At 64 years old and boasting straight hair resembling her married name, Black is still in the spotlight as the American ambassador to Czechoslovakia. A post she now is relinquishing. Long gone, however, are her days as a glamour child in Hollywood.
When asked about her successful transition to an adult, a desperate struggle for many child stars, she was compared to Ron Howard. Seated in her office at the U.S. Embassy in Prague, Black leaned forward and whispered: "Who's Ron Howard?"
Told of the young star of television's The Andy Griffith Show, who graduated to the big screen with such films as American Grafitti, Black acknowledged hesitantly that she knew the name.
When told he directed the 1984 film Cocoon, Black brightened. "Oh, Cocoon I saw. Oh, yeah. It was great," she said.
Still, Howard — or any other child star for that matter — pales in comparison to 5-year-old Shirley Temple, tap-dancing her way into America's heart during the recovery from the Great Depression. When it comes to child stars, Shirley Temple blew soap bubbles around her competition.
Give her the Good Ship Lollipop, and she could guide it straight into the harbor of stardom.. Throughout the late 1930s, she was her studio's leading moneymaker, topping all the favorite-actress lists long before she reached puberty.
Shirley did everything but take the yellow-brick road to the land of Oz. And she would have made that trip, too, if MGM had had its way.
An arrangement had been worked out to trade MGM stars Clark Gable and Jean Harlow for one movie, according to Black's autobiography, Child Star. In exchange, she would get the part of Dorothy. Harlow, however, died on the set of another movie in 1937 and the deal was killed.
MGM turned to Judy Garland.
"I don't think I could've been a better Dorothy than Judy Garland. She was superb in that role," Black said.
Although she was then a fan of L. Frank Baum's books about Oz, Black said she wasn't that disappointed about not making the film because her studio had its own fantasy in The Blue Bird, which was expected to be a box-office winner.
"That was an interesting film," Black said. "It was before its time as far as having much interest by audiences. I think Time magazine gave it a one-line review that said 'The Blue Bird laid an egg.'"
And although she didn't make The Wizard of Oz, she often is associated with it. In Europe, anyway.
"Every place I go in Czechoslovakia, pianists in restaurants or hotels or wherever, when they see me coming in to sit down for dinner, they'll play Over the Rainbow and look at me, you know, like it's my song. They all seem to think it's my song," she said, laughing.
It's not the first time the actress's identity has been mistaken.
After marrying Navy officer Charlie Black in 1950 and moving to a farm in Bethesda, Md., Black was on a Farm-All tractor clearing the fields of ragweed. A tourist was hanging over the fence with a movie camera in hand and asked if Shirley Temple lived there.
"Yup," she replied.
"Would you get out of the way?" the tourist then asked. "We want a picture of her house."
Black's marriage came the year after she divorced her first husband, actor John Agar, in 1949, and the year after she made her last film in Hollywood, A Kiss for Corliss. She had appeared in more than 40 films in a 19-year career that began with her fresh out of diapers and ended when she was 21, except for a short stint in television in the 1950s.
Although she made more than $3 million during her career, she was left with a trust fund of $44,000 and a doll house that wouldn't sell but was worth $45,000. According to her book, her father squandered the money, but she decided against suing him to get it back.
Many of her early movies were memorable more for Black's presence than for the story line. As a child star, she often was paired with many of her era's major names, including Spencer Tracy, Janet Gaynor, Ginger Rogers, Bill "Mr. Bojangles" Robinson, Jimmy Durante, Jennifer Jones, Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne and Henry Fonda.
And some 50 years later, many of her peers (since they were mainly adults) have died and that has distanced her even further from the current Hollywood scene. "It's a very different Hollywood now, I imagine," she said.
While Black was making up to 12 films a year — as she did as, a 5-year-old in 1934 — her life existed solely around her family's home and the studio. Not until late 1939, at 11 years old, did she begin attending formal classes at the Westlake School for Girls.
That was "very important," Black said. She spent the first year studying her classmates' hairstyles and longing for such adolescent novelties as getting a pimple. "I felt left out not having one, and I was delighted when I finally got one. I found out they're not so neat to have," she said.
More than anything, it gave Temple the opportunity to mingle with a new set of peers — girls and boys. "It was good for me as a girl to see what was really going on in the world," she said.
She graduated from Westlake in 1945.
These days, Black has no desire to return to the big screen. "I've had my time and you ave to know when not to do things as well as when to do things," she said. "Don't ever try to go back. I don't give advice, but if I gave myself advice, that's one I'd listen to."
Instead, Black's interests lie in international relations. After a failed bid for Congress in 1967, she began a series of government service positions in 1969 as a delegate to the 24th General Assembly of the United Nations. From there, she served in such capacities as the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Ghana in Africa, a member of the board of directors of the National Wildlife Federation and on the Advisory Hospital Council in California, to name but a few.
Black's experience as a child actor may have unwittingly prepared her in some small way for her role as the U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia. In Wee Willie Winkle, she was asked to run across a dirt path and climb safely onto rocks as a stampede of several dozen horses raced by.
Just three months into her stay at Prague, she had a similar experience when she attended a demonstration at Wenceslas Square. The riot police (the "goon squad," as Black puts it) decided to break things up, and began clubbing people — only, this wasn't staged, the clubs weren't plastic and there were no stand-ins.
It was just a month before the successful revolution that would overturn the Communist government in Czechoslovakia, and some people with Black were getting their heads bashed in. The crowd had to run, and Black and her husband ran with them. She said they'd turn down one street and then be forced — ironically, just like those stampeding horses — down another street.
"I remember one student running. by me and, in broken English, he said thank you for being here I had a feeling of being part of their try for freedom, and their courage. it makes you teary eyed," she said.
Now, as she is giving up her post in Czechoslovakia to return to California, Black said she will work with the Republican National Committee, helping President Bush's re-election campaign.
From there, she offers no hints of her own political trail. Although one road may lead to a sequel to her autobiography, which covered the first 26 years of her life. But don't look for it too soon — Black said it took her eight years to write the first one.