Death of 1930s Child Star Leaves a Void

Death of 1930s Child Star Leaves a Void

Famed former child star Shirley Temple Black died on Monday, February 10. She was 85. She began her film career in 1932 at only three years old, starring in small, low budget features and cereal advertisements and found international fame in 1934 after signing a contract with 20th Century Fox and starring in “Bright Eyes.” “Bright Eyes” was created especially for Temple to showcase her singing and dancing talents — at only six years old, she was not only a performer for a major film studio, but a headliner! She was probably the youngest actress to have her name headlining a film. Temple went on to star in a great many comedic dramas with songs and dances created specifically for her. Even if you’ve never seen “Curly Top,” you’d surely recognize the signature song, “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” from the 1935 film that showcased Temple’s talents.

Shirley Temple’s singularity is what makes her death feel like such a loss. I would guess that very few people younger than our grandparents’ or parents’ ages were exposed to Temple’s films, but most can identify her as the prolific, curly-haired singer-tap dancer-actress that she was. Temple was the original child star; she was so successful because she was spirited and upbeat even during a time period when the United States was not. She allowed filmgoers to escape the troubles of the Depression-plagued 1930’s for a few hours. Would she have reached the same level of fame and recognition if she had been born in a different decade, or did Temple strike gold because of her birth year? Is there a place for a Shirley Temple-esque child actor in 2014?

I’m not sure that there is. The exaggerated cuteness and optimism of Temple’s movies have been out of style in more recent decades. Nowadays, Hollywood heavyweights instead bring violent action films or painfully realistic, cerebral features to theaters. Cinemagoers are still paying for a form of escapism, but what they’re escaping to is a world full of someone else’s problems. No longer are we familiar with the realm of optimism, clear-cut “good guys” and “bad guys” and happy endings so integral to Shirley Temple films. Regardless of the tastes of Hollywood studios and the movie-going public, I’m not sure if a legacy like Temple’s could be imitated anyway. After gracefully retiring from show business in 1950 (at the ripe, old age of 22!) Temple transitioned to life as a wife, mother, and politician. She married WWII Navy officer Charles Alden Black in 1950 and had three children. She made occasional television appearances and then pursued a career in government. In 1969, Temple was appointed by President Nixon to the United States General Assembly and later on served as the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and then Czechoslovakia. She later held the honor of being the first female Chief of Protocol under Jimmy Carter.

Temple never made headlines for entering rehab, getting arrested or publishing an offensive tweet (of course, that technology didn’t exist in her day, but you get the picture). The child and teen actors of our generation just can’t seem to make the switch from starring in Disney Channel’s tame and highly-edited offerings to conducting themselves as professional adults, whether they choose to continue working in the entertainment industry or not. Remember when Lindsay Lohan was a super-cute and charming child actress? “The Parent Trap” and “Freaky Friday” were both great remakes! Lohan clearly had a lot of talent, but drug addiction and perhaps a poor work ethic have left her with a troubled reputation. I’m not even entirely sure what Lohan is up to these days besides taking up space in L.A. nightclubs or making an occasional B-list movie.

Nor has Miley Cyrus had the smoothest transition from childhood stardom to adult success. We’re all aware of Cyrus’s attempts throughout the years to project a grittier and more mature image than that of her “Hannah Montana” period. She started off by taking risqué (at least for a 15-year-old) photos for Vanity Fair and pole dancing on an ice cream truck while performing at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards. Since then, Cyrus has been singing, tweeting and Instagram-ing her way to notoriety (including risqué photos for any age), and while she’s definitely put out some interesting music this past year, Miley Cyrus is no class act à la Shirley Temple. Can you imagine Cyrus taking up a job in the White House? She’d wear a giant teddy bear backpack to press conferences. And I’m not quite sure how well bleached eyebrows or twerking would go over with President Obama.

Countless other ex-child stars have had their share of issues — Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and Macaulay Culkin come to mind. Dakota Fanning, who acted in countless films as a pre-teen, and Neil Patrick Harris, played Dougie Houser as a child, stand out as examples of child performers who grew up without causing scandals or finding themselves in jail. However, neither female has experienced the fame or cultural significance that Shirley Temple did as a child star. This makes Temple pretty unique. The amount she accomplished — and the variety of it — is truly remarkable. The nature of our time suggests that a pre-teen as singularly famous as Shirley Temple would have a difficult time finding success in unrelated ways as an adult. But who says that Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus have to become the norm? With any luck, someone will come along to bring us joy onscreen but contribute in other, unrelated ways when she outgrows Hollywood. Until then, Temple will be sorely missed.