A number of things seem to have “gotten us through” the Great Depression—Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, FDR’s presidential oratory, the movie musicals of Busby Berkeley—but the fact that one of them was a 6-year-old child who sang and danced and acted like a veteran is nothing short of amazing. So is the fact that, between 1935 and 1939, Shirley Temple was the most popular movie star in America (far outdistancing Clark Gable and the aforementioned Fred and Ginger) at an age when most children are barely conscious of the world around them.
Nearly 80 years after her best-known movies were in theaters—Stand Up and Cheer! (1934), The Little Colonel (1935), Curly Top (1935), Little Miss Broadway (1938), etc.—it is difficult to grasp what Shirley Temple meant to American moviegoers of the era. There have always been talented child performers, even prodigies, in our midst; but her combination of appealing looks, talent, musicality, and personality was unique in the annals of film. Even today, allowing for the corny plot devices and old-fashioned styles, it is impossible to watch the movies of Shirley Temple without admiration, wonder, and pleasure.
It is also worth mentioning, in an age when onetime child performers seem to collapse publicly on cue, that the balance of Shirley Temple’s long life and career was wholly admirable. Recognizing, in her early twenties, that her box-office appeal was fading, she retired from movies, married happily, raised a family, and pursued a second career as philanthropist, political fundraiser, and diplomat, mixing a long list of personal good works with public appointments as representative to the U.N. General Assembly (1969), ambassador to Ghana (1974-76), the first female chief of protocol (1976-77), and ambassador to Czechoslovakia (1989-92) during that country’s transition from communism to democracy.
In Prague, said Henry Kissinger afterwards, Ambassador Shirley Temple Black had been “very intelligent, very tough-minded, very disciplined”—which, of course, surprised no one who had known Shirley Temple.