Biography of Shirley Temple

Child Movie Star and Adult Diplomat

Shirley Temple
Photo by John Springer Collection / Corbis Historical

Shirley Temple Black (April 3, 1928 - February 10, 2014) was the most celebrated child movie star of all time. She led the list of top box-office stars for four consecutive years in the 1930s. Following her retirement from movies at the age of 22, she embarked on a career in diplomacy that included appointments as the U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

Birth and Earliest Years

Shirley Temple was born into a modest family. Her father worked at a bank, and her mother was a homemaker. However, Temple's mother encouraged the development of her singing, dancing, and acting talents from a very early age. In September 1931, she enrolled Shirley Temple, age three, in classes at Meglin's Dance School in Los Angeles, California. 

Educational Pictures' Charles Lamont discovered Temple at the dance school. He signed her to a contract and featured the young girl in two series of short films "Baby Burlesks" and "Frolics of Youth." After Educational Pictures went bankrupt 1933, Shirley Temple's father bought out her contract for a mere $25.00.

Child Movie Star

Songwriter Jay Gorney, co-writer of the Great Depression-era anthem "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," noticed Shirley Temple after viewing one of her short movies. He arranged for a screen test with Fox Films, and she appeared in the 1934 feature film "Stand Up and Cheer." Her song, "Baby Take a Bow," stole the show. More success followed with the title role in "Little Miss Marker" and a feature-length film titled "Baby Take a Bow."

Shirley Temple's "Bright Eyes" released in December 1934 made her a global star. It included her signature song "On the Good Ship Lollipop." The Academy Awards gave Temple a special Juvenile Oscar in February 1935. When Fox Films merged with Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935 to form 20th Century Fox, a team of nineteen writers were hired to develop stories and screenplays for Shirley Temple films.

A string of box-office successes including "Curly Top," "Dimples," and "Captain January" followed in the mid-1930s. By the end of 1935, the seven-year-old star was earning $2,500 a week. In 1937, 20th Century Fox hired legendary director John Ford to film "Wee Willie Winkie." Based on a Rudyard Kipling story, it was a critical and commercial success. 

A 1938 adaptation of "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" continued Shirley Temple's success. 20th Century Fox spent over $1 million on the production of 1939's "The Little Princess." Critics complained that it was "corny" and "pure hokum," but it was another box-office success. MGM made a substantial offer to 20th Century Fox to hire Temple to play Dorothy in the 1939 film of "The Wizard of Oz," but 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck turned them down. Instead, MGM used the movie to push their rising actress Judy Garland to stardom.

Teenage Years

In 1940, at age 12, Shirley Temple experienced her first real movie flops when "The Blue Bird," an attempt to answer MGM's success with "The Wizard of Oz," and "Young People" failed to excite audiences. Temple's contract with 20th Century Fox ended, and her parents sent her to Westlake School for Girls, an exclusive private school in Los Angeles, California.

MGM signed Shirley Temple to make a comeback in the early 1940s. Plans were made to have her join Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in their Andy Hardy series. After those plans fell through, the studio decided to have the trio star in "Babes on Broadway," but they pulled Shirley Temple from the project out of fears Garland and Rooney would upstage her. Her only film for MGM, 1941's "Kathleen," was panned by critics.

Later in the decade, Temple demonstrated maturity as an actress appearing in the 1944 ensemble success "Since You Went Away" and 1947's comedy "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. However, she was no longer able to carry a film on her own as the marquee star. In 1950, after being turned down for the lead role of "Peter Pan" on Broadway, Shirley Temple announced her retirement from movies at age 22.

TV Appearances

Shirley Temple launched a comeback in the late 1950s when she hosted and narrated the TV anthology series "Shirley Temple's Storybook." It featured fairy-tale adaptations. A second season was titled "The Shirley Temple Show." However, NBC canceled the show in 1961 for low ratings.

Temple made guest appearances on "The Red Skelton Show," "Sing Along With Mitch," and others. In 1965, she was hired to play a lead role in a sitcom titled "Go Fight City Hall," but it didn't survive past the pilot.

Diplomacy Career

In the late 1960s, Shirley Temple became involved in Republican Party politics. She lost a race for the nomination for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, but President Richard Nixon appointed her as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations in 1969. She served as U.S. ambassador to Ghana under President Gerald Ford and he later named her chief of protocol of the United States in July 1976. 

Under President George H.W. Bush, Shirley Temple served as ambassador to Czechoslovakia and is given credit for helping support the successful Velvet Revolution that ended communist rule in the country. She quickly established diplomatic relations with the elected President Vaclav Havel and accompanied him on his first official visit to Washington, D.C.

Personal Life

Shirley Temple married actor John Agar in 1945 when she was 17, and he was 24. In 1948, they had a daughter, Linda Susan. The couple starred in two films together before divorcing in 1949. 

In January 1950, Temple met former Navy intelligence officer Charles Black. They married in December. Shirley Temple gave birth to two children in her second marriage, Charles Black, Jr., and Lori Black, a rock musician. The couple's marriage lasted over 50 years until Charles Black's death in 2005.

When stricken by breast cancer in 1972, Shirley Temple spoke openly about her experiences undergoing a mastectomy. Her candid commentary demystified the disease for many other breast cancer victims. 

Shirley Temple died in February 2014 at age 85 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The condition was aggravated by the fact that she had been a lifelong smoker, a fact she hid from the public, supposedly not wanting to set a bad example for fans. 

Legacy

Shirley Temple movies of the 1930s were inexpensive to make. They were sentimental and melodramatic with very few holding up to the artistic state of the art in motion pictures. However, they appealed strongly to audiences during the Great Depression looking for a respite from their stressful daily lives.

Temple left the movie industry when her appeal faded and retreated from the spotlight to raise her children. As they became adults, she returned to serve the public in her multiple diplomatic roles. Shirley Temple demonstrated that child film stars could grow into adults with success in other occupations. She also blazed a trail for women in high-ranking diplomatic positions.

Memorable Films

  • "Stand Up and Cheer!" (1933)
  • "Bright Eyes" (1934)
  • "Curly Top" (1935)
  • "Captain January" (1936)
  • "Wee Willie Winkie" (1937)
  • "The Little Princess" (1939)
  • "Since You Went Away" (1944)
  • "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" (1947)

Shirley Temple Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Shirley Temple
  • Occupation: Movie star and diplomat
  • Born: April 23, 1928 in Santa Monica, California, USA
  • Died: February 10, 2014 in Woodside, California, USA
  • Selected FilmsBright Eyes, Wee Willie Winkie, The Little Princess, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer 
  • Key Accomplishments: Temple was the most popular Hollywood movie star before she was ten years old. As an adult, she served as the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.
  • Spouse Name: Charles Black
  • Children's Names: Linda Susan Agar, Charles Black, Jr., Lori Black
  • Famous Quote: "I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store, and he asked for my autograph."
  • Offbeat Fact: Temple fell an injured her head during a dance number while filming Stand Up and Cheer. A spit curl was used to hide the accident in the film.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Black, Shirley Temple. Child Star: An Autobiography. Warner Books, 1989.
  • Kasson, John F. The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America. W.W. Norton, 2014.