Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Farewell Shirley

  Very sad news today. Shirley Temple Black died yesterday. She was 85 years old. But most people will always think of her this way:

While some people might have hated the fact that the wide majority of people had an image of them that was stuck on age 6, Shirley never seemed to resent her childhood career. She lived serenely with her childhood image, and yet didn't let it define her life.

 Shirley was born in 1928. She was discovered by talent scouts, at her dance class, when she was only 3 years old. She was signed by Educational Pictures, where she appeared in a series of shorts called Baby Burlesks, which were parodies of popular films of the day, with all child casts.

Shirley, on the left, doing the washing, in "The Pie Covered Wagon". Note all the kids are wearing diapers.
She also appeared in a 2 reeler series called "Frolics of Youth", as the younger sister of the teenaged lead. But it wasn't until she signed with Twentieth Century Fox, in 1934, that she became a star. Two months after signing with Fox she appeared in Stand Up and Cheer. She had a small part, very few lines and little screen time. But the dance number she did with James Dunn became iconic.

James Dunn and Shirley in "Stand Up And Cheer".
Shirley, wearing a polka dot dress with a ridiculously large,starched petticoat had,at just short of 6 years of age,cemented her image with the world for the rest of her life. Millions of polka dot children's dresses, dance outfits, costumes, and polka dot dressed dolls would be produced over the next 80 years.
  A lot of critics have attributed Shirley's amazing success as a child,(She was the number one box office draw for 4 years running, beginning in 1935.),to the public's need to forget the depression.The public needed something to take their minds off the terrible conditions the country was going through. But,can all her success really be boiled down to the depression? She did have talent. She was quite a dancer for such a young child. Her singing and acting weren't the greatest in the world, (but as a teenager she did very well playing the sassy girls in comedies like Miss Annie Rooney and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.)

Shirley as "Miss Annie Rooney" in 1942.
She wasn't going to grow up into a Judy Garland or a Jodie Foster. But if it was just the depression that made Shirley so popular, why are people still watching her movies? And who is buying all those polka dot dresses and those dolls that are still selling today? Little girls still go to dance class to learn to tap like Shirley.
  In 1935 Shirley received the very first Juvenile Oscar,(for her overall work in 1934). A month after that she put her signature and hand and footprints in the cement at what was then Grauman's  (Now Mann's) Chinese Theatre.(She was the first to be allowed to put her bare footprints in the cement.)

In 1960 she got her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Though her popularity waned as she grew older,Shirley continued to act in movies in the 1940's, and in the 50's had her own TV show.When she retired from acting she raised her 3 children, and later became America's ambassador to Ghana and later to Czechoslovakia. Under Gerald Ford she served as Chief of Protocol, (Also called Assistant Secretary of State.)  Most people today don't realize Shirley held those positions. Look little girls: when you don't want to dance or sing, you can be the Chief of Protocol of the United States! Shirley was very proud of her political work. She was also proud that in her work with her beloved 'Uncle Bill', Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, they became the first interracial couple to hold hands or dance together on screen. It seems nothing today, just an older man and a little girl dancing, but unfortunately it was really unheard of in it's time.

Shirley with her favourite dancing partner, the amazing Bill Robinson, doing his famous 'stair dance' in The Little Colonel, 1935. Though the movie did contain many stereotypes and sided with the confederacy (What?!), it also broke racial barriers with this dance sequence.

  In 1972 Shirley was diagnosed with breast cancer,and became one of the very first famous women to talk publicly about her mastectomy.She wrote "Child Star: An Autobiography" in 1988. She received a Kennedy Center Honor and a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actor's Guild. And even if most of the public has assumed that she died years ago because she hasn't been in the limelight, they never forgot her.
  My mom was born in 1927. She was an original Shirley fan. My sister still has Mom's Shirley Temple At Play book, one of the few things that survive from Mom's childhood.

When Mom was a little girl she tried to curl her hair in Shirley's signature ringlets. Her mother told her, "You might as well give that up.You ain't never going to be as cute as Shirley Temple." (What a terrible thing to say to your kid!)
  When I was a little girl I wasn't very 'girly'. I was much more inclined to climb a tree or play spies than to want to prance around in a dress. But I did always want to tap dance like Shirley Temple. Ivy went through her Shirley stage when she was tiny. Before Emma was born I had bought a pale pink dress with tiny white polka dots, knife blade pleats, and a big collar. It reminded me of this dress Shirley wore, and I always called it' The Shirley Temple dress'.

When Ivy was going through her Shirley stage she wanted to wear it every day. With washing I only managed to have it for her every other day. It was so cold in our old house that in the winter she had to wear pants and a long sleeved shirt under it, but that didn't put her off. I had her picture taken in the dress, even though by the time we got around to it the elastic in the puffy sleeves was dead and the knife blade pleats were starting to flatten out.
There is a standing picture too, but due to their rule that she couldn't stand on the platform, the photographer, who was a friend, made it less obvious by cutting the feet off the picture.
It was just so much a part of Ivy at that point. What she REALLY wanted though, was the polka dot dress from "Stand Up and Cheer". We looked everywhere for a dress or the fabric to make one out of. I finally found a red and white polka dot outfit I had bought for Emma when she was little, buried in a drawer. It had the right top half, except for the neckline, but it was pants on the bottom. I cut the legs up and used the bottom half of them to make the top of the legs, which I had cut open to be a skirt, bigger. It wasn't perfect, but Ivy was happy. She wanted the dresses, but felt no need to curl her hair. The kid was confident. Her hair had a slight curl to it when she was little, but nowhere near ringlets. I offered to try to curl it like Shirley's for her, but she said, "My hair is already curly." I wonder what she would have made of Grama!
  Ivy even persuaded Ken to 'dance' with her. She wore her polka dot dress and they danced to "Baby Take a Bow", from "Stand Up and Cheer". Luckily I got this on tape!
  When Ivy was 6 we wrote to Shirley and sent her a couple of pictures to autograph. She sent both back, signed, in a couple of weeks.

I have no doubt that years from now people will still be watching Shirley's movies, and little girls will still be making their dads dance Baby Take a Bow with them. So long Shirley.

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