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Shirley Temple

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Child movie star Shirley Temple, smiling and with a face surrounded by curls of golden hair

Shirley Temple is probably the most famous child star of the 20th Century and is considered by many to have been an extremely talented actress. She appeared in her first film when she was only three years old, and went on to star in a whole series of movies, some written especially for her. Shirley was responsible for providing hope for people during the Depression, and saved 20th Century Fox (now known as Fox Studios) from bankruptcy. She was well-known for her trademark of curly blonde ringlets and a dimpled smile.

Contrary to popular belief, Shirley's life was not an easy one. Many young actors at that time were exploited and treated in a way that would definitely not be allowed today. There were many kidnap and murder threats and attempts against Shirley - and even against her daughter. Her first marriage, when she was only 16, was disastrous. Even though she made millions of dollars through acting when young, she saw very little of this in her later life.

Early Life

Shirley's parents Gertrude and George had two boys, George Jr and Jack, and decided they wanted a girl. They were so keen to have a girl that they did everything they could that they thought would help. George had his tonsils out under the doctor's recommendation. When pregnant, Gertrude spent a lot of time listening to classical music, reading good literature aloud and taking walks along the beach. Gertrude and George were lucky. Shirley Jane Temple was born on 23 April, 1928, in Santa Monica, California, USA.

When Shirley was barely three years old her mother took her to Mrs Meglin's Dance Studio. Shirley attended a class for young children, where they practised tap-dancing, basic ballet and attempted dances such as waltzes, the tango and hornpipes. Shirley spent two-and-a-half years studying at Mrs Meglin's Dance Studio.

As Santa Monica is near Hollywood, children from the area would occasionally end up in films. At the end of 1931, Shirley's mother was told by the music teacher at Meglin's that some directors from Hollywood were looking for ten boys and two girls for some films. The teacher suggested that Shirley go along to meet them. She did. There were about a hundred other girls there, but Shirley stood out and the directors were very impressed by her. Six days later her parents received a phone call asking if she would come to Hollywood for a screen test. Shirley, despite being only three and-a-half, was extremely confident. A few days after the screen test her parents were informed that they wanted her for a two-year contract, to include 26 films.

Baby Burlesks

The films were to star children and be take-offs of adult films. For their costumes, all the children wore adult costumes from the waist up, along with giant nappies, each finished with a huge safety-pin. The costumes were made by the mothers of the children. Shirley was to be the leading lady. She received a small fee and her mother also got some money for being her chauffeur, hairdresser and seamstress. The first film was called The Runt Page, a take-off of The Front Page. Unfortunately, it was a failure, but seven more take-off films were made starring Shirley. These films were called Baby Burlesks.

Tough Job

Acting in the Baby Burlesks was tough for all the children involved. The producer Jack Hays and director Charles Lamont were extremely hard on the children, refusing to allow filming delays for illness or injuries. None of the children's mothers were allowed into the studio, so they remained outside, sewing and gossiping with each other. A child welfare supervisor would escort all the children into the studio and then disappear to a comfortable room elsewhere. As a result, the children were often exploited. They had to work long hours. If they misbehaved, they were locked in a large black box filled with a large block of ice (this had been originally designed as a workstation for sound technicians). The children were threatened with more time in the box if they told their parents about this punishment. Despite this threat, Shirley told her mother, who of course thought her daughter was making it up. As well as the punishments given to the children, not much care was taken for their comfort on the set. In one of the Baby Burlesks, the script called for some boys to be shot down with arrows. When the first take of this scene wasn't realistic enough, some wire was secretly placed low-down across the path the boys had to run. On the second take, all the boys ran straight into the wire and tripped up, landing on top of each other bleeding. Being a child actor was definitely not easy, but Shirley kept going.

Jack Hays who had produced the Baby Burlesks was also responsible for making various contracts with Shirley's parents. He sensed her potential and wanted a proportion of the money she was receiving. Shirley's parents willingly entered contracts, but didn't know that all contracts made with minors in California in those days had to be approved by the court. As a result, some of the contracts Shirley's parents entered into were invalid, probably meaning that Jack Hays unfairly received a portion of Shirley's money. After the Baby Burlesks, Hays arranged for Shirley to appear in several short films called Frolics of Youth. She had the main role in most of those films. Hays then organised an agent for her, and she began applying for roles in full-length films. In 1933 Shirley had six walk-ons, one bit part and some unsuccessful auditions.

Contract with Fox Studios

In December 1933, Shirley was at the cinema where the preview of one of her Frolics of Youth films was playing. There she was spotted by a songwriter from Fox Studios, who recognised her from the film and asked her to audition for a role in Stand up and Cheer. She got the part, which consisted of a complicated song-and-dance routine with actor James Dunn. Shirley was barely given any time to rehearse, and only given the lyrics to the song shortly before she had to sing. Despite having a nasty accident in the studio café shortly before she went on set, she performed brilliantly under the pressure, and shortly afterwards her parents were asked to sign a seven-year long-term contract to keep her at Fox Studios.

Fox altered Shirley's history somewhat. They enrolled her in another dancing school, where she was quickly re-taught everything she had already learnt at Meglin's. To make her story sound even more amazing and her talent even more obvious, Fox Studios altered the date on her birth certificate, making her younger by a year. Although she was nearly six, Shirley and the public were told she was only four. (It was not until she was 13, at her '12th' birthday party, that Shirley was told by her mother about this age change.)

Growing Fame

Shirley's first role under the contract was a bit part in a film called Now I'll Tell. Although she had previously had an unsuccessful audition for the title role in Little Miss Marker, her mother pressured the studio to arrange for her to get the part. Little Miss Marker was made by Paramount Pictures, and after a short audition in which she was required to repeat two phrases, Shirley was offered the part. Paramount Pictures paid Fox Studios a high price for the loan of Shirley.

Little Miss Marker was a financial success. Shirley began receiving fan mail. At first her mother and brothers opened and kept the letters, but when the number of letters increased to over 4,000 a week, Fox Studios hired a full-time secretary to deal with them. Shirley's acting had brought a lot of money to the family, and they were able to buy a new house and hire a housekeeper. A full-time schoolteacher for Shirley, Frances Klapt, was also hired. Shirley affectionately called her Klammy.

Unfortunately, Shirley rarely spent time around children her own age and presumably felt quite lonely at times when she had only her bodyguard and mother for company. Occasionally, some of her co-stars were children, but due to competitiveness between the children and more importantly between their stage mothers, their friendships never became too close. Shirley's main friend was her stand-in, Mary-Lou Isleib.

In 1935 Shirley was awarded an honorary Academy Award, called the Juvenile Award (now obsolete) for her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the previous year. She received a miniature Oscar statuette. Around that time she also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson

Tap-dancer Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson co-starred with Shirley in four of her films: The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Somewhere Around the Corner. Shirley and Bill became firm friends in real life until Bill's death in 1949. When Shirley was young, Bill gave her a toy car as a gift, which Shirley could be seen driving around Fox Studios in. Bill was the 'adopted godfather' (the role of godfather had already been given away) of Shirley's first daughter Susan.

Not So Young

In 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer was planning to make the film The Wizard of Oz and producer Mervyn LeRoy was keen to have Shirley in the role. It's a little unclear why Shirley didn't get the part; although the generally accepted story is that 20th Century Fox refused to lend her to MGM despite the high salary, rumours also circulated that Shirley's singing had something to do with it. Judy Garland was cast instead and it is probably due to this that The Wizard of Oz is now seen as a children's classic rather than just a 'Shirley Temple film'.

Shirley's last film under her Fox Studios contract was called Young People. It received some bad reviews, mostly commenting on how she had grown too old for the part and no longer had a childish appeal. In 1940 Shirley left her studio bungalow and Fox Studios.

Teenage Years

After Young People, nobody knew what Shirley would do next. Many film roles were suggested, as well as Broadway musicals and radio series. Shirley only did a small role on radio and some charity work. When Shirley was informed about the age fakery that had taken place, she took the bizarre news in her stride, saying:

'Yesterday I was eleven and today I'm thirteen. What happened to twelve? That proves the fortune teller was wrong...she said I would lose both parents in an accident in my twelfth year. But that can't happen, because there is no twelfth year!'

Shirley's contract with Fox Studios had finished, and she was considering working with a different film company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Eventually a two-film contract was signed at the end of 1940. Every film that was offered to Shirley was rejected by her mother for a variety of reasons. She was mainly worried that other actors would upstage Shirley. Four months after the contract had been signed and still nothing was happening, it was revised to include only one film, chosen by the studio. That film was Kathleen, a story about a girl who had recently lost her mother and wanted the affection of her father.

Around the same time Shirley enrolled in the Westlake School for Girls, attending as a day pupil. Although she was excited about going to a proper school for the first time, other pupils were not so excited at having her there; she recalls some hostility towards her simply because of who she was. She managed to make friends despite this, yet admitted to picking up certain habits at the school, such as smoking in the toilets. During her second year at the school, her mother signed some contracts for some more films for Shirley; she continued making films, mostly failures, until The Story of Seabiscuit in 1949.


During her early teens Shirley 'discovered' boys. There were many she liked, and she let herself be courted by many, even keeping a file filled with information of all the ones she liked best. She usually met boys who lived near her or were brothers of her friends or were her co-stars. In 1944, Shirley made a vow to herself that she would be the first in her class at school to become engaged. Shortly afterwards, two of her boyfriends proposed to her; she agreed to become 'engaged to be engaged' with one, but changed her mind and agreed to marry a completely different boy when he proposed shortly after the first!

Jack Agar, Shirley's First Husband

One boy Shirley particularly liked was Jack Agar. He was seven years older than her, the brother of one of her school friends, and a Sergeant in the Air Corps. Shirley had met Agar at a party of hers; she has since admitted that she then really wanted to steal him from her next-door neighbour who had brought him. They became friends and then lovers; he proposed to Shirley before her 17th birthday. They married shortly afterwards. It was clear from the beginning to Shirley and Agar that the marriage was not working: they had many disagreements and not much time together. Agar ended up in acting classes and then films (he appeared in Fort Apache and Adventure in Baltimore alongside Shirley). A separation followed after the birth of Shirley's first child.

Charles Black, Shirley's Second Husband

Shirley met Charles Black on holiday in Hawaii with her parents and daughters. It was only shortly after her separation with Jack Agar; the divorce had not officially come through. Shirley and Black spent a lot of time together on the island; Black was a local and so took Shirley in his car on guided tours and for swims. Quite indifferent to Shirley's fame, Black admitted to her shortly after he met her that he had never seen any of her films. Shirley was a little shocked and enquired about it; however it was pleasant for her to spend time with somebody not concerned with her fame. Black and Shirley got engaged while Shirley was in Hawaii; later Black quit his job and flew back to America for their marriage in 1950. At the time of writing, Shirley and Charles Black are still married (Shirley goes by the name Shirley Temple Black).


Shirley had three children. Her first, Linda Susan (known as Susan), was born in 1948. Shirley's autobiography tells how the father - Jack Agar - was mostly indifferent and non-supportive during pregnancy, birth and shortly after. Susan apparently got on with her stepfather Charles Black extremely well; Charles and Shirley had another child when Susan was four, a boy named Charlie Jr. Due to birth complications and the errors of a doctor, Shirley nearly died after the birth of Charlie. She survived to have another daughter, Lori.

Life Away From Hollywood

A short while into their marriage, Charles Black and Shirley decided to look into Shirley's finances. After a meeting with Shirley's parents and a man named Ira Thomason (he and Shirley's father had set up Temple-Thomason Inc, which dealt with the businesses of movie stars), it transpired that Shirley had earned over three million dollars (worth much more now due to inflation) in the course of her acting career. Money had been deducted for taxes, for Shirley's agent, and, it turned out, to support the whole Temple household for most of her life. The house, pets, cars, staff and travel of the Temple family had all been paid for by Shirley. Unfairly, when she was young her parents had also handed out money to some relatives, and loaned money to friends (most of which hadn't been paid back).

However, a fair bit of money remained in shares although these, unknown to both Shirley and her mother, turned out to officially belong to Shirley's parents, not Shirley. A trust fund for Shirley had been set up when she was a child, and her father had been under instructions to deposit a portion of her earnings into the trust each year. It came as a shock to Shirley to find there was only $44,000 in the trust fund (making her total worth $89,000 after adding on the price of her house). A bit puzzled by this, Shirley decided to investigate. It turned out that she should have had $356,000 in her account, but her father had been flagrantly disobeying court orders and had not been depositing Shirley's money into the account. The money had disappeared, but Shirley decided it was not worth pursuing the matter with her father, as she did not want family arguments or problems. She had retained less than three per cent of the money she had earned in her career. Contrary to the belief of many people, she was certainly not rich.

Despite supposedly succumbing to the infamous 'child actor syndrome', Shirley was able to lead a fairly normal life once she made her departure from Hollywood, retiring from the spotlight and moving to Washington. She found she wasn't recognised quite as much there (once, she was asked by a photographer to move herself and her car out of the way because she was messing up his photo of Shirley Temple's house!). Shirley briefly hosted a television series for children called Shirley Temple's Storybook in which she read (and sometimes acted out) classic tales for the young.

In 1969 she was appointed by US President Nixon as a US Delegate to the United Nations, as the only woman on the team at that time. She was not reappointed at the end of her term, but in 1974 she became the US Ambassador to Ghana. She held this position until 1976, at which time she became the first female Chief of Protocol of the United States. Other positions included an officer in the Foreign Affairs Department of the United States and Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Czechoslovakia. She also unsuccessfully ran for Congress.

She has received honorary doctorates from various universities, is a member of several boards and can sometimes still be seen at the Oscars. Sadly, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo a mastectomy; she has since spoken openly about it in the hope that it might help other women.


The majority of Shirley's most famous films were made under her contract with Fox Studios. Many of these are available on video today; some have been artificially colourised to appeal to modern children. Unfortunately, there are no copies of some of Shirley's earliest films, and only very bad-quality copies of others. Following are descriptions of a selection of Shirley's films.

Dora's Dunking Donuts (1933)

Dora's Dunking Donuts is about a local coffee-shop woman who successfully makes doughnuts that suck up drinks they are dunked into. Shirley is one of the smallest pupils at a nearby musical school. As the teacher is a friend of Dora's, the class is the first to know about the doughnuts and is involved in a campaign to promote them.

Bright Eyes (1934)

Bright Eyes was the first film made especially for Shirley. It came early in her contract with Fox Studios. Shirley's character was called Shirley and was the daughter of a maid in the house of a rich, unkind family. Her father was dead but Shirley, a delightful child, was popular with all the servants as well as the grandfather of the family. However, she was disliked and harassed by the family's spoilt little girl (played by Jane Withers, who managed to steal scenes from Shirley and secure a contract for herself) and her parents.

Shirley really loved aeroplanes. Her father had been a pilot, and his best friend (James Dunn, who had previously appeared with Shirley in Stand Up and Cheer), Shirley's godfather, still flew. Shirley was popular with all the young men who hung around the airport.

Tragedy strikes when Shirley's mother is killed in a car accident on Shirley's birthday. Shirley is devastated when she hears about it, and even more disappointed that she has to live with her mother's employers and not with her godfather. Realising that, apart from the grandfather, the family does not want her, Shirley decides to run away. A legal battle ensues, with both Shirley's godfather and the family's grandfather applying for custody.

In Bright Eyes Shirley sang the famous song On the Good Ship Lollipop, often thought of as her trademark song.

Captain January (1936)

Shirley plays Star in Captain January, a film about a girl who is brought up by an old lighthouse keeper after she survives the shipwreck that kills her parents. The lighthouse-keeper, Captain January (affectionately called 'Cap' by Star) loves and cares for Star and she feels the same way about him. However, the local authorities believe that Captain January has no right to Star and decide to take her away from him, into their custody. To make things more difficult, relatives of Star suddenly appear. The film, in between jokes, slapstick and many song-and-dance routines, focuses on who will get Star.

Further Reading

Shirley's autobiography, Child Star, was published in 1988. It is an excellent piece of work, telling the reader what was going on inside Shirley's head when she was young (and older!). It contains interesting anecdotes, extracts from letters and personal diaries of Shirley and others, a lot of details about Shirley's personal life and a large photo gallery.

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