She wasn't Hollywood's first child star, but Shirley Temple, who died Monday night at age 85, became the one to which all others would forever be compared. A cinematic elixir during the depths of the Depression, from 1935 to 1938 Temple was the nation's top box-office draw.
It all began with her mother, like someone out of
From her earliest days in the crib, the infant was taught to sing, sway to music and mimic voices. Gertrude curled the girl's hair in the style of a young
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Rejected for a spot in the popular Our Gang comedies, Shirley was cast in a series of shorts called Baby Burlesks, which were meant to compete with Our Gang, but never did.
Two years of bit parts (and one year shaved off her age) later, her mother secured a contract (as well as one for herself as Shirley's "coach") with
Shirley filmed some small roles, then was loaned out to Paramount for her first starring role in
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That year - 1934 - things really took off. Temple filmed nine shorts and three features (Including Bright Eyes, where she sang On the Good Ship Lollipop), appeared on 14 magazine covers and was the subject of dozens of articles. By the end of the year, merchandise in the form of Shirley Temple dolls, books, dishes, clothes, etc. was flying off the shelves. By then she had difficulty going out in public, for fear of being mobbed or kidnapped.
Shirley worked six days a week, and when not filming she had endless photo shoots and costume fittings, greeted famous visitors and fit in her schoolwork. Her mother supervised everything, helped her memorize her lines and sat next to the director on set, calling out, "Sparkle, Shirley, sparkle!" when filming would begin. The studio built Shirley a bungalow with furniture scaled to her size to accommodate her long days.
Gertrude kept tight control over everything, keeping Shirley away from fellow child actors (and most other children, too) and oblivious to much of the world beyond what was right in front of her.
Just a year later, Hollywood expressed its gratitude to her by awarding her the first
Shirley's distinctive curls, pout and precocious manner and the feel-good, tried-and-true plot lines brought moviegoers to the theaters in droves. Her movies followed a formula: Shirley almost always played an orphan whose adorability melts the heart of a crotchety old man. In her films, goodness (in the form of Shirley's character) always triumphs over evil, and in the end all is right with the world.
In 1935's The Little Colonel
Shirley was among the very highest paid actors in 1937, at $307,000; she made 15 times that in endorsements and licensing that year.