Big little star
It is nowadays unthinkable that a child star would surpass in income even the most popular actors, but that is exactly what happened to Shirley Temple, who in 1934, when she was turning only six, already made the ten most profitable stars list, from 1935 until 1938 she was number one on that list, and in 1939 she was still among the top ten. Daughter of a bank clerk, at the age of three she started attending ballet classes, where she was very early on spotted by a talent scout of the Fox film company, which immediately hire her for a series of short comedies and satires about events in politics, society and the world of entertainment called Baby Burlesks where the children were dressed as adults and parodied the most popular events, entertaining the audience by imitating popular actors, so Shirley Temple, among others, imitated Marlene Dietrich. She soon outgrew that level and started getting parts in feature films, and her exceptional talent was confirmed in the film Little Miss Marker (1934) directed by Alexander Hall, and the films she made in 1934 earned her, the child of not yet seven years of age, a special Oscar at the beginning of 1935, making her the youngest winner of this most prestigious award to this day.
Although these facts alone are fascinating, the importance of Shirley Temple is significantly bigger from the social as well as from the cinematographic perspective. The films she made as a child were actually melodramas with elements of comedy, supplemented with numerous dancing and singing sequences. In this way they were an escape from reality for the audience troubled by the great economic crisis. With her performance, Shirley Temple added the feeling of a fairy tale, less with her childish charm and more with the surprise of a situation where such a little girl acts as a mature person, with occasional wise advice and the way her characters successfully overcame complicated situations. Admittedly, the obstacles encountered by the little protagonists do not derive from the pressing political or economic issues of the time, but are primarily personal, either for her or for the adults close to her, whom she selflessly helps.
Although this brought her incredible popularity, there were some, not great in number, who didn't find this type of escapism particularly appealing because it numbed the reaction of wide masses to social injustice, so she was characterized as a Lilliputian moralist, and one of the greatest English writers of the last century, Graham Greene, (who occasionally published very interesting film critiques) when writing about Shirley Temple's most appraised film Wee Willie Winkie (1937), directed by John Ford, characterized her as an adult playing a child. This infuriated her fans so much that the magazine which published Green's critique went bankrupt, not only due to a drastic fall in the number of sold copies, but also because of the lawsuits the angry admirers of the little diva initiated.
But regardless of the ambiguous worldview of her films, Shirley Temple truly was an amazing actress, not only because of her virtuoso singing and dancing skills, but also because of her impressive and very mature acting, where she managed to convey more strong emotions than her adult acting partners, who next to her often felt uncomfortable and seemed awkward. This happened to the famous Victor McLaglen in the previously mentioned film Wee Willie Winkie, who a year before received an Oscar for his role in The Informer, also directed by John Ford. In the scene where he is lying in bed and Shirley Temple is sitting beside him, like a mother, she is so dominating that this is often used as an example of her relationship with adult actors.
However, at the beginning of 1940s, when she first hit puberty and the USA entered World War II, the demands of the audience changed, looking for different stars and thus her popularity was at a decline, with her film career ending in 1950. She tried a comeback to the big screen (on TV) ten years later, with no greater success, and in the 1970s became politically active, representing as a conservative Republican similar ideas to the ones advocated in her films earlier on only in a different way. Although she did not win the elections, she later on became a delegate of the USA in the UN General Assembly, and then the Ambassador to Ghana (1974 – 1977) and Czechoslovakia (1989 – 1992). The successful execution of these duties was certainly helped by her image of a former big Hollywood star. (Tomislav Kurelec)