Any kid who ever tap-danced at a talent show or put on a curly wig and auditioned for “Annie” can only dream of being as beloved — or as important — as Shirley Temple.
Temple, who died Monday night at 85, sang, danced, sobbed and grinned her way into the hearts of Depression-era moviegoers and remains the ultimate child star decades later. Other preteens, from Macaulay Culkin to Miley Cyrus, have been as famous in their time. But none of them helped shape their time the way she did.
Dimpled, precocious and oh-so-adorable, she was America’s top box office star during Hollywood’s golden age, and her image was free of the scandals that have plagued Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan and so many other child stars — parental feuds, or drug and alcohol addiction.
Temple remains such a symbol of innocence that kids still know the drink named for her: a sweet, nonalcoholic cocktail of ginger ale and grenadine, topped with a maraschino cherry.
Her hit movies — which included “Bright Eyes” (1934), “Curly Top” (1935), “Dimples” (1936), “Poor Little Rich Girl” (1936) and “Heidi” (1937) — featured sentimental themes and musical subplots, with stories of resilience that a struggling American public strongly identified with. She kept children singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop” for generations.
She was also a tribute to the economic and inspirational power of movies, credited with helping to save 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy and praised by President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself as a bright spirit during a gloomy time.
She was “just absolutely marvelous, greatest in the world,” director Allan Dwan told filmmaker-author Peter Bogdanovich in his book “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Film Directors.”
“With Shirley, you’d just tell her once and she’d remember the rest of her life,” said Dwan, who directed her in “Heidi” and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” “Whatever it was she was supposed to do — she’d do it. ... And if one of the actors got stuck, she’d tell him what his line was — she knew it better than he did.”