America’s Baby

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During the late Depression years the biggest movie star was also the littlest, Shirley Temple. “It is a splendid thing,” FDR said, “that for just fifteen cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”

For anyone born too late to see her films the first time around, it is hard to understand her appeal; it’s clear from the five she made with Bill Robinson that she was a talented dancer (so talented that cynics charged she was a midget), but the sturdy, bright-eyed, relentlessly cheerful character she invariably played when standing still is hard for modern eyes to take. “Why they bother with titles, or with plots either is beyond us,” the critic Frank Nugent wrote at the height of her fame. “The sensible thing would be to announce Shirley Temple in ‘Shirley Temple’ and let it go at that.” Whether playing Little Miss Marker, or The Little Colonel, Curly Top or Dimples, Poor Little Rich Girl or Wee Willie Winkle, she was the same—doggedly sweet, determinedly innocent, more dependable than any of the surrounding grownups upon whom a child might be expected to depend— in short, too good to be true.

Guess again. As Shirley Temple Black’s vivid memoir Child Star (McGraw-Hill, $19.95) makes clear without a hint of special pleading, she was in fact far more dependable than the adults closest to her and tried hard to maintain her innocence and hold on to her good humor in circumstances that would have caused a less resilient person to implode. Her book also demonstrates again what a very good thing it is that there’s no business like show business.

She was born in 1928, the third child and first girl born to a breezy California bank manager and his star-struck wife, Gertrude. “The owners of a child star are like lease-holders,” Graham Greene once wrote; “their property diminishes in value every year.” Temple’s owners got an extra year out of her by altering her birth certificate to make her seem a year younger than she really was, an act that upped the profits but nearly cost their daughter her life. At a public appearance in 1939, a deranged woman stood up in the front row and aimed a pistol at her. FBI agents, previously alerted to a possible kidnaping, seized the woman before she could squeeze off a shot. Her own daughter and Shirley had been born the same day, the would-be assassin explained later, but her baby had died; clearly the movie star had stolen her child’s soul.

 

Shirley was barely three in 1931 when her mother led her onto the set of the first of the eight one-reel shorts called “Baby Burlesks” that began her career. These were startling parodies of grown-up films in which the cast members were dressed as adults from the waist up and wore droopy diapers below. In one Shirley mimicked Dolores Del Rio in an off-the-shoulder blouse and satin garter; in another she was “Morelegs Sweettrick” (Marlene Dietrich) in a feather boa and spangled diaper run up the night before by her mother.

When discipline became a problem (no performer was more than six), mothers were barred and the child-welfare supervisor was lured away to a dressing room fitted out with a sofa, magazines, and refeshments so that the director could lay down the law. Any child who acted up was banished to the “black box,” an airless, windowless chamber on wheels originally built for sound technicians, in which the only place to sit was a block of ice. Anyone who told about the box would be put back in it.

Shirley was imprisoned there several times, but when she finally dared tell her mother she was not believed. When hours spent shivering in the box exacerbated an ear infection that finally had to be lanced, her mother saw that her daughter was back early the next morning for another eleven-and-a-half-hour, ten-dollar day. “This business of being mother to a budding star is no joke,” Gertrude wrote Shirley’s grandmother that evening. “I think I look ten years older and have lost quite a little weight.”

Shirley’s time in the box did her no lasting psychological damage, she believes, but the “lesson of life” it taught her was “profound and unforgettable. Time is money. Wasted time means wasted money means trouble. Time spent working is more fun than standing in any icy black box and getting an earache.”

It is the eerie power of her book that without affectation or self-pity she manages to tell most of her story from the viewpoint of the little girl she once was, missing few details of what went on around her but leaving adult judgments to her readers. The result is often harrowing. Here she remembers a day at work on the last “Baby Burlesk” comedy, Kids ’n’ Africa, in which she played “Madame Cradlebait,” a missionary rescued from tiny tribesmen by a jungle boy called “Diaperzan”: