Shirley Temple at 85: Where Would She Rank as a Child Star Today?
If Shirley Temple were turning 5 instead of 85 on Tuesday, would she still be a star?
At first, it's difficult to see where she'd fit in with the Selena Gomez crowd, or how she'd compete against the Justin Bieber juggernaut.
In Temple's heyday it was kids, not teens, who ran the table. Temple was a descendant or contemporary of the likes of Jackie Coogan, Baby Peggy, Jackie Cooper, and the Little Rascals. From Coogan's appearance in the Charlie Chaplin silent classic "The Kid" on into the Depression, wide-eyed moppets were where the money and the audiences were. The smaller, the better.
In the age of the adorable, where kids' movies were not only profitable, but prestigious (as in the case of the Cooper-led "Skippy," still the one and only comic book movie nominated for a Best Picture Oscar), Temple emerged as the "tiniest toast of America."
For four consecutive years, from 1935 to 1938, when "Curly Top," "Heidi," "Dimples," "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," and more Temple favorites were released, she was Hollywood's No. 1 box-office draw. She earned millions, becoming the face of a marketing empire that included the then-ubiquitous Shirley Temple doll, inspired the teetotaling favorite, the Shirley Temple (that still-popular fizzy combo of ginger ale and grenadine), and helped make her own first name one of the most popular girl names in the United States.
In 1939, she turned 11. She lost out on "The Wizard of Oz" to the 17-year-old Judy Garland. (Temple's studio wouldn't loan her out to MGM.) And Mickey Rooney, age 19, replaced her as the top-ranking movie star.
Teenagers had arrived.
Today, of course, they're still raging. The most profitable franchise in film history, the "Harry Potter" movies, was powered by their kind. So was the "Twilight" series. So, too, is "The Hunger Games."
Movies still star children, and children still emerge as stars -- sometimes even as Oscar winners or Oscar nominees. In the 1990s, Macaulay Culkin managed a fairly good Temple impersonation, box office-wise, with his No. 1 run from "Home Alone" to "The Good Son." But children no longer consistently dominate the discussion or drive the business. And if there's a kids' movie that's a hit today, odds are it stars not an actual child, but a CGI character voiced by a big kid. Maybe a Tom Hanks. Maybe a Luke Wilson. Not a Shirley Temple.
Still, it'd be wrong to argue that the 5-year-old Temple would have no place in our modern pop culture.
Take a look at one of her old movies, or, better, one of her old movie clips. Try not to be won over by the curls and the spunk that seem natural enough to avoid comparisons to "Toddlers & Tiaras," and polished enough to avoid "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" territory.
And then imagine Temple's hammy, happy, cherubic charm translating into millions of YouTube clicks.
Judging by the number of views on something like her "Animal Crackers" number from "Curly Top," that last part shouldn't be hard to imagine at all.
Once a star, always a star.