Shirley Temple Dances Out of Our Lives — But Lives on in Classic Movies

Thelma Adams
Yahoo Movies

Shirley Temple in 1934's 'Baby Take a Bow'
Shirley Temple in 1934's 'Baby Take a Bow'

Who loved Shirley Temple more than me? Nobody.

Shirley Temple, dead at 85, was once a curly-haired, dimpled, spunky cherub who could sing, dance and connect with audiences. She had a role in her first feature, "The Red Haired Alibi," in 1932 at four. By 1934, the year she turned six, she was already a studio trooper, making ten movies, including the classics "Little Miss Marker" and "Bright Eyes."

Long before the Power Puff Girls or the long string of Disney stars who stripped down for "Spring Breakers," I had Shirley Temple. She was never a one-named star, always together like the virgin cocktail.

Shirley Temple was my idol growing up. I wanted to sing like her; I could never carry a tune. I wanted to dance like her. I tried. I took tap-dancing lessons, but my mother sent me to the local activity center in sneakers. And, well, you can't shuffle to Buffalo when your rubber soles keep catching on the gym floor.

For every little girl aching to be in the spotlight, there was only one who had the talent and cheek and, yes, heart to make it happen. Shirley Temple was as much an American treasure as Mount Rushmore or the Grand Canyon.

A true phenom of talent and stardom at such an impossibly young age, Shirley Temple was the anti-Honey Boo Boo. She was never, ever vulgar. She lived in a society where children were children — and "seen, not heard" was a mantra.

In one way, she was exactly the kind of star that W. C. Fields decried with this quote credited to him: "Never work with children or animals." But with Temple, she didn't upstage the actors around her. Her firecracker glow made everybody around her look good.

Take her classic duet with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in "The Little Colonel" in 1935. Set in the Deep South, their famous sequence together begins with her character's pouty declaration that she doesn't want to "go upstairs" to bed. And then Robinson charms her upstairs by initiating a dance using those same steps as a prop.

[Photos: Shirley Temple's 15 Most Memorable Roles]

"Bojangles" does a blissful routine up and down the stairs and then the actress, her pout now melted, giggles – oh, that giggle – and says, "I want to do that, too."

Taking the diminutive star's hand, "Bojangles" leads her upstairs and down, tapping into that ether. He says to his partner, "Say, you catch on quick." And the audience does, too. This is a moment where racial divides fall as they hold hands and share a dance as equals. Two humans with sorrows and joys, who could make each other happy with a stamp, and a stomp, and a brush.

This statement about racial equality was pioneering without flag-waving. There was Shirley Temple, smiling and shrugging her shoulders to prejudice. She was an equalizer from the very beginning.

I had my favorites: "Little Miss Marker" where her character's gambler father leaves her with a crew of bookies that she ultimately wins over; left alone again by her British Officer father in "The Little Princess;" and orphaned in "Bright Eyes," struggling to reunite with her aviator godfather.

For the characters she played, it wasn't always a sweet life "On the Good Ship Lollipop." She so very often played abandoned kids, the ultimate curve for a child. But the little girl persevered on strength of character and song, despite adversity.

And, I think, Shirley Temple taught me to laugh and dance when things are sad or tragic. She taught by example, not in an escapist way, but as a healer. Dance because it is joy. Laugh because it is joy. Love and care for others because it is joy.

No one had to tell me to love her. It was more than love at first sight. As a curly-headed child that longed to be at the center of the action, I strongly identified with Shirley Temple.

And, as a coda, I tried to share my love with my daughter when she was small. It didn't take: she watched a few and lost interest. My daughter, now 14, had her own icons: she embraced Judy Garland and "The Wizard of Oz."

Every Christmas at her grandfather's she watched that video on an endless loop until, at thirteen, she finally took the stage and played the part of Dorothy. At her Middle School, she channeled all those years of watching Garland into a performance that had parents in the audience wondering if the small school had brought in a ringer.

Shirley Temple was never my daughter's thing. That's okay. She was mine. She was a black-and-white artifact the studios ultimately tried to colorize. She represents both a joy, and an innocence, that no longer exists.

Yes, she had a small teen career. The peak was "The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer" with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. By then she was like everybody. Yes, a talented teenager, but her iconic, breakthrough years were over. And she graciously tap-danced aside.

Because of that, because her adult life was one of service and an Ambassadorship, she left behind very clear images: dancing with "Bojangles;" singing her signature "On the Good Ship Lollipop" honoring airmen between the wars; and entertaining bandaged war veterans despite her personal sorrows in "A Little Princess." And we don't have to miss her. Or mourn her. Because she left her heart in celluloid, visible in pure black and white – and that's only a stream away.