Peggy Keener: America’s darlingest dimpled diplomat

Published 5:45 pm Friday, July 22, 2022

She was the recipient of numerous awards including the Kennedy Center Honors, a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, a special Juvenile Academy Award and the National Board of Review Career Achievement Award. She was also the 18th person in the American Film Institute’s greatest female legends of Hollywood cinema classics.

She appeared in 29 films between the ages of 3 and 10. Notwithstanding her popularity, she was the target of several outrageous rumors. One claimed that because of her stocky build, she was not a child at all, but rather a 30-year-old dwarf. Even the Vatican dispatched a priest to determine the truth in this. Disgruntled fans complained that she filed her teeth so they would look like baby teeth. And if she really were a child, they protested, why didn’t she lose her baby teeth?

But, she did. Hollywood made sure the gaps in her young smile were hidden with dental plates and caps.

And then there was the question of her hair. No child could have that many curls! It was not unusual for fans to yank her ringlets to test them. If only she could have worn a wig to escape from the grueling nightly process of setting her curls, plus the misery of the vinegar rinses that stung her eyes.

By now you know I am talking about America’s little darling, Shirley Jane Temple. Born in Santa Monica on April 23, 1928, she was one of three children of homemaker Gertrude Temple and her bank employee husband George Temple.

It was Gertrude who very early on encouraged Shirley to develop her singing, dancing and acting talents. She was also the one who began styling Shirley’s hair into that famous tempest of ringlets.

While at her dance studio, Shirley was spotted by a casting director for Educational Pictures. He had to coax her out from behind a piano to audition whereupon she was immediately signed onto a contract. The year was 1932 and Shirley was only four.

Later, a Fox Studio film songwriter happened to see her dance and arranged for her to have a screen test for “Stand Up and Cheer.” She won the part and was signed to a $150-per-week contract. Interestingly, the contract was guaranteed for only two weeks!

Most of Temple’s films were inexpensive, costing between $200,000 to $300,000. They were comedic dramas with sentimental laments, melodramatic songs and perky dances. Their titles alone (“Curly Top” and “Dimples”) said it all. Moreover, in them goodness always prevailed over evil, wealth over poverty, marriage over divorce and a booming economy over an economic depression.

The audience could always rely on Shirley as an emotional healer who mended splits between erstwhile sweethearts, estranged family members, new traditions and outdated ideas, and even warring armies. Producers loved to contrast her diminutive stature, sparkling eyes, dimpled smile and those fifty-six ringlets with such strapping leading men as Gary Cooper, John Boles, Victor McLaglen, Randolph Scott and her favorite, the wonderful African American tap dancer, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.

During the mid-depression, Temple’s charm had the power to change the lives of the cold, the hardened, and the criminal with positive outcomes. Her films gave folks hope and optimism. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt was captivated. “It is a splendid thing 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.”

By now her contract had been extended to a year, but at the same rate of $150 a week. This amounted to roughly $3,140 in 2021. Additionally, her mother was brought on board at $25 per week as her hairdresser and personal coach.

Shirley was the most popular celebrity of endorsed merchandise for children and adults, rivaled only by Mickey Mouse. Children’s fashions flew off the hangers and the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company’s line of Shirley Temple dolls accounted for almost a third of all dolls sold in the country. But, as thriving as sales were, things were not all roses. Counterfeit items began to appear on all manner of items, including her cherubic likeness featured on cigars!

Before long, Shirley’s parents realized their daughter’s salary was much too low. With her image now appearing on umpteen commercial products without their legal authorization or compensation, they hired a lawyer who turned things around. Shirley’s new salary was raised to $1000 per week (about $18,000 – or $123,000 in 2019), and her mother’s wages raised to $250 per week. Additionally, a bonus of $15,000 was added for each completed film which raised her yearly income to $1.85 million. This was remarkable at a time when a quarter bought a decent meal.

By now, Twentieth Century Pictures recognized that Shirley was their greatest asset. At the studio, they built her a four-room bungalow surrounded by a garden and picket fence. A tree with a swing was added and a rabbit pen. The walls were covered in paintings of Shirley as a fairy-tale princess sporting a golden star on her head. To complete the picture, two flesh and blood people were added: a body guard and a tutor.

Between 1935 and 1937, numerous highly successful films were produced. By the end of 1935, Shirley’s salary was raised to $2500 a week after receiving numerous prestigious awards.

But, in 1940, things began to wane when Shirley starred in two flops. Her parents bought out the remainder of her contract and sent her, at age 12, to Westlake School for Girls, an exclusive country day school in Los Angeles. Twentieth Century swiftly expunged any traces of her inside her bungalow and turned it into an office.

Column continued on Wednesday