Of all the children to grace the silver screen, perhaps no one deserves the title of “Child Star” more than Shirley Temple. In her aptly named memoir, Shirley Temple Black reflects on a childhood that was spent in front of the cameras. At a young age, she enjoyed a greater level of fame, popularity and success than many of her peers in the business. Her success at the box office helped a floundering Fox Film Corporation rise out of debt and near-bankruptcy and created a career that allowed her to work with some of the great actors of the time and meet influential people all over the world. Although this volume of her autobiography doesn’t address her career in later years as a United States ambassador to the Republic of Ghana and Czechoslovakia, her inclusion of her experiences meeting J. Edgar Hoover, the Roosevelts, and the Prime Minister of Canada helps the reader to see how she made the transition from movie star to diplomat.
Shirley Temple was born on April 23, 1928, to George and Gertrude Temple in Santa Monica, California. According to Temple’s description, her mother was not the typical, overbearing stage mother. Although her mother did enroll her in a school for the performing arts at a young age (which would eventually lead to her discovery and recruitment for short films known as “Baby Burlesks”), Temple Black paints a portrait of her family life as supportive and stable. Her mother acted as a liaison between her daughter and studio head Darryl Zanuck, while her father helped manage her income. Shirley was a Hollywood institution by the time she was six, a curly-haired, precocious scene-stealer whose spunk and talent helped offer hope in the Depression-era United States and around the world. Her films such as Little Miss Marker, Curly Top, Bright Eyes and The Littlest Rebel made her a household name. Today, her famous dancing with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and her rendition of “The Good Ship Lollipop” in Bright Eyes remain embedded in film history.
Having grown up with Shirley Temple movies, I was interested in learning about her life and acting experience. Although the autobiography recalls her childhood in great detail from a child’s perspective, she also incorporates the point of view an adult telling her story retrospectively. She comments on her life in its historical context and discusses the economic struggles and successes of the studios and the nation, her experiences living through both the Depression and WWII, and the famous people she met and befriended throughout her career. She is a capable writer; while I enjoy reading actors’ autobiographies for the insight into their careers, I rarely expect high-caliber writing, since it’s usually not their primary vocation. Temple Black defies that stereotype, delivering a readable and descriptive narrative that is rich with dialogue and engaging story-telling. Her book follows her through childhood success, her teenage transition to slightly more adult roles, her first marriage at sixteen, the births of her children, her divorce, and second marriage to Charlie Black. The book ends with a memory of her enjoying her role volunteering at one of her children’s school productions of The Wizard of Oz. I was surprised that the book ended where it did, as I expected more on her later years after Hollywood, but according to the official website, the second volume of her autobiography is in the works.
This book would most be appreciated by people who are familiar with her films who may want to read it as a nostalgic memoir, but it’s also an interesting story of a child star who did not descend into a world of drugs and bankruptcy. Her story stays surprisingly grounded, even through stories of meeting Amelia Earhart and Orson Welles, threats of kidnapping, and a difficult first marriage. Temple Black relates an unfortunate story of how she discovered that those entrusted with her money had not saved enough from her earnings to leave her set for life, but the anecdote serves to show her as a grounded and sympathetic person who never let fame go to her head. It’s a pleasant memoir, and although lengthy at 517 pages plus a filmography, it’s certainly worth the read.
My rating: Really liked it (4 out of 5 stars)
Acknowledgments: I read the McGraw-Hill edition of Child Star by Shirley Temple Black, copyright 1988. ISBN 0-07-005532-7