Shirley Temple has died. The Good Ship Lollipop (the subject of one of Miss Temple’s iconic musical numbers) will sail no more. It is a part of the psychological scrap yard of ideas we have left behind. To understand the phenomenon that Shirley Temple was all those decades ago, one must first understand the people that Americans once were. A child star during the Depression years, Miss Temple radiated everything we now dismiss. Uncool, Gag Me stuff. She sang and danced and warmed hearts through movie after movie. She smiled from theater screens at people having a very tough time. She symbolized an innocent hope for better things ahead. President Roosevelt said that “for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles. As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.”
But Shirley Temple wasn’t the cause; she was an effect. An effect of a certain naiveté characterizing the public of the time. This was the America of Norman Rockwell. It had a lot of problems and injustices, but it saw itself through Rockwell’s eyes. Imagine a President in a wheel chair whom press photographers respectfully refrained from ever photographing that way. A hit song titled “Juke Box Saturday Night” made light of the fact that average teenagers didn’t have any leisure money. It was okay because they could make “one Coke last us ‘till it’s time to scram” and have fun by “lettin’ the other guy feed that juke box Saturday night.” Orson Welles caused a national panic on the Halloween night of 1938 with his “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast that caused thousands of people to think we were being invaded by Martians. Charlie McCarthy became a huge star, regaling audiences with his comically amorous aspirations toward the ladies and his witty observations. This may not seem strange until you take into account the fact that Charlie was only a dummy operated by Chicago-born ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. We were fiercely patriotic, rarely suspecting that our government was operated by anything less than the most sincere and dedicated men (sorry women; there weren’t many of you in charge of anything then – one of those afore-mentioned problems).
So when little Shirley Temple appeared with her curly hair and her glistening eyes and her trademark dimples she was like a minister preaching to the choir. We didn’t need to be persuaded. We wanted to believe her. We were simpler then. We wanted to think that tomorrow will be better than today. When we saw her dancing with Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson up and down the steps of a Southern mansion set, we were too naïve to get the whole picture. We didn’t stop to think that white dancers like Fred Astaire routinely glided through glamorous numbers such as “Dancing in the Dark” while African-American performers played slaves or train porters.
But there were some rights among the wrongs of that day. We believed in each other’s goodness a little more easily then. We tended to value honesty a bit more, and we didn’t usually blame our misdeeds or those of our children on others. Maybe Shirley Temple is a better symbol of her time than we know. Her well-meaning father squandered most of her money on bad investments, and she experienced some unspoken abuses working among the movers and shakers of 1930’s Hollywood. Her smiles often covered inner pain. The sun that shone so brightly in her hair was after all, only a studio spotlight. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt us so badly to borrow some of the good things about that faraway age in which men often called each other “hey brother.” Maybe we can be realistic without being cynical. What’s wrong with having a little of that child-like sense of wonder? Often, it isn’t our situation that afflicts us as much as the way we view it. Or as Miss Temple put it, “There’s billions worth of silver moonbeams. Enough for everyone I guess. What’s a million more or less? Come and get your happiness.” Goodbye Miss Temple. Thanks for smiling (even when you didn’t feel like it).