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Shirley Temple, a child star like no other, dies at age 85

With the power of 56 golden ringlets, a dimpled charm and, of course, On the Good Ship Lollipop, original child star Shirley Temple had the poise and precocious pluck to buck up a nation during the Depression.

The singing, tapping moppet, who died of undisclosed causes Monday night at age 85, proved such a beacon at a brutal time that even President Franklin D. Roosevelt relied on her to bolster the masses: "As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right."

To grasp the scope of her impact, try imagining President Barack Obama heaping such robust praise and, for that matter, responsibility on one of today's child stars — think Lindsay, Miley, Bieber — many of whom will be remembered more for their tabloid controversies than their cultural contributions.

Unlike a host of gone-wrong Hollywood squirts, Shirley Temple never blamed grownup problems on her youthful past, which included a stage mom who allowed her cherubic daughter to make more than 40 films before her 12th birthday. Shirley Temple did not pile up scandals or turn to drugs or booze or semi-nude layouts in glossy magazines.

Known later as Shirley Temple Black, she handled her business with class. As a result, her legacy endures: the biggest box-office draw from 1935 to 1938, a feat never again repeated by an actor her age; a post-showbiz career as a U.S. ambassador to Ghana and then Czechoslovakia; an inspiration to scores of overly mascara'd tykes belting Animal Crackers in My Soup at beauty pageants; and the girl whose name was used for a delicious kid's cocktail of grenadine and ginger ale (extra maraschino cherries, please).

As an actor, Temple was chubby-cheeked and chirped her dialogue with heavy dollops of kewwwt, but roll your eyes all you want: The kid had clout, and she's still the uber-model of silver-screen adorableness.

Credited with saving 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy, Temple scored hit after hit, including a pair of 1934 smashes: Bright Eyes, in which she sings On the Good Ship Lollipop (a song since referenced by everyone from The Simpsons to U2), and Little Miss Marker, named to the United States National Film Registry.

In an iconic moment at the 1935 Academy Awards, she was honored with a wee version of the Oscar for her "outstanding contribution" to film. At the height of her fame, she was a bigger draw than such marquee adults as Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford.

"When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression," President Roosevelt crowed about Temple, "it is a splendid thing 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."

Ranked 18th on the American Film Institute's list of greatest female American screen legends, Temple was born in Santa Monica, Calif. — April 23, 1928 — so close to the Hollywood movie studios that would soon claim her. Success was fast, whirlwind, at times troublesome. She stopped believing in Santa Claus at age 6: "Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph."

By her ninth birthday, when she was already entrenched in a rage of fame only stars like Michael Jackson can understand, she received more than 135,000 presents from around the world (including a kangaroo from Australia), according to 1978 book The Films of Shirley Temple.

"She's indelible in the history of America because she appeared at a time of great social need, and people took her to their hearts," said the late Roddy McDowall, a fellow child star and friend.

She was fearless, too. In a bold pairing, the white Temple teamed with black dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in two 1935 films, including The Little Colonel, in which their tandem dance up a staircase became a landmark in the history of film dance.

''With Shirley, you'd just tell her once and she'd remember the rest of her life," said Allan Dwan, who directed her in 1937's Heidi and 1938's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

When she outgrew those 56 ringlets, she outgrew Hollywood, too. But no matter: She retired from movies at 21. She raised a family: three kids via two marriages, the last to Charles Black, with whom she was married 50 years before his death in 2006. In 1972, she underwent successful breast cancer surgery — Little Miss Marker all grown up and publicly, without hesitation, urging women to see their doctors.

She entered the political world and held diplomatic posts in Republican administrations.

Shirley Temple didn't melt down, cursing Hollywood, cursing her fate, all that pressure. "I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the lifetime achievement award," she said in 2006 when accepting an honor from the Screen Actors Guild. "Start early."

Information from the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

Movie highlights

Shirley Temple Black, who died Monday night at her home near San Francisco at age 85, made dozens of movies, mostly in the 1930s. Here are highlights.

War Babies, 1932

Polly Tix in Washington, 1933

Bright Eyes, 1934

Little Miss Marker, 1934

Stand Up and Cheer, 1934

Baby Take a Bow, 1934

Curly Top, 1935

Our Little Girl, 1935

The Littlest Rebel, 1935

The Little Colonel, 1935

Stowaway, 1936

Captain January, 1936

Poor Little Rich Girl, 1936

Dimples, 1936

Wee Willie Winkie, 1937

Heidi, 1937

Just Around the Corner, 1938

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 1938

A Little Princess, 1939

Miss Annie Rooney, 1942

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, 1947

Shirley Temple, a child star like no other, dies at age 85 02/11/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 13, 2014 12:10pm]
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