Shirley Temple died February 10th 2014 at age 85. While she became a diplomat in the 1960s, she is most known as the darling little girl who lifted spirits during the depression years. She was the most popular movie star in the world between 1935 and 1939 — a good 10 years before we fabulous over 60s were born. At 22 she retired completely from movies although later she appeared on TV in programs aimed at entertainment and development for children.
A recent New York Times column noted Shirley was “the little girl with 56 perfect ringlets and an air of relentless determination”. She had “great energy” long before the phrase became popular. In my world, she was inspiring – not just cute.
Just as we were growing up in the 50s her movies were in revival. Movies like Poor Little Rich Girl , Heidi , Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and The Little Colonel were typical TV fare for us. We all wanted to sing, dance, have those curls and wind up happy BUT also “right” — just like Shirley did at the end of each movie. My Mom like many others tried hard to give me some of those curls with those really stinky early permanents from Toni. But what Shirley gave us was more important than those curls, she gave us the idea that girls could speak their minds, solve problems and get their way as long as they did things decently and with integrity. And those lessons stuck.
We lost touch with Shirley at some point – but her determination, strength of character and direct style with adults likely is the basis of some of our ability to “defy” our parents as the 60s and 70s unfolded. Nor did we realize the significance of her holding hands with her “Uncle Bill” Bojangles. She may have been the first white actress to touch a black man’s hand affectionately in a film. The famous dance scene between them in The Little Colonel is still considered a classic — and we remember it fondly even though I didn’t think about its implications at the time. Perhaps many of our African-American fabulous sisters did and have a take that could educate us.
I think we owe Ms. Temple something — our respect — for modeling some strong behavior that seems ridiculously outdated, silly and more racist than radical at this point in history. But as I reflect on those movies, I feel grateful she taught us some level of tolerance for others who were different in some way — and some sense that girls could be more, much more, than just cute.
When I left the theater after seeing Frozen with my granddaughter Morgan over the holidays, I wondered if the images she was seeing and the wonderful sisterly bonds and self-determination shown by the protagonists could really take the place of a little girl like Shirley who was at least “real”. I think the answer is yes. Its “battle” hymn of independence “Let It Go” (which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song on March 2nd) was so intense, and her blasting energy so rocket-fueled it was a bit scary for Morgan (4). But she “got it” I think — I sure did.
Thinking about the world our granddaughters are living in, likely shaking your curls and singing “On The Good Ship Lollipop” isn’t going to cut it. Long live the new icons.
Lyrics from “Let It Go”:
My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallized like an icy blast
I’m never going back, the past is in the past
Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage
Shirley got us going – but “Let It Go” is great to remind us to KEEP it going.