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Shirley Temple Black, iconic child star, dies at 85

February 11, 2014|Valerie J. Nelson

Shirley Temple Black, who as the most popular child movie star of all time lifted a filmgoing nation’s spirits during the Depression and then grew up to be a diplomat, has died. She was 85.

Black died late Monday at her home in Woodside, Calif., according to publicist Cheryl J. Kagan. No cause was given.

From 1935 through 1938, the curly-haired moppet billed as Shirley Temple was the top box-office draw in the nation. She saved what became 20th Century Fox studios from bankruptcy and made more than 40 movies before she turned 12.

PHOTOS: Shirley Temple Black

Hollywood recognized the enchanting, dimpled scene-stealer’s importance to the industry with a “special award” -- a miniature Oscar -- at the Academy Awards for 1934, the year she sang and danced her way into America’s collective heart.

After she sang “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in “Bright Eyes,” the song became a hit and the studio set up Shirley Temple Development, a department dedicated to churning out formulaic scripts that usually featured the cheerful, poised Shirley as the accidental Little Miss Fix-It who could charm any problem away.

Her most memorable performances included four films she made with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a black dancer 50 years her senior and a favorite costar, she later said.

They were first paired as foils for cantankerous Lionel Barrymore in 1935’s “The Little Colonel,” in which 7-year-old Shirley tap dances up and down the staircase, remarkably matching the veteran Robinson step for step.

Hollywood Star Walk: Shirley Temple

“I would learn by listening to the taps,” Temple told the Washington Post in 1998. “I would primarily listen to what he was doing and I would do it.”

Their dance routines in such films as the Civil War saga “The Littlest Rebel” (1935) and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” (1938) reflected their off-screen rapport. Theirs were the first mixed-race musical numbers to be seen in many parts of the country, according to “Who’s Who in Musicals.”

Two of her films released in 1937 were among Temple’s favorites -- the John Ford-directed “Wee Willie Winkie,” in which she wins over a British outpost in India, and “Heidi,” a hit film that became a classic.

In her first film aimed squarely at children, Shirley sang “Animal Crackers in My Soup” to fellow orphans in 1935’s “Curly Top.” She danced with Jack Haley in “Poor Little Rich Girl” (1936), one of her best films and “a top musical on any terms,” movie critic Leonard Maltin said.

A country desperate for relief from the excruciating economic hardships of the Depression fell in love with Shirley and her infectious optimism in “Baby Take a Bow,” the 1934 film that was her first starring vehicle.

PHOTOS: Shirley Temple films

President Franklin D. Roosevelt marveled how splendid it was “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,” according to an American Film Institute history.

By 1935, lookalike Shirley Temple dolls, complete with her trademark curls, were selling at the rate of 1.5 million a year, part of a merchandising onslaught that included Shirley-endorsed dresses and dishes.

Even bartenders got into the act. Although the 1930s origins of the non-alcoholic Shirley Temple cocktail have been debated, Temple told The Times in 1985 that the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood had named the drink after her.

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To learn her lines, Shirley essentially memorized the script as her mother, Gertrude Temple, read it aloud. When Barrymore forgot his lines while filming 1934’s “Carolina,” Shirley sweetly told him what to say, causing the star to “roar like a singed cat,” actor Robert Young later recalled.

She attributed her well-adjusted nature on and off the set to her “super mother” who “kept my head on straight” and “just dusted off” the adulation, Temple told The Times in 1989.

As she moved into her teens, she literally outgrew the movie business -- audiences would not accept her in more mature roles -- and Temple made her last film, “Mr. Belvedere Goes to College,” in 1949.

A decade later, she briefly returned to Hollywood to narrate and sometimes star in fairytales on what was originally called “Shirley Temple’s Storybook,” a successful show that aired on television from 1958 to 1961.

It prompted one critic to write that it proved once again that Temple “could, if she wanted to, steal Christmas from Tiny Tim,” Anne Edwards wrote in the 1988 biography “Shirley Temple: American Princess.”

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