As a three-year-old, Shirley Temple appeared on screen for the first time eighty-four years ago this month. The film was a forgettable short (barely 10 minutes) piece called Runt Page. In it, a bunch of topless, diaper-clad but hat- and necktie-wearing preschoolers recite adult (in vocabulary, not in vulgarity) dialogue in a satire of newspaper reporters and law-enforcement officers of the day.
Watching that short film recently, I began thinking about how far and how fast Temple progressed in her career, from shirtless toddler to box-office hit and favorite pre-adolescent film star. Although her career faltered as she entered adolescence, Temple was the pride of all connoisseurs of celluloid and an exemplar for young people not only in her hey-day but for years afterward. And Temple’s songs from her movies gave parents leverage at the supper table as the adults recited or sang to their children, “You Gotta Eat Your Spinach, Baby” and “Animal Crackers in My Soup.”
Off-screen as well as on-screen, Temple was impeccable in her public deportment. Even as an adult, Temple’s conduct won positive acclaim. At a dinner party following her unsuccessful 1967 bid for a seat in Congress (running as a conservative, she lost to liberal Republican Pete McCloskey), Henry Kissinger overheard her discussing Namibia. He was so impressed by her knowledge of the situation there that he influenced President Nixon to appoint her U.S. representative to the UN General Assembly. That led to a diplomatic career that included appointments as ambassador to Ghana (by Ford), the first female U.S. Chief of Protocol (by Ford), and ambassador to Czechoslovakia (by George H.W. Bush). Her public support for Czech dissenters played a role in the fall of Communism in that country.
As I surveyed Temple’s careers, I contrasted her life with the careers and character of more recent child stars. There simply is no comparison. Many of those entertainers are anything but exemplars for the current generation of young people.
Think of such characters as Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, Beyonce, Justin Bieber, and Drew Barrymore. They are just a few of the more prominent modern child stars who rode the highway of success to great heights and then drove themselves off the cliff at the top. Their involvement in drug and alcohol abuse, trouble with the law, sexual immorality, and other kinds of bizarre, aberrant, and deviant behavior are today the norm, the expectation, for stars.
And media and the people who continue to pay to attend their performances, view their movies, and read about their misconduct only encourage that immorality. What accounts for the stark contrast between their behavior and the life of Shirley Temple?
Temple’s most acclaimed movies were made in the midst of the Great Depression. Yet they offered love, compassion, comfort, and hope to a nation in need of those qualities. Generally portrayed as a poor, unwanted orphan, Temple’s characters nonetheless exuded love, charm, sweetness, and optimism that won over even the toughest, gruffest antagonists. Her movies always portrayed evil as negative, and good always triumphed.
If Temple had a vice, it was her lifelong habit of smoking. But Temple recognized that even that then-common habit was not good and that her smoking certainly was not setting a good example for her fans. So she never smoked in public and worked to keep her habit out of public knowledge. Her vice of smoking pales beside the conduct of today’s entertainers, and yet they flaunt their sins openly.
Today’s stars’ performances offer none of the good qualities that Temple’s movies offered. Rather, they exemplify rebellion, selfishness, and hedonism in the extreme. Their behavior offers no hope, no optimism, and no good. Could anyone in their wildest nightmares ever imagine Shirley Temple’s behaving as they do? But the fact that they can behave as they do and still be viewed favorably says a lot about the condition of the heart of American society.
Would to God that we once again had stars like Shirley Temple—and a society that truly wanted such exemplars.