Curls and dimples: Shirley Temple dies at 85

Wednesday - 2/12/2014, 2:58am EST

HILLEL ITALIE
AP National Writer

Any kid who ever tap-danced at a talent show or put on a curly wig and auditioned for "Annie" can only dream of being as beloved -- or as important -- as Shirley Temple.

Temple, who died Monday night at 85, sang, danced, sobbed and grinned her way into the hearts of downcast Depression-era moviegoers and remains the ultimate child star decades later. Other pre-teens, from Macaulay Culkin to Miley Cyrus, have been as famous in their time. But none of them helped shape their time the way she did.

Dimpled, precocious and oh-so-adorable, she was America's top box office draw during Hollywood's golden age, and her image was free of the scandals that have plagued Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan and so many other child stars -- parental feuds, drugs, alcohol.

Temple remains such a symbol of innocence that kids still know the drink named for her: a sweet, nonalcoholic cocktail of ginger ale and grenadine, topped with a maraschino cherry.

Her hit movies -- which included "Bright Eyes" (1934), "Curly Top" (1935), "Dimples" (1936), "Poor Little Rich Girl" (1936) and "Heidi" (1937) -- featured sentimental themes and musical subplots, with stories of resilience and optimism that a struggling American public found appealing. She kept children singing "On the Good Ship Lollipop" for generations.

She was also a tribute to the economic and inspirational power of movies, credited with helping to save 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy and praised by President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself for lifting America's spirits during a gloomy time.

She was "just absolutely marvelous, greatest in the world," director Allan Dwan told filmmaker-author Peter Bogdanovich in his book "Who the Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Film Directors."

"With Shirley, you'd just tell her once and she'd remember the rest of her life," said Dwan, who directed her in "Heidi" and "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." ''Whatever it was she was supposed to do -- she'd do it. ... And if one of the actors got stuck, she'd tell him what his line was -- she knew it better than he did."

Her achievements did not end with movies. Retired from acting at 21, she went on to hold several diplomatic posts in Republican administrations, including ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the sudden collapse of communism in 1989.

Former President George H.W. Bush, who appointed Black to the post in Prague, saluted her Tuesday for "her selfless service to our country" and her film career.

"In both roles, she truly lifted people up and earned not only a place in our hearts, but also our enduring respect," Bush said in a statement.

Temple, known in private life as Shirley Temple Black, died at her home near San Francisco. The cause of death was not disclosed.

From 1935 to 1938, she was the most popular screen actress in the country and a bigger draw than Clark Gable, Joan Crawford or Gary Cooper. In 1999, the American Film Institute's ranking of the greatest screen legends put Temple at No. 18 among the 25 actresses.

"I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the lifetime achievement award: Start early," she quipped in 2006 as she was honored by the Screen Actors Guild.

But she also said that evening that her greatest roles were as wife, mother and grandmother: "There's nothing like real love. Nothing." Her husband of more than 50 years, Charles Black, had died a few months earlier.

In "Bright Eyes," Temple introduced the song "On the Good Ship Lollipop" and did battle with a charmingly bratty Jane Withers, launching Withers as another major child star. As a bright-eyed orphan in "Curly Top," she sang "Animal Crackers in My Soup."

She was teamed with the legendary dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in two 1935 films with Civil War themes, "The Little Colonel" and "The Littlest Rebel." Their tap dance up the steps in "The Little Colonel" (at a time when interracial teamings were rare in Hollywood) became a landmark in the history of dance on film.

Known for a remarkable ability to cry on cue, she won a special Academy Award at age 6 -- and was presented with a miniature Oscar statuette -- for her "outstanding contribution to screen entertainment."

Temple and her movies were an escapist delight and a popular sensation. Mothers dressed their little girls like her, and a line of dolls that are now highly sought-after collectibles was launched.

Her fans seemed interested in every last golden curl on her head. Her mother, Gertrude, was said to have done her hair for each movie, with every hairstyle having exactly 56 curls.