As America's top box-office draw from 1935 to 1938, the tiny Temple gave the country some much needed escapism. Retired from movies by her early 20s, she was an early epitome of the child star, one who never fell into the kind of trouble that has haunted many young sensations since.
But whereas many child stars have appealed primarily to young audiences, Temple beguiled a largely adult movie-going nation with what film critic David Thomson called her "elfin perfection": "a phenomenon who had only to be observed for an audience to be held."
In "The Little Girl Who Fought the Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America" (which W.W. Norton will release May 5), John F. Kasson writes: "At a time when movie attendance knit Americans into a truly national popular culture, they did not want a mirror of deep deprivation held up to them, but a ray of sunshine cast on their faces."
Here are five films that Temple shined in:
— "Bright Eyes" (1934): It's in this film that Temple gave perhaps her most beloved performance, singing "On the Good Ship Lollipop" down the aisle of an airplane. The rows of adoring men (and everyone else, for that matter) swoon at the cuteness. The movies don't always have to be complicated things.
— "The Little Colonel" (1935): Along with "The Little Rebel," this was one of two films Temple made in 1935 with the tap-dancing great Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. (They also made two other movies together.) They were a striking pair. Separated by race, decades in age and several feet in height, they were nevertheless a perfect match, particularly in their famous staircase dance sequence. The racial politics of "The Little Colonel" are by no means spotless (Robinson plays a broadly smiling servant), but Temple and Robinson's magical harmony in dance may have left a more powerful impression.
— "Curly Top" (1935): This film contained one of Temple's biggest hits, "Animal Crackers in My Soup," in which she serenades her orphanage at mealtime, "I walk around like Noah's Ark/ I stuff my tummy like a goop." The New York Times said of "Curly Top": "So shameless is (the film) in its optimism, so grimly determined to be cheerful, that it ought to cause an epidemic of axe murders and grandmother beatings." But Temple, the review noted, was irresistible, playing dramatic scenes "with the precision of a veteran actress." Though a child, Temple was often the best actor in her films.
— "Wee Willie Winkie" (1937): Long before John Ford teamed up with John Wayne, he (fresh off winning the best picture Academy Award with "The Informer") directed the slightly more diminutive Temple in this film. Loosely based on a Rudyard Kipling short story, it's about a British regiment fighting rebels in India. Reviewing the film, novelist Graham Greene—so convinced by Temple's adult-like gestures—claimed she was just masquerading as a child. He suggested that Temple's adult admirers were responding to "her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality." A subsequent lawsuit over the review bankrupted the magazine, Night and Day.
— "Heidi" (1937): Temple often played orphans, including in Allan Dwan's drama about a Swiss girl kidnapped by her grandmother and taken to live richly in Germany. The portrait of Old World splendor in "Heidi" played as fantasy during the Depression. Along with "Wee Willie Winkie," it captured Temple transitioning toward slightly more mature performance.