Copyright © 1978 Robert Windeler.All rights reserved.
Without possibility of argument she was the most famous child in the world. The image of her very public childhood belongs to the ages, although she never made a single motion picture that she or anybody else thought was really any good. Starting in movies at the age of three, Shirley Temple was just playing games, and so, in a sense, were the tens of millions in her audience. The chief game was called "Beat the Depression" (a harsh reality never visible in any of Shirley's fantastical films), and more than any other person, she did just that--at least according to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who presided over the United States of America for all the years she was a child star.
In the 1930s, six-year-olds of all ages made Shirley Temple box-office queen of the world for a record four years running, when she was aged seven to ten (although her parents and the studio lied that she was six to nine). She was Time's "cinemoppet," and the youngest person ever to appear on the magazine's cover; the youngest person ever listed in Who's Who; and the youngest ever to get an Academy Award.
Not only was she a kind of midget folk heroine, she was also an attraction for the world's great, who also beat a path to her dressing room door. Eleanor Roosevelt, Noel Coward, J. Edgar Hoover and Thomas Mann left the soundstages of 20th Century-Fox (as all her prominent visitors did) proudly wearing a Shirley Temple Police Force badge. Her official eighth birthday (really her ninth) brought more than 135,000 presents from around the world, including a baby kangaroo from Australia and a prize Jersey calf from a class of school-children in Oregon. In 1938 her income was the seventh highest in America (the top six were industrialists, including MOM's Louis B. Mayer), at $307,014, and that was just before she started earning $300,000 per picture, and making three or four a year.
Others had paved the way for the possibility of a Shirley Temple. Principally, they were Mary Pickford (who, while in her twenties and thirties, played children of ten or twelve in silent features), Jackie Coogan (who played The Kid with Charlie Chaplin in 1920, and Peck's Bad Boy and Oliver Twist), and Hal Roach, with his "Our Gang" series beginning in 1921. But they had worked their magic in combinations of drama, melodrama and mayhem in silent movies. Shirley was born in 1928, the year sound films really took over, andshe made her first one-reelers in 1932, the year Pickford retired. Shirley had a brand new medium in which both more and less were required of a child. There was less acting, certainly, but more singing, dancing, shaking the finger, bowing the mouth to actually say something--like "oh, my goodness"--and, above all, dimpling. And no one did any of those things better or more appealingly than Shirley.
The child stars who came after her were different too. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were really adolescents with other kinds of situations in their films, and Judy's musicals--albeit escapist--had more lasting merit than Shirley's and were made in Technicolor, something Shirley experienced only briefly. Tiny Margaret O'Brien in the 1940s was more of an actress than Shirley, and at her most brilliant in scary circumstances. World War II brought more serious subject matter to films. As realism overtook fantasy in the movies in the 1950s there was no longer a place for child stars. Brandon de Wilde and Hayley Mills were the two exceptions in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1974 ten-year-old Tatum O'Neal won an Oscar as the con-child in Paper Moon. But as Buddy Ebsen, Shirley's dancing partner in 1936's Captain January groused, "That's no child, that's a hoodlum. Where did they go?"
Where indeed. But while she lasted, little Shirley Temple was an original. As Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, her most famous dancing partner, put it: "God made her just all by herself--no series, just one." When she got to be a gangly thirteen-year-old, Shirley wisely retired from movies, to go to school for the first time. She came back with limited success for a series of roles as a teenager, and quit the film world for good in 1949. She was twenty-one, just at the age most people start working for a living, and her self-earned fortune of between three and four million dollars was intact.
At that age she had already survived her young marriage to John Agar, and the divorce from him that had created the only scandal of her life. She was the mother of a year-old daughter and ready to try marriage and motherhood all over again. More importantly, she survived the whole of her early life and emerged as a sane and contributing human being. Whatever reservations others may have had about Shirley Temple as an adult, she herself had none.
Jackie Coogan had had to sue his mother and stepfather to recover even a small percentage of the four million dollars he earned as a child (thereby inspiring the state of California's "Coogan Law," which protected Shirley, and those who followed, from grasping guardians). Shirley's father, on the other hand, was a banker who invested her earnings wisely and mostly on her behalf. Other former child stars, unable to cope with growing up or suddenly not being adored by millions, retreated to alcohol, multiple marriages, dope and pills. A few kept trying to get work as actors, since acting was the only thing they knew how to do.
Still others got as far away from Hollywood as fast as they could. English-born Freddie Bartholomew, most famous for the talkie remake of Little Lord Fauntleroy and David Copperfield, became an advertising executive on New York's Madison Avenue. Canada's Deanna Durbin, after a decade of Hollywood stardom, mostly in musicals, turned her back so firmly on the fame and glamour of her former profession that she refused even to talk about it. In anonymity, she later lived in a small village an hour outside Paris, with her husband and two children. Villagers knew her only as Madame David and acted to protect her privacy. Someone from a garage opposite her farmhouse warned her of unfamiliar visitors if they approached, and she never answered the door or telephone herself.
Margaret O'Brien, the biggest child star of the 1940s, earned an Academy Award at eight, $2,500 a week at nine, and top-ten box-office ranking both years, in 1944 and 1945. Although she had to make some severe adjustments to young adulthood, Margaret never regretted her childhood, and continued in an acting career, mostly on television, in the 1960s and 1970s. Dean Stockwell, The Boy with Green Hair, and star of Gentleman's Agreement, was outspoken in his bitterness. "It's a miserable way to bring up a child," he said. "The life of a child star frustrates normal interests and associations with other children. I had no friends except my brother and I never did what I wanted to do. I had one vacation in nine years."
Shirley Temple had none of these problems or adjustments. After her divorce from John Agar and a happy second marriage to Charles Black, she left Hollywood and found a new life in other worlds: Washington, D.C., northern California, New York City, and Ghana. She raised two morechildren and returned to her hometown only intermittently in the late 1950s and early 1960s for television work, always staying in hotels and leaving the minute the work was over. Living down her former self was not a problem for her "within my circle of friends or really with anyone except a few middle-aged people who are stuck on this image of the little girl," she said just before going to Africa in 1974 to be United States Ambassador to Ghana. "That's their problem."
She made a clear distinction between herself and that screen character of over thirty-five years ago: "I have always thought of her as 'the little girl.' I never had a sister and she's sort of like that. She's opened up a lot of doors for me because she's known all over the world and that's a big advantage for me. I know her well and I even remember some of the dance routines she did, but she's not me."
Twenty-five years of volunteer work, local and national Republican politics, work at the United Nations and on problems of the environment led Mrs. Black to prominence in diplomatic circles. Misfortune struck in late 1972, in the form of breast cancer, but Shirley became the first public figure to make her mastectomy public to help those similarly afflicted and got more than 50,000 letters praising her action. It was only a temporary setback.
In the late 1970s, the scrapbooks of her show business career lined the shelves of the library in her large Tudor home in Woodside, California (a suburb south of San Francisco that someone once called a hotbed of social rest), and prints of her movies were in the toolshed. Shirley Temple Black herself was in Ghana and Washington, not only living in the world, but trying hard to make it better.
While hopeful stage mothers and their progeny from all sections of the United States and Canada descended on Hollywood at an estimated rate of 400 a day in the 1930s, ironically, most of the little boys and girls who made it big in the movies were native Californians, starting with Los Angeles-born Jackie Coogan. Perhaps this was because they were brought up less frenzied about the show side of show business (and more canny about the business side), or simply because they were in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Whatever the reason, the biggest child star of all was no exception to the rule. Shirley Jane Temple was born at 9 P.M., April 23, 1928, at Santa Monica Hospital in Santa Monica, a small city on the Pacific Ocean a scant dozen miles west of Hollywood.
"Long before she was born I tried to influence her future life by association with music, art and natural beauty," her mother, Gertrude Temple, said in 1934. "Perhaps this prenatal preparation helped make Shirley what she is." Nothing else in Shirley's parents' background accounted for her career, except that Gertrude herself had wanted to act. But instead, this daughter of a Chicago jeweler had attended Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles and met and married George Temple when she was only seventeen. He had been born in Fairview, Pennsylvania, of Pennsylvania Dutch parentage and arrived in Los Angeles as a child in 1903. Although his family specialized in producing doctors, he opted for banking. When Shirley was born the Temples owned a one-story stucco house in Santa Monica, and a small LaSalle sedan. They had two sons, Jack and George, Jr., who were twelve and seven at the time of Shirley's birth.
"My mother was kind of afraid to have a third child," Shirley recalled, "because she wanted a girl but she was afraid she would have another boy. So my dad went to the family doctor, and he said, 'if you have your tonsils out, you will have a girl.' So they removed my dad's tonsils, and they grew back. He had to have them out a second time, and nine months after the second operation I was born. There is no medical reason for this story, but I think it's funny, and so I wanted to tell it, even though it always makes my parents angry."
Shirley walked at thirteen months, and when she was two, according to her mother, "she began to display a rare sense of rhythm and would keep time with her feet to the music on the radio." When Shirley was three Gertrude wanted to enroll her in a professional dancing class for children whose parents entertained screen ambitions for them. George only very reluctantly agreed. (He was a young banker with three children, this was the Depression, the bank had already closed several times, there had been wholesale pay cuts and fifty cents a week for dance lessons was a lot in 1931.) While Shirley quickly became the baby star pupil of her class at Meglin Dancing School, it wasn't the lessons, according to Mrs. Temple, that could "be credited with developing Shirley's personality. That is something she always had."
Just as stage mothers hounded them, movie talent scouts regularly scoured dancing and singing schools for children, hoping to pick up a prodigy for a modest salary. Charles Lamont, a director at Educational Studios, was on the prowl for precocious tots not more than three feet high. The day he arrived at Shirley's school she was underdressed for the rainy day. (Mrs. Temple was apparently the only mom who didn't know of the talent search; the other girls were in their Sunday best.) "I hid under the piano," Shirley recalled. "Obviously no poise. He stood around for a while watching, and then he said, 'I'll take the one under the piano.'"
Still two years in age away from kindergarten, to which she would never get, Shirley was signed on at Educational at ten dollars a day to appear in a series of one-reel Baby Burlesks, takeoffs on adult movies and stars. She graduated to two-reelers for Educational, "Frolics of Youth," at fifteen dollars a day. Producer Jack Hays signed her to a contract at fifty dollars per picture, to which he tried to hold her after she left and signed with 20th Century-Fox. In court Hays produced a contract giving him exclusive rights to Shirley Temple's services, but it was signed only in her childish scrawl and was thrown out by the judge.
Gertrude had hustled Shirley around to the studios, encouraged by her success at Educational and fueled with ambition for her daughter. George's position at the bank had improved, so the money was now secondary. Shirley had been rejected along with thousands of others by Hal Roach for the "Our Gang" comedies, and by Fox and most of the other studios. She managed a few small roles in major productions, but thankfully there were always the "Frolics of Youth" to fall back on. In 1932 Shirley did a bit part in her first full-length feature, The Red-Haired Alibi.
Billed as Shirley Jane Temple, in 1933 she did a small role in a Zane Grey western starring Randolph Scott, To the Last Man. Out All Night the same year gave her the chance to work with one of Mary Pickford's old directors, Sam Taylor, and ZaSu Pitts, who predicted greatness for the child. Shirley made a musical with Janet Gaynor, Lionel Barrymore and Robert Young, but her part was too small for her to have a song, and did another bit in Mandalay, a Kay Francis vehicle. But no one except Miss Pitts had yet singled her out as anything more remarkable than just another cute kid.
It was one of her "Frolics of Youth," entitled Pardon My Pups, that led to Shirley Temple's real breakthrough. At a Beverly Hills preview of the two-reeler, songwriter Jay Gorney was struck by her work and asked Gertrude to have Shirley audition for his partner Lew Brown for a specialty number at the end of a feature at first called Fox Follies, then renamed Stand Up and Cheer. After hearing almost two hundred other applicants, Brown (who had also given Jackie Cooper his big movie break) gave Shirley the job the moment she finished singing the song, "Baby, Take a Bow." Her vaudeville number with James Dunn was the very last in the film, and she quite simply stole the picture, even causing most reviewers, who had dozed off, to revive.
Even before the release of Stand Up and Cheer, Winfield Sheehan, Fox's vice-president of production, who (along with everyone else who had witnessed her musical "debut" during the filming) was captivated by Shirley's talent, tied her up with a seven-year contract at $150 weekly. Before she was six, and even at this relatively modest salary for movies, Shirley was already outearning her father. Although Shirley was actually six in April of 1934, the Temples and the studio conspired to subtract a year from her age, to prolong her kiddie career and make her seem even more precocious than she was. All official biographical material on Shirley was issued with April 23,1929, as her birth date, and a faked birth certificate with that date was printed up. It was only when she was "twelve" (actually thirteen) that Shirley herself found out--along with the rest of the world--how old she really was.
Both the song "Baby, Take a Bow," and the movie, Stand Up and Cheer, were hits on release in early 1934, and she was the only thing novel about the picture. Newspapers ran still photographs of Shirley from it in favor of those of the stars. Exhibitors began billing the film "Shirley Temple in Stand Up and Cheer" even though the studio's official credits had her way down the list, lumped with others in specialty numbers. The fan mail for her began to come in at a relative trickle, twenty or thirty letters a day. Then it jumped to two hundred, then five hundred.
Shirley was clearly a star, but Hollywood still distrusted its children. Other actors didn't like to play with them; some grownups wouldn't pay to see them; they were a nuisance on the set, temperamental and hard to teach. Fox, not quite knowing how to deal with her, let Shirley go to Paramount on loanout for two movies. In the first, Little Miss Marker, she played the memorable titlerole in Damon Runyon's story, the orphan who reforms bookie Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou, who was equally memorable). "No more engaging child has been beheld on the screen," wrote the New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall on the release of Little Miss Marker, in May of 1934.
Until she saw herself on the screen for the first time in Little Miss Marker, Shirley had seen only one movie, Skippy, starring Jackie Cooper. She liked herself in the film, and applauded often during the preview. The reviews of Little Miss Marker were read to her, but the fan mail most carefully was not, since almost all of it said things like "I think you are the most beautiful baby in the world."
After her second film at Paramount, Now and Forever, with Carole Lombard and Gary Cooper, Shirley returned to Fox for minor roles in Now I'll Tell, with Spencer Tracy and Alice Faye and Change of Heart, a Janet Gaynor--Charles Farrell vehicle. Spurred on by the million-dollar gross their rival studio had reaped on Little Miss Marker, Fox now made Baby, Take a Bow, borrowing the song title and giving Shirley star billing, but below the title.
"I was really a fortunate person to be in movies at that time," Shirley remembered. "I had a lot of fun, caused a lot of trouble. I was a tomboy, although no one really knew that because they always saw me in the nice little dresses, and gloves. I really wanted to be a G-woman...or a vegetable salesman, or a pie salesman. Then when I became a teenager I got a little more class and decided I wanted to be a brain surgeon, but I figured no one would come to me. I never really wanted to be an actress. I just enjoyed all of this because when you start anything at age three, you don't realize it is work."
Gertrude, while dedicated to Shirley's career, was more unassuming and less pushy than most of her rival stage mothers. "I had a very shy mother, and she is still a very shy mother," Shirley said shortly before Gertrude and George celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary at the end of 1974. "My mother made all of our clothes and was a real homemaker. I think she first sent me to dancing school to get me out of the house. She was the only one who ever spanked me and she only spanked me once. I was very firm-skinned--and I still am--and I broke the ruler she used on the first swat."
Mrs. Temple had been concerned that in Little Miss Marker Shirley had hung out with gangsters and said things like "Aw nuts." She was assured that after Baby, Take a Bow Shirley's screenplays would be "more suitable to her cheery personality." And for the rest of the 1930s they were tailor-made to Miss Temple's image, if not to Miss Temple. Father George continued to oversee the family finances--including Shirley's. "I never cared about money when I was little," Shirley said.
George Temple was short, very stocky, with protruding pot and posterior, thinning dark hair and brown eyes, a snub nose and the dimples of his daughter. He invariably dressed in a gray suit off the rack. His wife was good-looking, taller than he, with olive skin, high cheekbones and an affable large mouth that spoke in a rather flat voice. Her regular, slightly hard features were well preserved, and she took good care of herself and her face. She looked nothing like Shirley, which led to outrageous propositions to George from women who wanted a daughter like Shirley. "My parents didn't smoke or drink," said Shirley, "and never went to Hollywood parties."
By the summer of 1934 six-year-old Shirley Temple was established as a full-fledged movie star. Her contract with the newly amalgamated 20th Century-Fox was adjusted--mostly at the instigation of her banker father--and her weekly salary leaped from $150 to $1,000. In addition, the new agreement provided a clutch of dolls and a Shetland pony for Shirley, as well as "comfortable and exclusive dressing room facilities," and a $250 weekly salary for Mrs. Gertrude Temple. The contract, at Mama's insistence, called for Shirley to be barred from the studio's commissary to prevent her being "petted and pampered."
A ten-room bungalow "dressing room" was converted to a kiddie-cozy home for Shirley, but for a few weeks she had to violate her new contract by eating at the Fox commissary because she couldn't get into her bungalow until Gloria Swanson, in temporary residence, moved out. There was also a clause in the new Temple contract to the effect that if Shirley's parents felt her screen work was changing her personality or keeping her from a normal girlhood they could break the contract and retire their daughter. "We'd do so, too," Mrs. Temple assured the press.
With her sons away at school, Jack at Stanford and George, Jr., at New Mexico Military Institute,
Gertrude was able to devote all of her time to Shirley, and she never left the child's side at work, and seldom after hours. Officially Gertrude was paid her Fox salary (later raised to $500 a week) to manage, dress and chaperone Shirley, and certainly to keep the golden curls in order. Unofficially, Mother Temple was the go-between for director and child star, and she was expected to keep Shirley unspoiled and from getting too far ahead in her education. By strictly forbidding advanced books and most outside influences, Shirley's parents held her back to the point that when she took a Pitner-Cunningham I.Q. test at the University of California at Los Angeles, Shirley, aged seven years, three months, tested only at nine years, seven months, despite an obvious and demonstrated precocity that was expected to merit an eleven-year-old's rating.
With regular work--she made no fewer than eight movies in 1934--Shirley's life began to take on a regular rhythm. She awoke each morning at seven, was given a glass of orange juice and then lay in bed for forty-five minutes, going over her lines and rehearsing dance steps lying on her back and waving her little legs in the air. After a breakfast of stewed fruit (her favorite was canned pears), one soft-boiled egg from the bantam chickens she kept at the studio, and bacon or cereal on alternate mornings, she and her mother went to the studio in their modest LaSalle, arriving at 9 A.M. for school even on mornings when there was no Temple film shooting.
Shirley had a standard public school desk in her bungalow and used California-issued textbooks, returning them to the state at the end of the year. Miss Frances Klampt ("Klammie"), under the supervision of the Los Angeles School Board of Education, taught Shirley the regular public school curriculum (complete with yearly examinations) and also served as a social service worker, overseeing Shirley's daily working conditions. During the filming of a picture, Shirley took her lessons between scenes in the morning and took three hours for lessons in the afternoon.
Her lunch hour was just exactly that, in her bungalow, and she ate her biggest meal of the day, although supper at home at six was a hefty soup, salad, three vegetables, a small amount of meat and a light pudding. After playing with her father and rehearsing her lines and routines with her mother for the next day, Shirley went to bed. Her friends were carefully selected from amongher neighbors and contemporaries, and their parents were requested not to take the children to Shirley's movies lest they get the idea that she was something special. However, her stand-in at the studio was Mary Lou Islieb, a neighbor and the daughter of a branch bank manager who had worked with Mr. Temple.
At the studio Shirley was maternal toward her bantam chickens, a dozen rabbits and dolls from all over the world dressed in native costume. And while she was not prone to cry when she hurt herself, she burst into an almost hysterical fit of sobbing when her favorite doll's arm fell off. She in turn was tractable to direction and instinctively obedient to the wishes of adults. The usually well-behaved, obsessively cheerful and optimistic Shirley Temple that her hordes of adoring fans saw on screen was the Shirley Temple behind the scenes as well, bright and lively, stopping just short of sass. A friend introduced H. G. Wells to Shirley on the set, saying, "He is the most important man in the Universe"; Shirley contradicted with "Oh, no, the most important one is God and Governor Merriam is second."
Bright Eyes, Shirley's last movie in 1934, and the first in a long string of Shirley Temple Christmas (and Easter) pictures, was a landmark film for her in many ways. Her billing was raised to above the title.
In the movie she sang what is probably the closest thing she had to a theme song: "On the Good Ship Lollipop."
Bright Eyes also made financial history for Fox. It cost $190,000 to produce and made back its negative cost in just three weeks of first-run engagements. Shirley's fan mail soared to 2,500 letter per week. Bright Eyes and her seven other films in 1934 put Shirley in eighth place in the Motion Picture Herald's box-office poll of exhibitors for the year, behind Will Rogers, Clark Gable, Janet Gaynor, Wallace Beery, Mae West, Joan Crawford and Bing Crosby. (In 1935, 1936, 1937 and 1938 Shirley topped the Motion Picture Herald poll, the only star ever to do it four years in a row.) The studio insured her for $25,000 with Lloyds of London--because United States companies refused, on the grounds of age. Lloyds did insist as a condition of the insurance (and with astraight face) that Shirley not take up arms in warfareor join the army in peacetime; the insurancewould be voided if the six-year-old died or wasinjured while intoxicated.
In February of 1935, at the annual banquet ofthe Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,Shirley was awarded an honorary gold statuettefor 1934 for having "achieved eminence amongthe greatest of screen actors." The citations thatwent with her Oscar read, "There was one greattowering figure in the cinema game in 1934, oneartiste among artists, one giant among troupers.The award is bestowed because Shirley Templebrought more happiness to millions of childrenand millions of grown-ups than any child of her years in the history of the world." Even at that time Shirley had some perspective on the situation, and she put the Oscar with her other dolls. And in later years she was the first to admit that acting had nothing to do with it.
"What are we going to pretend today?" little Shirley would ask her mother and the director, in that order. "She didn't act or make pictures," said David Butler, director of Bright Eyes, The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel and Captain January. "She played wonderful games. She got into fairyland, she believed it all herself and that's why you believed it."
At first Shirley tended to confuse her scripts with reality. During the filming of Our Little Girl early in 1935 she had to say to Lyle Talbot in one scene, "And anyway I don't like you." As soon as the scene was shot Shirley went over to Talbot and said solemnly, "I'm sorry Mr. Talbot, but those lines are in the script; I really do like you."
But with each picture her camera technique improved. The simple scenes were pure play, no more tiring than dressing her dolls and not so exhausting as a game of hide-and-seek. And if a director about to shoot an over-the-shoulder close-up said, "Now, Shirley . . ." she would get annoyed with herself and interrupt him with "You want me to be here, don't you?" and move so that her head was in full frame instead of slightly blocked by the other actor's chin or cheek.
Shirley always knew when she had made a mistake in the middle of a difficult scene or a complicated dance routine and would hold up her little hand to spoil the take so that a new one would have to be started, pre-empting, like many later actresses, the director's prerogative to yell "cut." She wasn't overly sensitive to criticism. "You can do lots better than that," director Butler told her after a scene in Captain January. Shirley winked, as she had seen her older colleagues do and said, "There was a little faking in it."
In singing silently to her own playback (moving her lips while a recording machine played a record already prepared by her of the tune she was singing for the camera), she achieved an uncanny perfection and always looked as if she were singing the tune on screen. Her lips were never out of "sync." Incredibly, she did many times what few other singers on the screen have done once--madea perfectly synchronized playback in the first take.
Her association with the sharper show business men and women she met at work, most of whom took a special interest in her, gave Shirley at ages six, seven and eight the professionalism, easy repartee and love of catch phrases of a seasoned trouper. She whooped with delight when her mentor and favorite dancing partner, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, told her the old vaudeville wheeze, "How's the tailoring business?"--"So-so."
When she sat down to play her favorite game of squares, she'd often say, "There aren't any spots on your suit but you're going to the cleaners." Her precocity annoyed Dr. Oscar Olson, president of the Senate of Sweden, when she beat him at squares (connecting dots with lines to form the most boxes) twice in succession. Shirley's other set-side games included cribbage (which she learned at the age of five), checkers, parchesi and casino. She was at home with the studio wits, the fun-lovers and avoided anyone who seemed moody or preoccupied.
For this reason her least favorite director was Irving Cummings (Curly Top, Poor Little Rich Girl), a nervous, temperamental man who screamed if there was any noise on the set: "Give me a break--you see what I'm up against here, don't you? I've got a baby here, I'm working with a kid." Shirley was hurt and bewildered. Wasn't it okay to be a kid? She played scenes mechanically and didn't laugh much in the Cummings pictures, but when she changed directors again the legendary effervescent giggle came back.
On any set Shirley never quite seemed to be paying attention. When her mother, the director, or any other player coached her she would look down at her feet and roll her eyes around the room like any distracted youngster, and even bounce a ball or play jacks. But learning routines had started so early for her that she got them the first time while seeming to be doing something else. Her coaches seldom had to repeat instructions. In a single morning, less time than it took with adults, Bill Robinson taught her a soft shoe number, a waltz clog and three tap-dance routines. Shirley never looked at him once during this session but got all the numbers from listening to his feet.
Robinson, her idol and co-star in The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel, said she was the greatest tap dancer for her age then living, and he swore to make her the greatest in the world someday. She called him "Uncle Billy." He taught Shirley strenuous routines without letting her know it was work or allowing her to become tired.
"That was very copacetic, Shirley," he would say, "now we'll try it once more."
Or, "How'd you like to sit right down on that bench and watch your Uncle Bill do the routine? Then maybe he'll connect you with a nice Coca-Cola."
Or, "Bet you a nickel you can't do it again--who's gwine to be the judge?"
Jack Donahue, the choreographer of Curly Top and Captain January, was rehearsing a song called "You Take Two Steps and Truck on Down" with Shirley, and he asked Robinson, "What am I going to do then?"
"Why you truck on down," came the reply.
"Can she truck?" asked Donahue.
"Sure she can," replied Robinson.
When the scene was over Robinson got Shirley into a corner and asked, "Why didn't you tell Jack you could truck?"
"Don't be funny," she answered. "I'm not giving away any of our steps!"
During another Robinson-Temple routine some dancers from a neighboring production company came onto the set to watch them. Bill gave the signal to the pianist and said, "Come on, Shirley, let's do it." She shook her head no, uncharacteristically. Robinson took her aside and asked what was the matter. "If we do it now they'll steal it," she said. "We'll only do it when they're ready to shoot."
"I didn't have to look at Bill Robinson's feet when he was teaching me to dance," she remembered. "We had our mental symphony together, and he was a marvelous teacher, and I still remember some of his dances. He was the greatest."
Another of Shirley's idols was Will Rogers, with whom she never had the chance to make a movie. (He was killed in a plane crash in 1935.) But he taught her to ride and she often visited him at his ranch. She so admired the cowboy that after his death she would not let anyone sing or whistle his favorite song, "The Last Roundup," in her presence.