Shirley Temple gave us a heartfelt appreciation of innocence
Was there anything that captured the indomitable spirit of America more than a Shirley Temple movie? We can proudly boast that we gave the world people like Elvis and Marilyn; but Elvis hip swivel and Marilyn's tasteful-but-overt sexuality made us blush. Shirley, however, gave us that rarest of all things...a heartfelt and overwhelming appreciation of innocence.
In the midst of the Great Depression, struggling Americans could still afford an afternoon at the movies and Shirley provided the ultimate escape: a reminder of the humanity, love and innocence that seemed so out of reach in a world growing mean and bitter with despair.
It seems inconceivable now, but I suppose there are many Americans who have never heard of her or even seen her films.
Her New York Times obituary tells us:
No Shirley Temple movie was complete without a song -- most famously "On the Good Ship Lollipop" and "Animal Crackers in My Soup" -- and a tap dance, with partners including George Murphy, Jack Haley and Buddy Ebsen. But her most successful partnership was with the legendary African-American entertainer Bill (Bojangles) Robinson. She may have been the first white actress allowed to hold hands affectionately with a black man on screen, and her staircase dance with Mr. Robinson in "The Little Colonel," the first of four movies they made together, retains its magic almost 80 years later.
The caption under her picture in the Times read, "In the popular imagination, Shirley Temple Black would always be America's darling of the Depression years." I beg to differ. She will always be America's darling, period.
Temple often portrayed a child that was forgotten, orphaned, or seemingly rambling through the world alone. The 1934 movie "Bright Eyes" dealt with the (then) rare occurrence of child adoption.
In all of her movies, she was precocious and quick-witted. She gave society a deeper appreciation of what it meant to be a child - something many forget when they reach adulthood. Through her characters they learned that children often grapple with the same life and death questions as adults; and all too often have to bear the same burdens on much smaller shoulders.
She always played the optimist too, and whether it was naïve or not, we loved her for it.
We were awed by her curly hair, dazzling dimples, and abundant talent. Inside however, she was no less precious than any other child... that was perhaps the most important message moviegoers could take away as they went home to their own children...or passed ragamuffin runaways on the street.
It is undeniable that Shirley's movies signified everything that was great about America's heart and character. I'd like to take every Taliban fighter, every hater of the U.S. anywhere in the world, force them into a theater to watch Shirley Temple movies and say, "You see that? That is what we are all about. That little girl wasn't raised to wear a burqa or a suicide belt. She was born free...free to sing, dance, love, smile and pursue her own happiness. That is a far superior weapon than you will ever have; and you will never, ever, ever take that away from us."
Every time an icon like Shirley passes away, I feel honored to have shared the same little niche of the solar system with them. Not because of what some call celebrity worship, but rather I was honored to have shared a place and time that will never be again.
Sometimes it seems that our lifeline is fraying and we are hanging by a thread; trying to hold onto everything that was good and decent in America. With each unraveling, we anxiously glance down to the unknown future that awaits us. We are strengthened only in our prayers that the next generation will repair the ties that bind us.
Perhaps Ambassador Shirley Temple Black said it best:
"Make-believe colors the past with innocent distortion, and it swirls ahead of us in a thousand ways -- in science, in politics, in every bold intention. It is part of our collective lives, entwining our past and our future... a particularly rewarding aspect of life itself."
We can't help but imagine one final curtsy as you leave the stage. We look forward to seeing you again on the other side, Ambassador.