Shirley Temple Black is dead at the age of 85.
I watched a few scenes from her old movies yesterday, and I was astounded. When I saw these movies on tv as a little girl, I took it for granted that she could sing and dance. But when I saw the scenes with her and Bojangles last night, I realized how extraordinary she was.
How could a little child perform at that level? Shirley Temple was an incredible talent.
She was also different in another way. Almost alone among child stars, Shirley Temple grew up to be a normal adult. We are all watching the implosion of Miley Cyrus’ young life as she destroys herself publicly. We’ve seen the suicides, the lives wasted on drug addiction and the inability to form meaningful relationships with people of the opposite sex over and over again.
But Shirley Temple grew up to become a young woman who was able to have and raise a stable family and engage in productive work at an incredibly high level in the diplomatic world. She had a successful life in the ways that matter.
What made the difference?
I would guess that the major difference was her parents. I read one story talking about the fact that Shirley’s mother was always present when she was performing. The story went that the director of a film sent Mrs Temple on a brief errand, and, while she was gone, deliberately frightened little Shirley to make her cry for a scene. When Mrs Temple returned and learned what had happened, she decided to never leave her daughter alone with these people again.
Contrast that with the famous story of the director telling Jackie Cooper that his dog had died to make him cry for a scene:
When young Cooper was unable to summon tears for a big crying scene, Taurog threatened to remove the boy’s small dog from the set and take it to the pound. The incident ended with Cooper believing his dog had been shot by an armed security guard.
“I could visualize my dog, bloody from that one awful shot,” Cooper wrote. “I began sobbing, so hysterically that it was almost too much for the scene. [Taurog] had to quiet me down by saying perhaps my dog had survived the shot, that if I hurried and calmed down a little and did the scene the way he wanted, we would go see if my dog was still alive.”
Only after doing the scene as best he could did Cooper learn that his dog was unharmed. He also saw Taurog, the guard and Cooper’s grandmother grinning over their successful deception.
“Later, people tried to rationalize to me that I had gained more than I lost by being a child star,” Cooper wrote. “They talked to me about the money I made. They cited the exciting things I had done, the people I had met, the career training I had had, all that and much more….
“But no amount of rationalization, no excuses, can make up for what a kid loses — what I lost — when a normal childhood is abandoned for an early movie career.”
It is worth noting that Jackie Cooper had a relative there when this happened — his grandmother. But instead of protecting her grandson, she allowed what happened and seemed to enjoy it.
The emotional abuse Jackie Cooper endured, bad as it was, was nothing compared to what Corey Feldman, and, according to books and testimonies by a number of former child stars, many others, have endured. Corey maintains that the single biggest problem for child actors is pedophilia.
He also says that the pedophiles are often big names in the entertainment industry. The way that industry people behave when famous directors are accused of child rape lends credence to these charges.
Shirley Temple Black and her normal, productive life, indicate that it is possible for a child to work as an entertainer and come out of the experience intact. But the fact that she is so rare as to be an anomaly raises serious questions about the practice of putting underage people into that world.
We’ve all seen the shattered lives of former child actors. From River Phoenix, to Michael Jackson, to Miley the story is the same. But we keep right on, ignoring the obvious.
Are the lives of children worth the “art” of the films they help make?
More to the point, are sexual predators in the entertainment industry who abuse and violate children off limits for prosecution and the long lives in prison that they deserve?
We will only truly know the degree of child abuse in the entertainment industry when adults who work in that world grow spines and begin to out these guys instead of covering for them and defending them. From what I’ve seen, that day is a long way off.