Why Did Shirley Temple Survive the Meat Grinder of Child Stardom?

Why Did Shirley Temple Survive the Meat Grinder of Child Stardom? February 12, 2014


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.


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15 responses to “Why Did Shirley Temple Survive the Meat Grinder of Child Stardom?”

  1. Thank you for this. I was such a huge fan of hers as a child. I will always remember snow days and being able to watch her movies on TV>

  2. You forgot the greatest of them all – Judy Garland. The talent of this woman always awes me: she could dance with Fred Astaire (with the unreacheable exception of Singin’ in The Rain, Easter Parade has to be the greatest Hollywood musical ever done, and A Couple Of Swells probably the greatest single number), outsing anyone short of Mario Lanza (now THERE’s a duet that should have happened!) and was beyond comparison as an actress. I once happened to see one of her child comedies with Mickey Rooney, and I found it abominable – but she just shone. I can only think of Katharine Hepburn and Charlotte Rampling having such total magnetism in a bad movie (Hepburn in Keeper of the Flame, Rampling in Zardoz). I mean, sublime, supreme, comparable only with the best of the best. And she was on drugs before she was old enough to vote. The rest just does not bear thinking about.

  3. And she was a Republican! She had good values which must have come from her parents. I would never consider my child for the entertainment industry. I feel sad for all those who got screwed up. Thank God that adorable little girl grew up with a good head on her shoulders and had a happy life. We should include all those others who had a bad outcome in our prayers.

  4. I tend to agree with you that her parents made much of the difference in Shirley’s life as a child star. I assume her parents weren’t in the profession, but I don’t know. She had the good sense to leave acting ( I think after her attempt to act as an adult didn’t go well) and did what some “normal” folks do—marry and have kids. However she also represented the USA as a diplomat. To use a worn out phrase: Times were different then. She was fortunate that she didn’t have the life of many of the other stars of her generation.

  5. Katharine Hepburn—-one of the best ever. I was trying to think of Judy Garland when I commented, but simply could not get her name in my mind. I was always amazed she lived as long as she did, given the life she led starting as a child.

  6. While I love Judy’s singing – it’s sublime – I have to admit I don’t get her as an actress. Just recently, I watched A Star is Born. I was looking forward to it having heard so many good things about it and I have to admit I was vastly underwhelmed by the acting. But Judy’s voice was sublime.

  7. I’m not sure I’d be lauding Temple’s mother (parents) for putting her into and keeping her in that sewer of an industry. I don’t care how talented she was. Was it really worth the risk to her soul and psyche? And what does it say about parents who’ll take such risks with their child/children? Sorry; as far as I’m concerned, any parent who’ll put a child into “entertainment” doesn’t care much about the child.

  8. Obviously nobody can make you enjoy what you don’t, but I would ask you to have a look at one of those dreadful Mickey Rooney movies. Pick the worst, and then see what you remember from it. If it is Judy, then you may be beginnig to get it.

  9. You’re forgetting that ST was put on an ice block as punishment as a child (which was mentioned in her NYT obituary). She also had a Hollywood director try to molest her when she was 12, which was mentioned in her autobiography. Her parents took most of her money, which is also mentioned in both her autobiography and obituary. She was married to an abusive man at 17, which was her rebellion because as she said herself, she had no childhood when even Santa Claus asked for her autograph. This is a pretty selective viewing of her life.

  10. I was looking at her life as a whole. But you are right. I didn’t know it until after I wrote this, but it seems that Shirley wrote in her autobiography that that someone high-powered, I think it was the head of MGM but I’m not sure, pulled down his pants and exposed himself to her when she was 12. I’m going to read her autobiography when I get the time.

    That makes my main point, btw, that there are a lot of pedophiles in this industry and that the industry is supporting them and allowing them to continue molest the children who work as child stars.

    Thanks for the information.

  11. Many parents “live” thru their children. They always wanted to be an actor, or baseball player, opera singer etc., thus push their child in that direction. Often wondered if Michael Jackson would have ended up as he did if his father had behaved differently towards his money makers—The Jackson 5″. IF I’m correct, MJ left NO money to his father, because they didn’t get along. MJ was, IMO, a very sick puppy no matter how talented he was thought to be.

  12. In spite of the hurdles she had to overcome while “acting” and in that environment, she rose above it and married happily the 2nd time and also had a career as a diplomat. Her past could have ruined her later life, but apparently it didn’t.

  13. There are other child actors whop survived, surely, and I’d love to see an article about them all. Ron Howard comes immediately to mind.