Shirley Temple’s death was announced yesterday, and in the video above she sings
“Animal Crackers”, which is a much more bizarre song
than I remembered, with references to “swallowing animals”
and a janitor named Mr. Klein.
Shirley is undeniably appealing and she’s refreshingly
chubby and upbeat, when compared to the haughty mini-sirens
on the Disney Channel.There’s also something oddly middle-aged
about her; she’s like a good-natured, hardworking housekeeper
who can’t wait to get home, put her feet up and maybe enjoy a
solitary slice of cheesecake with her bourbon.
Unlike many of today’s child performers, Shirley doesn’t
seem neurotic or fragile. While she’s enjoying herself,
she’s doing a job, entertaining us. I can see why she
eventually left show business, because even as a toddler
she seems too sane. She lacks the Norma Desmond desperation
of the child stars who’ll try anything to remain in the spotlight.
I’ve worked with several child actors and they tend to be
either tiny, tireless show biz machines, who mimic adult
behavior, or genuine actors. I was surprised to find that
in both cases, an acting career
had almost always been entirely the child’s idea. I’ve
rarely dealt with a ferocious stage parent, who’s shoved his
or her child in front of the cameras. Most often, the
children had seen other kids on TV, and begged their
parents to let them begin auditioning.
Christina Ricci was ten years old when she first appeared
as Wednesday in the Addams Family movies, and she was
sensational. She was a real actor, who worked from instinct,
and she mastered the necessary comic deadpan. If you click on
the bio page of this blog, you’ll find a photo taken on
the set, where Christina is styling my hair. She
was a delight, which is why the second film,
Addams Family Values, includes a major
The first Addams film, which I rewrote, included several
flashbacks, to Gomez and Fester as children and as teenagers.
I watched the auditions for the children involved.
It was especially disturbing to see all of the kids who
resembled the large, round, bald Uncle Fester, but on the
other hand, this might have been the one opportunity where
looking like a 9-year-old Fester had become a plus.
There was one little boy who was a little too authentically
Fester-like. He was too scary to cast in the movie, and the
crew referred to him as “the drooler.”
Shirley Temple managed to endure as an American icon
without either dying young or becoming a perpetual
rehab case. Like Garbo, she preserved her image by retiring
from films, in Shirley’s case, at age 22. Unlike Garbo,
she didn’t become a recluse but moved into politics, where
she served as the US ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia.
When she developed breast cancer, in 1972, she was one of the first
celebrities to discuss her disease openly.
Shirley continued acting on TV, but that’s not how she’s
remembered. It’s the ebullient, tap-dancing Shirley,
in her sausage curls and polka dots, who’s the equal
of Elvis and James Dean and Marilyn. She’s the adorable,
terrifying Great American Child.