Former child star Shirley Temple Black died yesterday, at the age of 85. The most popular movie star of the mid-1930s (Clark Gable, reportedly, was a distant second), she made her screen debut as a four-year-old and starred in several dozen movies before retiring from acting in her 20s. She then went on to a distinguished career as a diplomat. I suspect a lot of us remember, as I do, watching her black-and-white movies on Saturday afternoons on television as children; I vaguely remember enjoying them when I wasn’t much older than little Shirley. But I grew up and didn’t think about her much again — until seeing this clip, years ago, in the movie “That’s Dancing”:
This is seven-year-old Shirley in 1935’s “The Littlest Rebel,” with the legendary tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and I’ve never actually seen the whole movie. But look at her, in this clip: the way her little feet are matching his, step for step; the way she’s beaming like it’s Christmas morning; the way she gazes at him in such happy awe — in short, she’s just having a wonderful time, and we’re having a wonderful time with her. It made sense that audiences, worn down by the Depression, would flock to movies starring this sunny little girl, whose smile seems to reassure us that everything will be OK (and whose affectionate hand-holding with a black man, in the 1930s, was radical). It’s rare enough to see pure joy on screen, in any era; Shirley Temple captured that, and will always be remembered.