Temple Receives a Special Academy Award

Shirley Temple, America’s cinema sweetheart and the top box-office draw from 1935 to 1938, received a special miniature Academy Award for her outstanding contribution to the film industry.

Summary of Event

Following the stock market crash of 1929, Shirley Temple, a cheery child screen star of the 1930’s, quickly rose to fame by capturing the hearts of the moviegoing audience and freeing them momentarily from the worries of joblessness, homelessness, breadlines, bank failures, and other monetary disasters. For her popularity and skill in dance, voice, and acting, she was awarded a special child-size Oscar—the slender gold statuette coveted by film professionals since it was first awarded in 1929—at the 1935 Academy Awards presentation banquet. The event, as usual, was attended by the elite of Hollywood society and agency professionals and announced by searchlights, press releases, film magazine interviews, and nationwide radio coverage. [kw]Temple Receives a Special Academy Award (Feb. 27, 1935)
[kw]Academy Award, Temple Receives a Special (Feb. 27, 1935)
[kw]Award, Temple Receives a Special Academy (Feb. 27, 1935)
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Academy Awards
Motion pictures;awards
Actors;Shirley Temple[Temple]
[g]United States;Feb. 27, 1935: Temple Receives a Special Academy Award[08870]
[c]Motion pictures;Feb. 27, 1935: Temple Receives a Special Academy Award[08870]
Temple, Shirley
Runyon, Damon
Menjou, Adolphe
Zanuck, Darryl F.

Temple, the youngest star to receive an Oscar, earned the admiration of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chiefly for Little Miss Marker (1934), Little Miss Marker (film) a black-and-white film adapted from a Damon Runyon story and starring Adolphe Menjou, Dorothy Dell, Charles Bickford, and Lynne Overman in addition to Temple. The plot, about a seedy racetrack gambler who adopts a small girl who eventually rescues him from his adversaries, features the predictable Runyon components—cynical underworld figures and appealingly helpless ingenues who employ their charms to soften hardened hearts and bring about a quick rescue. The story concludes with a satisfying reward for good and an appropriate penalty for evil. Variety lauded the film for its blend of melodrama and compassion.

Shirley Temple’s unprecedented success sprang from a pairing of genes and luck, with a little family push thrown in for good measure. Born in Santa Monica, California, the third child and first daughter of Francis George Temple, a bank officer, and Gertrude Krieger Temple, Shirley, a sunny, smooth-limbed blond, enhanced her natural appeal by studying tap dance beginning when she was three years old. Scouted in her kindergarten classroom by an agent from Educational Studios and accompanied on location by her famous stage mother, Shirley began her screen appearances in the “Baby Burlesk” series before advancing to major roles. At the age of five, she bested two hundred candidates for her first cinema part in Stand Up and Cheer (1934). Success brought a contract for $1,250 a week, a phenomenal salary for Depression times.

Temple’s image—the stereotypical lighthearted, dimple-cheeked minx—evolved from good grooming in little-girl fashions, including patent leather Mary Janes and anklet socks, starchy sailor suit, immaculate gloves, and saucy, cylindrical curls highlighted with a bow to match her outfit. A disarmingly bright, poised, mischievous moppet, Temple delighted fans with her self-confident, insouciant air. Hordes of worshipers and Temple look-alikes followed her wherever she appeared, at airports, the circus, the beach, and visits to department store Santa Clauses. Notables such as Albert Einstein, J. Edgar Hoover, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt counted her among their personal favorites, and fans the world over recognized her at once by her characteristically bumptious posturing and mugging and Kewpie-doll smile.

The epitome of little-girl sweetness, Temple parlayed her charms into success by maximizing talent, concentration, and hard work. She could mimic her contemporaries, including Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and match the complicated dance routines of veteran hoofer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. She balanced a variety of male costars, from Randolph Scott, Joseph Cotten, Cary Grant, and Buddy Ebsen to Ronald Reagan. Even though the plots of her films provided meager challenges to a thinking audience, much to the filmmakers’ benefit, the public’s rush to see Temple singing, dancing, and mugging in her costume-rich scenarios kept theater lines long.

Eager to make the most of their pint-sized box-office wonder during a period when money for film tickets was growing scarce, the studios moved swiftly to exploit every moment of her childhood. Two subsequent 1934 films, Now and Forever, Now and Forever (film) a Paramount production starring Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard, and Stand Up and Cheer, Stand Up and Cheer (film) with James Dunn, Nigel Bruce, and Stepin Fetchit, influenced her Academy Award nomination. The former, a likable mix of thrills and comedy, as was Little Miss Marker, depicts the power of a small child to transform her father, a jewel thief, and his hard-boiled mistress. Now and Forever received high marks from both the New York Post and Variety. In contrast, Stand Up and Cheer, a Fox production about a child performer who helps the fictional U.S. secretary of amusement to boost the country’s Depression-racked spirits, received less favorable press because of its contrived plot. The film redeemed itself primarily through audience reaction to the engagingly talented, cherubic six-year-old star.


The Shirley Temple phenomenon peaked in 1939, when the child lost her rounded cuteness and entered adolescence. Up until that point, she had been a major moneymaker for the studios. In her biography, she noted bitterly the commercialism of her success and how she was marketed like a grocery-store commodity. Signed by Darryl F. Zanuck to a Twentieth Century-Fox contract and insured by Lloyd’s of London, Temple lived in a special on-site four-room cottage, complete with rabbit hutch, picket fence, and rope swing. To restrict the public’s access to her, she was tutored privately. In the 1940’s, returned to a semblance of normalcy, she attended the Westlake School for Girls, from which she graduated at the age of seventeen. She contributed greatly in her childhood to film history, with forty film and fifty television productions, including hits such as Baby Take a Bow (1934), Bright Eyes (1934), Curly Top (1935), The Little Colonel (1935), Poor Little Rich Girl (1936), Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Heidi (1937), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), The Little Princess (1939), and The Blue Bird (1940).

In her teens, Temple, taller but still unmistakably dimpled and winsome, continued to please faithful fans. Her teen and postteen roles in Since You Went Away (1944), Kiss and Tell (1945), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer(1947), That Hagen Girl (1947), Fort Apache (1948), and A Kiss for Corliss (1949) received less adulation, primarily because they could not play on the cuteness of childhood. About the time that Temple met John Agar, a soldier turned actor whom she married to relieve the loneliness and isolation engendered by too much fame, the studio, searching for a replacement child star, considered Sybil Jason, Gigi Perreau, and others. Among the most successful post-Temple child stars were Margaret O’Brien, who premiered at the age of four in Babes in Arms (1939) and won an honorary Oscar in 1944, and Natalie Wood, who debuted at the age of eight in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946). Never as appealing as Shirley Temple, Wood earned lasting fame in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947), then grew more voluptuous and appealing to cinema audiences. Her later successes included Splendor in the Grass (1961) and West Side Story (1961).

Some male child stars met with equally long-lived popularity. Jackie Cooper scored with The Champ (1931) and Skippy (1931), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor. A stream of other cute-child scenarios brought him work in Sooky (1931), Young Donovan’s Kid (1931), and Divorce in the Family (1932). Along with a coterie of children who composed the Our Gang cast, he made a notable effort that resulted in years of reruns. Through her success, Temple certainly influenced the trend toward child-oriented films.

An extended film career is not a part of the Shirley Temple legend. After her divorce from Agar, Temple, already the mother of a daughter, suffered intense depression. Following a relaxing vacation in Hawaii, she met businessman Charles Alden Black, son of a wealthy family, whose emotional maturity provided the stability she needed at the nadir of her young womanhood. They married, had a son and a second daughter, and settled south of San Francisco. Shirley Temple Black involved herself in volunteer work for the National Wildlife Federation and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. At one point, she served as a receptionist in a children’s orthopedics hospital.

From local activism, she moved into politics. To maintain a dignified professional image, she was forced to transcend the public’s image of a dimpled darling in frills and tap shoes. In 1967, she failed to unseat Pete McCloskey in a bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, but from 1974 to 1976 she served as the U.S. ambassador to Ghana. Her return to the public eye brought new audiences of children to her old films, which had fallen into neglect. Hollywood, capitalizing on her late-in-life achievements, returned the spotlight to her. Honored at the fifty-seventh annual Academy Awards presentation ceremony on March 25, 1985, Shirley Temple Black received a full-sized Oscar to replace the miniature version she accepted in 1935. To recapture the mystique of the toddler star, organizers of the ceremony ran clips of her greatest films. Three years later, the documentary Going Hollywood: The War Years received archival footage from her canon in a montage of films from the World War II era.

Recovered from breast cancer in 1989, Shirley Temple Black was named ambassador to Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia). She took an immersion language course to expedite her pursuit of negotiations with President Gustav Husák, to whom she presented her credentials in his native tongue. She took particular pride in the nation’s bloodless overthrow of an oppressive communist regime. As an outspoken supporter of the human rights that communism had violated, she remained difficult to typify as liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, but periodically she was considered as a vice presidential candidate or a cabinet post nominee.

Looking back on her many honors, appointments, and opportunities, Shirley Temple Black acknowledged that her film career, although it had little connection with her adult interests and capabilities, provided the requisite name recognition to people in power such as President George Bush, who nominated her for the ambassadorship to Czechoslovakia. Her prior fame opened possibilities for her to become involved with research programs on acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), assistance for homeless and disabled people, and the campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. In her 1988 autobiography, Child Star, she unleashed adult vengeance on Hollywood’s corrupt star system, which exploited her in childhood, menaced her innocence, and enriched a cadre of opportunists, many of whom borrowed money for private use that they never repaid. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Academy Awards
Motion pictures;awards
Actors;Shirley Temple[Temple]

Further Reading

  • Bell, Joseph N. “Shirley Temple: Her Movies, Her Life.” Good Housekeeping, February, 1981, 114-115, 185-190. Brief biographical article features photographs of Temple’s film career, including shots of her with costars Buddy Ebsen, Charles Farrell, James Dunn, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Chronology covers Temple’s bout with breast cancer, her role as first U.S. chief of protocol, and her service as a U.S. ambassador.
  • Hammontree, Patsy Guy. Shirley Temple Black: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Thorough discussion of Shirley Temple Black’s careers, from child star to diplomat. Includes chronology, filmography, bibliography, and index.
  • Osborne, Robert. Seventy-Five Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards. New York: Abbeville Press, 2003. Overview of the Academy Awards demands respect from historians, researchers, and serious cinema fans. Presents a thorough listing of Academy Award winners from the inception of the Oscar to 2003. Features full-color cinematic stills as well as reproductions of dust jackets from adapted novels and plays.
  • Temple Black, Shirley. Child Star: An Autobiography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988. Autobiography describes Temple’s family life, early training in dance and music, introduction into filmdom from kindergarten, starring film roles, and adolescent screen roles, along with critical opinions of her cinematic talents. Details her eclipse in adolescence and failed marriage to John Agar. A worthy study for the cinema buff or student of Hollywood history.
  • Windeler, Robert. The Films of Shirley Temple. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1978. Critique of Temple’s screen career focuses on information pertinent to cinema history and critical commentary on the child film genre. Useful source for detailed history.
  • Yorkshire, Heidi. “Shirley Temple Black Sets the Record Straight.” McCall’s, March, 1989, 88-92. Describes Temple’s adult career and her decision to write her autobiography Child Star.

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