Okay, I’m admitting this right up front. I may be making this up. However, I do believe these memories are real.
I have a vivid recollection of the first “grown-up” book I read; Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, originally published in 1880 and in German: A tale about a little Swiss girl and her grandfather. I’d no idea until I undertook this research project, but there’s an entire series about this little girl and I’m seriously tempted to search it out and take a little trip down memory lane. The first edition that pictured Shirley Temple on the cover was in 1937, several years after she made the movie. I remember this book so well because it wasn’t a picture book and when my mom suggested I read it because I loved the movie so much, I…well…my chest swelled with pride that she thought I could do it.
My mother was always the one who encouraged me to read. (I have my dad to thank for my love of music.) The next book she brought me was The Little Witch, and just like Shirley Temple’s Favorite Fairy Tales in my blog entitled The Anatomy of a Fairy Tale, I tried to search this out in my older years, but alas, I couldn’t find it either. It was a story about a mother witch and her daughter. The mother was evil, and my most scary memory was when her mother turned the annoying children from the neighborhood into flowers which she kept lined up in pots on her windowsill. The “little witch” was a good witch and eventually used her magic to reverse the evil deeds of her mother, finally setting the children free.
Next, my mom turned me onto the Nancy Drew series and I blew though them in record time, anticipating each new one with a waiting-for-Christmas enthusiasm. My last memory was when I got my period in eighth grade. We had a built-in pool in our back yard but I wasn’t allowed to swim, at least according to my not-so-knowledgeable-about-tampons mother. She’d park me in a lounge chair under a shady tree and put a book in my hand: Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jayne Eyre, Little Women. I almost looked forward to my monthly confinement.
Anyway, I digress. Watching Shirley Temple’s movies as a child evoked a tremendous amount of emotion in me. Admittedly I was very little, and my younger brother had recently died of cancer. We’d been incredibly close and at the tender age of five I couldn’t comprehend death at even the most basic level. Over the next few years I found solace in Shirley’s movies, a young girl often in terrible circumstances who always made the best of her situation, greeting each day and new person with a smile and even a song and a dance. Okay, here’s another crazy memory. When in first grade I was selected to play Thumbelina in the play fashioned after the fairy tale of the same name. I remember always being teased about being tiny (I weighed thirty-eight pounds in third grade) and I had to dance on stage in front of an auditorium of adoring parents. I can’t really believe I had the nerve to do it. I wasn’t a student of the dance and just made the steps up with the joy and uninhibited enthusiasm of a six-year-old. Coincidentally, my mother sat next to the woman who owned the dance school in town and who off-handedly wondered who my dance teacher was. My mother replied that I didn’t take dancing lessons which quickly received the response, “Oh, please, enroll her. She’s wonderful.” My mom was of the no-frills school of moms and well…that never happened.
According to Wikipedia, Ms. Temple began her career at three, a child star of the 1930s. An actress in film and TV, singer, dancer and public servant, Ms. Temple even made me proud in her open acceptance of blacks, when it wasn’t common to see that in the movies of her day. The studio established a calculated formula for her roles, that of a parentless waif whose charm and sweetness had the uncanny ability to tame gruff older men: a colonel, a sea captain, a hobo. This was mid-depression and Shirley offered a distraction. She could change the lives of the cold, hardened, even the criminal with positive results. Her capacity for love was indiscriminate. Temple appeared a precocious child, a good fairy, Cupid, reuniting estranged parents and smoothing out the wrinkles in the romances of young couples. Frequently she was motherless, an orphan confined in a dreary asylum and now that I analyze her roles it’s apparent that there is a fairy tale goodness woven into her films, good over evil, marriage over divorce, a booming economy over a depressed one. Shockingly, MGM offered her the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, but her studio turned it down, offering her something that they thought would be better. It wasn’t.
I have nothing but kudos for Shirley Temple. As a child, I always ordered the cocktail with her moniker when I went out to dinner with my parents and relish the memories of watching her movies curled up with my mom or dad, or the occasional babysitter. She was my favorite doll until I discovered Barbie. And I applaud her even as an adult. She left her movie career at the tender ago of twenty-two and chose a life in politics, rising to become the ambassador of Ghana and later to Czechoslovakia, and eventually became Chief of Protocol of the United States. I loved everything about her.
I just discovered that she wrote an autobiography in 1988 titled, Child Star. I just might have to add that to my summer reading list. And now I have a little more evidence to help me understand my affection for the characters in a fairy tale and the traditional happily-ever-after-ending. I guess I have Shirley to blame to some extent. Nah, how could I blame that blonde, curly-topped, dimpled angel for anything like that? If anything, I blame her for my incredible optimism. Thanks, Shirley! I loveya!