Shirley Temple’s Career Proves You Can Survive Being An Exploited Child Star

Cinema. Personalities. circa 1930's. American "child star" film actress Shirley Temple who made her film debut at the age of 3, and during the depression years her blond ringlets and appealing lisp caught the imagination. She often upstaged her experienceToday it was announced that Shirley Temple Black, the very first child star of Hollywood has died surrounded by family in her home in Woodside, California. Black was 85 years old. She was born in 1928, and she got her started in Hollywood performing in short feature films called “Baby Burlesks” for about ten dollars a day.

She was just an amazingly adorable and extremely talented baby, and it’s so strange when you consider how little she was when she was the most famous. She started working at the age of three, and she would later say that many of the movies she starred in were a cynical exploitation of childhood innocence and often racist and sexist. For those of you who have seen the 1935 movie The Littlest Rebel, I’m sure you can understand why she made that statement.

(Image: blogspot)

(Image: blogspot)

According to an article in the Daily Mail, when Shirley first began her career her regime was infantile slave labor. For any child who misbehaved, there was the sinister black “punishment box,” containing only a large block of ice, in which the obstreperous infant would be forcibly confined to “cool off.” Shirley was put into this box several times, was once forced to work the day after undergoing an operation to pierce her ear-drum and on another occasion to dance on a badly injured foot.

When she starred in the 1934 movie Little Miss Marker, the director of the movie got her to cry on cute by telling her that her mother had been kidnapped by a man with a green face and demon red eyes. At one point, her father George Temple was offered a “stud fee” to birth another Shirley.

When the movie Bright Eyes was released that same year, Shirley was the number one box office star.

The novelist Graham Greene spoke of Temple in his review for her movie Wee Willie Winkie:

“Her admirers – middle-aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”

Greene and his publisher, the magazine Night And Day, were subsequently obliged to pay £3,500 in damages to the studio and to Temple, referred to by Greene as “that little bitch.”


She lost the lead in The Wizard Of Oz to Judy Garland and her career shortly faltered. She had a short lived television series in the 1950s, and then another in the 1960s. In 1967 she unsuccessfully ran for congress.

Undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer in 1972, she was one of the first female public figures to openly discuss breast cancer and her treatment. She later went on to become the United States Ambassador to Ghana and was America’s first female Chief of Protocol at the White House.

Growing up, I saw quite a few of Temple’s movies, and my older sister had one of her dolls and a china set with her image on it. Looking back on them now, it’s shocking that some of them were as popular as they were considering how sort of eerily exploitive they are. It’s pretty remarkable when you look back at her life and realize she was never involved in heavy drugs or some of the other things that befall the child stars of today.

 Runt Page was her very first movie appearance.

In the 1932 short War Babies, she shared her first onscreen kiss.

According to CNN, Funeral arrangements are pending. A remembrance guest book will be set up online at

(Image: getty images)

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  • Kay_Sue

    That Graham Greene quote, man…that’s just creepy and grody. It makes my skin crawl. But it really sums up nicely just how exploited she was on nearly every level. I’m glad she was able to keep it together and go on to have a relatively normal adulthood. It’s a sad day to see that she’s gone.

  • Emil

    Feeling sick reading this. On the flip side, her resilience is really inspiring. Most would predict with that kind of childhood she would have died at 27 after a heroin overdose.

    • Muggle

      I wonder if it was because the 1930s and 40s were a different, more innocent time, because some of the drugs widely available today just weren’t available back then, or just because she really was that resilient.

    • Kay_Sue

      She still would have had quite a few options. We’ve seen that in adult stars of the time period–Judy Garland is a great example. So I would say it is her own resilience.

    • Muggle

      This is true. It’s stunning that she went on to become a diplomat, of all things. Even child stars who turn out okay usually just fade into a private life with some occasional roles/albums.

    • Kay_Sue

      It really is. There was a lot of strength under all those curls, lol.

    • SarahJesness

      “More innocent” time? Please, there was plenty of debauchery in the entertainment industry even back then, ha ha. I’d say it was just resilience. Some child stars do make it out just fine. Mara Wilson (the girl from Matilda) did, who incidentally wrote a Cracked article giving the insider’s perspective for why child stars go crazy. It’s a good read.

    • Jessie

      I feel I should link to that article in case anyone wants to read it. I agree that it is a very good read, very insightful and actually made me stop judging the former child stars who have gone astray so harshly, and I now pity them instead.

  • guest

    She was also an ambassador to chekoslavakia

  • allisonjayne

    Aw. This makes me think of my grandma, who passed last year. She LOVED Shirley Temple so much. I didn’t know much about Shirley Temple but it sounds like she was actually a pretty amazing woman. Peace to her.

  • chickadee

    I was never a fan, but I suspect that’s because my parents weren’t — our super-old-timey movie preference was for Laurel and Hardy and Marx Brothers films. I couldn’t stand the sugary-sweet nature of Shirley Temple’s on-screen persona, but I expect that’s what the studio wanted. I did admire her ability to transcend child-actor-hood, though, since it seems that so many actors from the early days of film had massive problems in one way or another.

    Of course, when I was really little, we used to watch reruns of The Little Rascals, and those had many racist elements. I think a couple of those kids had substance-abuse problems…..not surprising, especially if they were put in a disciplinary box too.

  • Robotic Arms Dealer

    Just as an announcement, my stud fees are very reasonable… probably better than George Temple’s

    • chickadee

      Well, sure, but how many moneymaking children have YOU produced? Let’s see that cv.

    • Robotic Arms Dealer


    • chickadee

      Well, now I’m wondering what field you’re in.

  • CrazyFor Kate

    Shirley Temple inspires the crap out of me. Rest in peace, grand lady. And oh, god, this is turning out to be the worst celebrity death year ever. Joan Fontaine, Peter O’Toole (in December, but still pretty close), Pete Seeger, James Avery, PSH…agh.

  • scooby23

    This reminds me of when I was little- I was obsessed with Shirley Temple and wanted to be just like her. I didn’t know about the exploitation she endured. It’s great that she was resilient though and lived a long life. It’s sad to see such a character go.