Why Shirley Temple was America’s Little Princess.

Once upon a time, way back on April 23, 1928, a little princess was born. She was a very talented little princess. She could sing and dance and even act. The little princess’s country was going through a very dark time but the little princess did her best to cheer up her sad citizens. The most powerful man in the little princess’s country said “It is a splendid thing….look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” After a while the little princess grew up and got married. She had some children of her own but she never stopped thinking of her country. Eventually the grown up princess became an ambassador and went to far away countries. One day, after a very long life, the princess passed away. All of her beloved family were by her side and everyone who remembered the little princess were sad. The End.

What a nice little fairy tale. Except there really was a little princess and her name was Shirley Temple.

Shirley was born in 1928 in Santa Monica, California. She had two much older brothers. Shirley’s mother doted on her adorable little daughter and enrolled Shirley in dance class when Shirley was only three years old. In very quick order, Shirley was spotted by a casting director and within a year Shirley was acting in short films and doing bit parts.

The 1934 movie, Bright Eyes, was designed specifically for Shirley and featured her future signature song “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” Shirley made movie after movie. She was even honored with a special Juvenile Oscar Award for her film accomplishments.


Most of Shirley’s movies followed a fairly simple formula. She was a “lovable, parentless waif whose charm and sweetness mellow gruff older men.” There was always a sentimental story and usually some song and dance added in. Shirley was “often motherless, sometimes fatherless, and sometimes an orphan confined to a dreary asylum” but Shirley’s winsome spirit always won out over sadness. Her pictures always showed her “wholesome goodness triumphing over meanness and evil.”

The United States was suffering through the Great Depression during the 1930’s when Shirley was making her most popular movies. People just seemed to embrace her. They flocked to Shirley’s movies. She was the undisputed box office champion for 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939. Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was captivated by little Miss Shirley Temple: “It is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”

Ahem. Fifteen cents…….

Oh, sorry. I had a brain freeze for a moment there at the thought of going to a movie for only fifteen cents.

Anyways, in 1939 Shirley Temple made the movie The Little Princess. It was her first big budget film and her first Technicolor feature. Shirley was at her very best in the movie and The Little Princess was a huge success.

Now, in 1939, Shirley was 11 years old. The movie studio had been worried about her aging and growing up. They even lied about her age to make her seem just a little bit younger. But the success of the film The Little Princess convinced the studio that Shirley could make a triumphant leap from child star to adult actress. And for a short time it looked like maybe she could. Shirley made the “enjoyable and successful” Susannah of the Mounties later in 1939. But that was followed by two consecutive flops. Shirley’s parents’ bought out her contract and sent her to an exclusive school for a few years. In 1944, Shirley tried for a comeback and signed a new 4 year contract.

Unfortunately, her former adoring fans did not seem very interested in a teenage princess. Her movies were just so-so with a “cheapie B look” and indifferent performances from Shirley. So in 1950, at the grand old age of 22, Shirley Temple announced her retirement from films.

Then a grown-up princess embarked on a whole new life. Shirley had actually gotten married in 1945 at age 17 and had a baby princess of her own. But that marriage failed. In 1950, on a trip with her parents after her retirement, Shirley met Charles Alden Black. He was a former United States Navy intelligence officer from a wealthy family. They married on December 16, 1950 and Shirley settled happily into the roles of wife and mother. She had two more children with Charles and they remained married for 54 years until his death in 2005.

But however much Mrs. Shirley Temple Black enjoyed being a wife and mother she was also starting to hear the call of Hollywood again. In 1959, she dipped her toes into the waters of television. She hosted and narrated a successful series of fairy tale adaptations and even acted in some of the episodes. She also made numerous TV guest appearances.

Shirley also began to become involved in politics. She made a failed California congressional run in 1967. In 1969, Shirley was appointed Representative to the 24th United Nations General Assembly. In 1972, Shirley was appointed Special Assistant to the Chairman of the President’s Council on the Environment. In 1974, she was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Ghana. In 1976, Shirley was the first female Chief of Protocol of the United States and was in charge of President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration and inaugural ball. And Shirley Temple Black was the U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992.

Along the way, in 1972, Shirley also fought a battle with breast cancer and a radical mastectomy. She was one of the first prominent women to openly speak out about cancer and her experiences.

She also racked up an impression number of film and television awards. From her special Juvenile Academy Award to her hand- and footprints in cement in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Shirley also earned several lifetime and career Achievement Awards as well as the Kennedy Center Honors.

Shirley Temple Black died at her home surrounded by her family and caregivers on February 10, 2014. She always seemed to radiate joy and hope and to have a wry intelligence about her life. Among her quotes about Hollywood and real life:

  • “I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.”
  • “One famous movie executive who shall remain nameless, exposed himself to me in his office. “Mr. X,” I said, “I thought you were a producer, not an exhibition.” ”
  • “I class myself with Rin Tin Tin (famous dog). People in the Depression wanted something to cheer them up, and they fell in love with a dog and a little girl.”
  • “I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the lifetime achievement award. Start early.”
  • “Sunnybrook Farm is now a parking lot. The petticoats are in the garbage can, where they belong in the modern world, and I detest censorship.”
  • “Any star can be devoured by human adoration, sparkle by sparkle.”
  • Just a month after her husband died: “There’s nothing like real love. Nothing.”

In honor of Shirley Temple Black’s life and achievements, I decided to review her best known film: The Little Princess. This film, as well as many of Shirley’s other feature films and shorts are in the Public Domain and FREE to download or view at The Internet Archive.

The Little Princess was released in 1939. Most of the shorts and features Shirley made were in black and white. The Little Princess was her first Technicolor film. This film also had the biggest budget for a Shirley Temple film – 1.5 million dollars. The Little Princess was a critical and commercial success but it was also, unfortunately, Shirley’s “last major success as a child star.”

The 1939 movie The Little Princess is also loosely based on the 1905 book A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The book is also FREE in the Public Domain. Both the movie and the book are set in Victorian London and both feature a young girl, Sara Crewe, who is left at an exclusive girls’ seminary while her father is away. But the movie changed some characters, added new characters, downplayed some book characters, added musical numbers and an elaborate dream sequence with a ballet number, and completely, drastically, changed the ending. But I’m not going to tell you how the ending is changed. You’ll have to watch the movie and read the book for yourself.

The movie The Little Princess is in Technicolor so the movie is very bright and colorful which makes for a sharp contrast when poor Sara (Shirley Temple) is exiled to the drab, dark attic. I thought the opening music was very overly dramatic but it is trying to set a very patriotic tone. The rest of the music and the song and dance numbers better fit the fairy tale. The costumes are elaborate, especially Sara’s (Shirley’s) birthday party dress and her dream sequence gown. They are definitely fit for a movie princess.

Shirley Temple is at her most adorable pouty faced best. Yes, the story does seem melodramatic at times. And yes, Sara Crewe (Shirley) is unreasonably chipper for being in such reduced circumstances. And definitely yes, Miss Minchin seems unreasonably mean. And certainly yes, I wanted to punch some characters into actually growing spines. But still, I watched this movie, for probably the umpteenth time in my life, and I was still getting teary eyed at times. Shirley really knows how to work that pout and stiffen her trembling chin.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the movie:

  • Sara and her father share one last embrace: Captain Crewe says “You learning me by heart, little Sara?” And Sara replies “No, Daddy. I know you by heart. You’re inside my heart.”
  • Sara Crewe recites a little poem to help her face her father’s departure: “My Daddy has to go away, But he’ll return most any day. Any moment I may see, My Daddy coming back to me.”
  • Sara gets into trouble and Miss Minchin demands: “Sara, I shall expect an explanation of this.” Sara replies: “Yes, Miss Minchin. As soon as I can think of one.”
  • Sara is beginning to falter: “It’s getting harder every day to pretend my father is safe.”
  • Mr. Bertie, Miss Minchin’s brother, finally gets fed up with her meanness and enlists in the army to get away: “Because, old girl, I’m fed to the teeth with your bullying. And your treatment of Miss Rose and little Sara is the last straw. I prefer the less painful horrors of the battlefield.”
  • Sara is fed up with mean student Lavinia who demands: “How dare you talk back to me!” Sara replies “Tsk tsk tsk. Was I doing that? My goodness!” Sara dumps a bucket of coal dust over Lavinia and runs off, shouting “So sorry!” While a livid Lavinia shrieks “You wait till I tell Miss Minchin on you!!”
  • In the Sara’s dream, the evil witch (Miss Minchin) is punished: “Banish her from here forever! Never show your face here, never!”

Shirley Temple’s movie The Little Princess was based on a 1905 book written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Frances Burnett was born in 1849 in England. She started writing to help support her family. Her family immigrated to the USA in 1865. Frances used to refer to herself as “a pen driving machine” but her writing allowed her to support both her family and her husband (married 1873) while he was finishing his medical education.

Later Frances and her husband moved to Washington, DC. They had two sons and were well known in society. They lived a lavish lifestyle and Frances even hosted a Tuesday literary salon. But Frances also always worried about money and continued to write for the income. She also suffered from depression and her first son’s death from consumption in 1890 and her second son’s near fatal illness in 1894 effected her deeply.

Frances Hodgson Burnett divorced her husband in 1898. Then she first lived with, then married a much younger man in 1900. She was criticized heavily for being a “New Woman” and having “advanced ideas” about the roles and rights of wives and women. The second marriage only lasted two years. Frances died 22 years later, in 1924, at the age of 74.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel A Little Princess, published 1905, is actually a re-write of an earlier story. In 1888, Frances serialized in a magazine the story Sara Crewe or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s Boarding School. A few years later, in  1902, Frances wrote a 3-act play based on Sara Crewe and added some new characters. The play was a success and her publisher asked Frances to re-write Sara Crewe, add her changes from the play, and expand it all into a new full length novel. And so a new book with the complete title of A Little Princess: Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Told for the First Time was born.

Sara Crewe in A Little Princess is a much more complex character than the movie Sara Crewe. In the novel, Sara, despite her grief at her separation from her father and her eventual drastically reduced circumstances, is a strong and even noble person. She adopts and cares for everyone around her even while no one is really caring for her. Sara befriends a little maid, patiently befriends and teaches a student with learning difficulties, and becomes the “mother” to a much younger child. All while enduring taunts and insults from mean spirited people as well as suffering hunger, cold, and overwork.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the novel:

  • In Chapter 6, Sara is interrupted by little Lottie: “Never did she find anything so difficult  as to keep herself from losing her temper when she was suddenly disturbed while absorbed in a book. People who are fond of books know the feeling of irritation which sweeps over them at such a moment. The temptation to be unreasonable and snappish is one not easy to manage.”
  • Also in Chapter 6, Sara confronts Lavinia: “Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend I am a princess so that I can try and behave like one.”
  • Sara feels lonely in the attic: “It’s a lonely place,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the loneliest place in the world.”
  • In Chapter 10, Sara thinks about how best to answer insults: “When you will not fly into a passion people know you are stronger than they are, because you are strong enough to hold in your rage, and they are not, and they say stupid thing they wish they hadn’t said afterward. There’s nothing so strong as rage, except what makes you hold it in – that’s stronger.” 
  • In Chapter 11, Sara ponders her future: “Whatever comes,” she said. “Cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”

    So, overall, both the movie, The Little Princess, and the novel, A Little Princess, are timeless classics. The movie showcases the immortal charm of a young acting princess in a story about determination and love. And the novel describes a young girl’s efforts to “be a princess” and care for herself and the people around her and to show her friends how to use the power of imagination to make their lives better.

    And, of course, the best thing is that both the movie, The Little Princess, and the novel, A Little Princess, are FREE in the Public Domain. In future months, I will take a look at other short films and feature films starring Shirley Temple. But until then, please click on the following links to watch and read about enduring princesses.

    Please click on this link to go to The Internet Archive
    and watch the Shirley Temple movie The Little Princess.

    There are many, many audio, ebook, and digitalized book versions of A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Here are a few:

    At LibriVox, please click these links to listen to the audio book version of A Little Princess:
    Click this link to listen to Kara Shallenberg read the book.
    Click this link to listen to Karen Savage read.
    Click this link to listen to a collaborative reading.

    At Feedbooks, please click this link to download the book.

    At The Internet Archive,
    Click this link to read an illustrated version of the book.
    Click this link to read a plain text version from Project Gutenberg.

    The Internet Archive also has the Librivox audio book versions:
    Click this link to listen to Kara Shallenberg.
    Click this link for the Karen Savage version.
    And this link to listen to the collaborative volunteers.

    At Project Gutenberg,
    Please click this link to listen to an audio book.

    Project Gutenberg also has 3 versions of A Little Princess you can read,
    Please click this link.
    Or this link.
    Or this link.

    2 thoughts on “Why Shirley Temple was America’s Little Princess.

    1. Far too often, the job of being a child star means that things like schooling and socialization fall by the wayside. I've always been most impressed by her career in politics after the Hollywood career. International politics is often an unglamorous undertaking and she excelled at it.

    2. Shirley and my Mom were pretty much the same age. Mom grew up with Shirley Temple dolls & clothes and Mom always followed Shirley's career in Hollywood and politics. So, Shirley was always in my life. I find it mindboggling that there are people who have never even heard of Shirley Temple. I thought Shirley always seemed very pragmatic about her various careers. She enjoyed whatever career she had while it lasted but never seemed to have any problem reinventing herself and going on. And, yes, she always seemed to excel at whatever she chose to undertake.

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


    Connecting to %s