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Sail On Little Princess-Shirley Temple Black died at age 85.

When I was a little girl, her movies would play on Saturday afternoon television and it was great! Shirley Temple had long left Hollywood and was a U.S. Ambassador when I discovered her. Still her presence, personified by her signature curls and cute as hell face transcended race and ethnicity.  Who couldn't adore her?


The actress retired from show business at 22, but left a legacy as face (and hair) of an era with films like ‘The Little Princess,’ ‘Curly Top’ and ‘Dimples.’



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Shirley Temple, who died Monday at the age of 85, is pictured in a Christmas photo from 1935, in an era where she was considered an American institution.



A 9-year-old Temple waves to fans from the red carpet at the 1937 premiere of her movie, ‘Wee Willie Winkie.’

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A 9-year-old Temple waves to fans from the red carpet at the 1937 premiere of her movie, ‘Wee Willie Winkie.’

Shirley Temple proved that all child stars don't grow up to be Lindsay Lohan.
Before that, she proved that an irresistibly cute little curly haired white girl could dance with Bill Robinson, a charming, stylish black man, and the American social fabric would not crumble.

 Those two things alone would make for a life well-led, and in the case of Shirley Temple Black, they were a small part of the imprint she left before she died Monday at the age of 85.
 As a child star in the movies, Shirley Temple was one of those small sparkling lights that helped guide Americans through the Great Depression.
For a dime, you could walk into a darkened theater and for a couple of hours forget what you left outside.
Temple, who would retire from showbiz by the age of 22, embodied an era for many moviegoers.

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Temple, who would retire from showbiz by the age of 22, embodied an era for many moviegoers.

By some later standards, and probably even some standards of the time, Temple's bright, plucky, precocious and occasionally sassy character might have felt a little too cute.
But she was fun. It was hard to be in too cranky a mood not to like Shirley Temple. She became one of the first Hollywood stars to inspire a line of merchandise and, more telling than that, her name became a cultural reference.

Years after she had retired from the movies, "Shirley Temple" remained a generic reference, like "Babe Ruth" or "Marilyn Monroe."

Parents three generations removed from "Curly Top" and "The Little Princess" still order their teen and preteen daughters a "Shirley Temple" when the grown-ups are having a glass of wine.
Bill Robinson sings to Shirley Temple in a scene from the film 1935’s 'The Littlest Rebel.’

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Bill Robinson sings to Shirley Temple in a scene from the film 1935’s 'The Littlest Rebel.’

A "Shirley Temple," the drink, lets you look a little more grown up than you really are, and that probably describes some of Shirley Temple's own appeal.
Grown-ups looked at her on the screen and saw a spirited, loveable kid, the kind every parent would like to have.
Kids looked at her and saw a preteen holding her own with the grown-ups all around her — almost a peer to the grown-ups, because she was so smart and had a clever wit.
"I can do that," thought the kids in the audience.
In many ways, though, the equally important part of Shirley Temple's legacy was not the smile and the curls.
It's the image of her small hand in the big hand of Bill Robinson, who was gently teaching her how to tap dance up and down a flight of stairs.
Robinson's first role alongside Shirley Temple, in the 1935 film "The Little Colonel," was not conceived as any sort of bold social experiment or statement.
Robinson played a servant, a houseboy, a compliant black man who showed no resentment or anger when he was berated by his old-school Southern boss, played by Lionel Barrymore.
But like many of the black servant characters of the era, the ones generically represented by Stepin Fetchit, Robinson's Walker character knew what time it was.
Temple had trouble growing out of her child star image, though she did star with Cary Grant in 1947’s a ‘The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer' as a teen.

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Temple had trouble growing out of her child star image, though she did star with Cary Grant in 1947’s a ‘The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer' as a teen.

Like Shirley, he was smarter than any of the other characters realized, which made their alliance even more delightful to those who understood what Robinson was hiding behind that agreeable expression.
They had their first dance when Temple was 6 and Robinson 57, which rendered the moment distinctly unthreatening.
Still, there was an unmistakeable affection between them, and their tacit alliance — while not much different on the surface than that between young white children and black nannies — proved a prophetic image.
Shirley and Bojangles danced together through three more films, including "The Littlest Rebel," "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" and "Just Around the Corner." Robinson choreographed her 1936 "Dimples."
For all her success in the 1930s, though, Temple was pretty much finished as a movie star by the age of 11 — just after her boss Darryl Zanuck, convinced she could become a long-term star for him — refused to loan her to MGM so she could play Dorothy in "The Wizard Of Oz."
A teenaged Temple stars with John Agar in the 1949 movie 'Fort Apache.’

Mondadori via Getty Images

A teenaged Temple stars with John Agar in the 1949 movie 'Fort Apache.’

She played in a few films as a teenager, including "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" and "Fort Apache," but she saw she was now just another actress. After she failed to get the title role in the stage musical "Peter Pan" in 1950, she announced her retirement. She was 22.
  Templedid not, however, fall into the dissolution of Lohan or Britney Spears — or even the actress who did get the Dorothy role, Judy Garland.

She did some television work and eventually some corporate work. See, it wasn't an act. She really was smart. She raised a family and became active in politics.
She lost her only bid for elective office, when she ran for Congress in 1967 as a conservative who supported the Vietnam war.

But in 1969, President Richard Nixon named her ambassador to the United Nations. She would later serve as ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. She worked for several presidents, including Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.

In the early 1970s she also became one of the first well-known women to publicly discuss her diagnosis of breast cancer. She survived and was credited with helping to raise awareness of the disease.
Shirley Temple movies today in one sense look like what they are: quaint black-and-white period pieces, with predictable plotlines, stilted dialogue and often a huge overlay of melodrama.

But the sheer exuberance still shines through, and it's as clear now as it was in 1935 that Shirley Temple embodied something Americans like in themselves.
And that "Americans" included Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the genius with the wooden tap shoes who showed Shirley Temple how to work the stairs.

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