In the 1930s, American child actress Shirley Temple (1928-2014) was a megastar. Everything she did became big news. In October 1936
“the world gasped as a bulletin flashed over the Reuters wire: ‘Shirley Temple has been sent to bed with a slight fever resulting from a cold.'” (1)
It should come as no surprise that her mother, Gertrude Temple, was the architect of Shirley’s phenomenal success. From birth, Shirley was a treasured child. Her mother had longed for a daughter but had, by 1927, produced only sons. Her husband, on the advice of his doctor, submitted to having his tonsils removed, heeding the old wives’ tale that it would increase his chances of fathering a girl. It did; Shirley was born ten months later, on April 23, 1928.
When Shirley was three, Gertrude enrolled her in dancing, acting, and singing lessons at Ethel Meglin’s Dance Studio in Los Angeles. Her big break into movies came in November 1931 when casting director Charles Lamont paid a visit to the studio and spotted adorable Shirley with her Mary Pickford-like curls. Lamont cast her in a series of one-reel short films called “Baby Burlesks” to be produced by the Educational Films Corporation. The films featured toddlers spouting mature adult lines while dressed in diapers from the waist down and adult clothes from the waist up.
Shirley was to be paid $10 a day – on shooting days, that is. Weeks of rehearsals were unpaid. Gertrude was paid $5 on shooting days to act as Shirley’s manager (and hairdresser).
When it was Shirley’s cue to perform, Gertrude whispered in her ear, “Sparkle, Shirley, Sparkle!” and she did. Gertrude taught her to round her little mouth in surprise, to cock her head sideways, knowingly, and to arch her tiny eyebrows – signature Shirley Temple moves.
Gertrude let nothing stand in the way of Shirley’s future. In January 1931, filming had begun on the very first of the “Baby Burlesks” films called “Runt Page” when Shirley fell ill with a cold (no doubt from overwork in rehearsals at age 3) that developed into a severe ear infection. Gertrude took her to the hospital to have Shirley’s eardrum lanced and stayed up with her all night. Gertrude asked the producer for a rest for Shirley but he said they were to be at the studio the next morning or Shirley would be replaced. To coax Gertrude further, he promised her that if Shirley did well in “Runt Page,” he would cast her as the star in the series. That next day, Shirley spent twelve hours in the studio. (2)
Even if the actors were running around in diapers, the set of “Baby Burlesks” hardly resembled a nursery. If the children didn’t behave according to Charles Lamont’s wishes, he
kept a soundproof black box, six feet on each side, containing a block of ice. An offending child was locked within this dark, cramped interior and either stood uncomfortably in the cold, humid air, or had to sit on the ice. Those who told their parents about this torture were threatened with further punishment. (2)”
When Shirley told her mother about the black box, her mother dismissed the story as a “fanciful tale.” (2)
Here is Shirley Temple starring in “War Babies,” one of the Baby Burlesks film shorts.
(1) The Telegraph obituary of Shirley Temple Black
(2) Kasson, John F. The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s …New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2014.