The golden child is gone, and I sincerely wasn’t expecting to feel so unsettled by it.
Shirley Temple’s smile illuminated the gloom of the 1930s. But once released, that light was refracted into the future in a million little memories and stories, forming a kind of gloaming that extended across my childhood. Which is to say that when I was a little girl I looked like Shirley Temple, and I was informed of the resemblance constantly.
I was born with wild curly hair that was bright blonde until it darkened in adolescence. It grew, and grows, in a haphazard tangle all over my head. Just about every time I encountered somebody over 60 when I was little, there would be a trilling of “Well, if it isn’t Shirley Temple," and I'd shoot them a weary glare. My paternal grandmother was often with me on these occasions. When I was with her she made sure that I was wearing my most adorable dress and exactly the right bow to subdue my ringlets. I was her first grandchild, and I had the curly hair she had always coveted. The Shirley Temple comparisons pleased my grandmother to no end, because if my grandmother had ever wanted anything, she’d wanted to be Shirley Temple.
My grandmother, born in 1925, or 1924, or maybe 1926—she was notoriously vague about such things—was at just the right age to be caught up in the Shirley Temple mania that swept the world in the 1930s. Even as an elderly woman she had a box filled with yellowing, brittle magazine clippings of Shirley’s face, stories about her exploits, which she had carried with her since childhood. She used to show me the pictures and point out our likeness, and she made sure to buy me every Shirley Temple film she could find on VHS: Bright Eyes, Heidi, A Little Princess, Curly Top, Captain January and Baby Take A Bow.
Shirley Temple’s relentlessly cheerful presence in the films of the 1930s was a form of public relief throughout the Great Depression. She wasn’t just a child star, she was a folk heroine. Her sunny smile was felt as far away as the dusty Australian town my grandmother grew up in. Between 1935 and 1938, she surpassed all other movie actors as most popular at the box office. By the time she was 10 years old, she earned one of the highest salaries in Hollywood, surpassing the likes of Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Fred Astaire.
Shirley Temple had a perpetually sunny disposition. She might have played different characters, but those little girls were almost indistinguishable, all built from a blueprint of the Shirley Temple Dream. She was often cast as an orphan, or half an orphan, but with constant high spirits that got her into scrapes that always managed to resolve themselves by the end of the film. She never asked for help, she could melt every heart, she had spunk and moxie in spades. She saved the day.
Her smile outshone everything in its orbit. She could do tears, but it never seemed natural or right. She sang songs like “You Gotta S-M-I-L-E to be H-A-P-P-Y” and “Come And Get Your Happiness” and “Be Optimistic!,” and if that didn’t convince you she’d puff out her chest and dance, to boot. That smile was a tonic in a decade of misery.
A Shirley Temple movie was an invitation to believe in a world of innocence. In such a world, you could dream of a reality where nurture and protection came easily to those who were most in need of it. A Shirley Temple movie is a little like a cocoon, and that was a powerful feeling to give an audience in a time when people felt that innocence was threatened, that they were cast adrift. The fantasy wasn’t about having a little girl just like her; the fantasy was to be her—to be taken care of, fussed over, listened to and treasured.
For that reason, millions of people went to see a Shirley Temple picture every week. “When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1935, “it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” And so it was for my grandmother.
My grandmother grew up poor, in a coal-mining town four hours west of Sydney. Her mother was miserable and sometimes violent; she often told my grandmother, the third child, that she had only ever wanted two children and used to beat her kids with a wooden spoon. One sister died in infancy, another was cruel, and when my grandmother was seven her brother threw her one doll into a tangle of thorns at the back of the yard. Her father was adoring, but distant, troubled, and eventually suicidal.
The cinema was an escape from home. It was a place where my grandmother could dream, and Shirley Temple's story was always especially seductive for her. Even in old age, when she paid for monthly perms, she never stopped curling her hair in homage to the young actress’s 56 perfect pin curls.
The period of my childhood between 1994 to 1997, when I was watching Shirley Temple films, was the same time that my parents’ marriage fell apart and my father moved to another city. Her movies made you believe that if you were good enough, cheerful enough, with enough moxie and self-sufficiency, you too would melt the hearts of the adults around you, and everything would turn out just fine. But I figured out early on that Shirley Temple’s great big smile contradicted reality, that dancing makes you exhausted, that her hair didn’t even curl on its own.
My grandmother married a man—”stole” or “seduced away” are other words to describe the situation—who was already married with children. She loved him fiercely until my father was born, who then became the house she sheltered all her hopes in. Her husband died of lung cancer when my father was twelve. She never remarried, but remained an impenitent flirt. She spent her life wanting to be brilliant, adored, fussed over by the whole world. As an old lady she grew increasingly frustrated that the cards hadn’t quite fallen into place. She lived alone in a ramshackle house on one of the busiest streets in the city, in a desolate beachside suburb where the soil was all sand and nothing grew. But she regularly told strangers that she lived in Vaucluse, which was for many years the most affluent suburb in Sydney.
Her favorite question to ask me as a small child was whether I loved her or my maternal grandmother best. There was only one correct answer, I’d learn. She’d tell me appalling fictions about members of my immediate family, stories full of people appearing out of the blue like a long-lost father home from war, men who wanted to take her away and buy her expensive jewelry, women who were envious of her beauty—”as well they should be.” When I grew older, and less susceptible to her lies, she told me stories of fabulously pretty children who had patted her arm on street corners or bus stops, imploring her to be their grandmother.
I loved my grandmother, but she had the poorest moral compass of anybody I have ever known. She said hateful things, spread gossip and told lies, and she believed that wealth and power were the most important things anybody could have. She spent her life searching, in curly hair and insincere smiles. She poured all her dreams and expectations into men, who she believed were duty-bound to worship her, then her child, then her grandchild. We all failed her.
My grandmother died seven years ago. But she did so without ever losing faith in that inner dream landscape built into the blueprint of Shirley Temple’s smile. Our desires follow paths that we can never fully know or anticipate. That’s why those tracks created across empty landscape by the regular traffic of human feet are called “desire lines”—they are a product of human longing. Those figures that become part of the cultural imaginary, as Shirley Temple did, serve as both a source and a safe haven for similarly undefined longing. In them is both the beginning of dreams, and their shelter.
Madeleine Watts is an Australian writer currently based in New York. She has contributed to The Lifted Brow, Junkee, and Griffith REVIEW.