Shirley Temple, the undisputed greatest child star of all time, makes an indelible impression with her auburn curls and sweet cherub-like complexion in her first Technicolor picture, The Little Princess.
By the time The Little Princess came out in 1939, Temple was already the top grossing actress of the industry for many years and she was only nine years old. The ideal American little girl, she was cute, sweet, and full of irrepressible good cheer, capable of delivering cutesy, homespun lines with heartfelt sincerity, all while singing and dancing. Her natural charm and golly-gee optimism was exactly what depression-worn audiences wanted to see when escaping their everyday lives for the happy endings promised in the darkness of a movie theater. But, until 1939, Temple had always been in black and white, so when the world finally saw her for the first time in color it was quite an event.
Not that color film made much of a difference to Temple’s mass appeal. Adults liked her because she was wholesome and spirited, and children liked her because this was a kid who got to have all the adventures they would have liked to have had – the ones where a lot of almost really dangerous things happen but somehow everything always turns out all right in the end. And perhaps most distinguishing was the fact that Temple was nearly always the hero, just as in The Little Princess.
Really quite the feminine role model for her time, Temple’s characters were never content to sit by and let bad things happen to them, let alone wait for someone else to fix the situation. Instead, Temple’s little girls were blessed with the wherewithal to take matters into their own hands, to right wrongs and overcome injustices. Temple starts out as a well-to-do girl of privilege who stays at a posh boarding school while her beloved father goes off to fight in the Boer War. Soon after, her father is reported dead and Sara is forced to work as a servant where she was once treated as a Princess. She puts up with one indignity after another, bolstered by the deep belief that her father is still alive and will someday return; perhaps even to the hospital she visits day after day in hopes of reuniting with him. Of course, he does and they do, but not before Temple tells the snobs what’s what, charms a grumpy old neighbor, befriends a couple of star-crossed young lovers, dances a few numbers with song and dance man Arthur Treacher, and enjoys a fantasy sequence complete with Cesar Romero in a turban. And all in glorious Technicolor!
Although she never won a competitive Oscar, Temple is credited as being the youngest Academy Award recipient when, at age 6, she was presented with a pint sized statue for her exceptional work. Perhaps a mere publicity stunt at the time, the gesture turned out to be an act of omniscience, since Temple’s work not only continues to hold its own over the years, but has earned the respect and envy of actors young and old forevermore. But then, one would expect no less of a happy ending for a Shirley Temple story.