Top Ten Shirley Temple Films
Shirley Temple is, possibly, the greatest child star that ever was or ever will be. At the very least, she will certainly go down in history as the most universally popular. Between the ages of 7 and 10, she was the top box-office draw for 4 years in a row, beating out other popular actors like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. Appearing in her breakout role in the film Stand Up and Cheer at the age of 5, she was a little girl with a near-prodigy level talent for dance, singing, and acting (she even has a tap combination named after her). But Shirley is best remembered as the little girl that made the country smile at a time when we really needed it, and she somehow managed to do it without a single complaint. Even after retiring from acting at the age of 22, Shirley Temple went on to do even more miraculous things in her adult years. She went into public service and held positions under multiple administrations. During the Nixon presidency, she was a member of the United Nations; under Gerald Ford, she was the U.S. ambassador to Ghana and the very first female White House Chief of Protocol; during Ronald Reagan’s administration, she served as a foreign affairs officer and under President Bush (Sr.), she served as the U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia.
But Shirley will always be remembered as the little girl with the bouncing curls. And that alone is nothing to sneer at. I think Richard Dreyfuss described little Shirley best when he was interviewed for the American Film Institute’s 100 Years, 100 Stars TV special: “She was a singer, dancer, actress, and she did it well, she did it professionally . . . She never screwed around, she wasn’t neurotic, she never caused problems, and she was under 8 years old.” And over 60 years later, I still can’t name another child actor who can hold a candle to that description. So, whether you've always known and loved Shirley or are just now getting to know her, I hope you enjoy looking through this short list of some of her best movies. Take note that most of Shirley’s films have been colorized over the years and although many of the sample clips you’ll see here are in color, the only film in my top ten originally made in color is The Little Princess (as well as a short scene in The Little Colonel).
FYI: I chose the order of my Shirley Temple top ten by considering each film's importance in Shirley’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like, IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Shirley Temple film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
Top 10 Shirley Temple Films
- The Little Colonel
- The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer
- The Little Princess
- Bright Eyes
- The Littlest Rebel
- Captain January
- Little Miss Marker
- Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
- Wee Willie Winkie
1. “The Little Colonel” (1935)
Based on the novel by Annie Fellows Johnston, The Little Colonel contains, possibly, the most iconic scene of Shirley Temple’s career. Legendary tapper, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, was famous for his signature staircase number in vaudeville and when he adapted the number for The Little Colonel to include both him and Shirley, cinema magic was born. The famous dance number is, especially, notable for being the first interracial dance sequence in film history. Shirley and Robinson would eventually appear in 4 films together but, The Little Colonel marks their first pairing. Set in the 1870’s, the film tells the story of Lloyd Sherman (Shirley), the young daughter of a Southern mother and a Yankee father. When Lloyd’s father leaves for California to seek his fortune, Lloyd’s mother, Elizabeth, returns to her Southern home with her daughter in tow. But, they’re met with a cold greeting from Lloyd’s grandfather, Colonel Lloyd (Lionel Barrymore), who disowned his daughter for marrying a Yankee many years earlier. But, if little Lloyd can find a way to win over her grandfather, she might just manage to reunite her broken family. The Little Colonel features, probably, one of the most talented supporting casts Shirley ever worked with, including, future Oscar-winner, Hattie McDaniel, as well as, Barrymore and Robinson. This is a sweet and heartfelt film that showcases Shirley’s talents in the best possible way. Particular attention should be given to both Barrymore and Robinson who (with Shirley) help elevate this light drama into a true classic.
2. "Heidi” (1937)
Based on the classic novel by Johanna Spyri, this film stars Shirley as the titular Heidi, a young orphan who is taken high up into the Swiss Alps by her indifferent Aunt Dete to be left in the care of her gruff grandfather, Adolph Kramer (Jean Hersholt). At first, Adolph bristles at the little girl’s presence but, eventually, a deep bond grows between the old man and the good-natured Heidi. So when Dete returns to take Heidi away, Adolph is heartbroken to find his granddaughter gone. Dete brings Heidi to the mansion home of Herr Sesemann in response to an advertisment for a young girl to act as a companion to Sesemann's invalid daughter, Klara. Klara delights in Heidi's company, but Heidi can't help but miss her beloved alpine home. At first Heidi believes that she will be allowed to return to her grandfather soon, but it soon becomes apparent that Klara may never be willing to let her new friend go. A truly touching family drama, Heidi is a wonderful film to watch with your children over the holiday season. But, even though most of the film takes place in the winter, Heidi was, actually, filmed in the middle of summer in Lake Arrowhead, California. At one point the heat became so, unbearable that Hersholt collapsed from heat exhaustion. Shirley, also, suffered health problems during the shoot when she, accidentally, swallowed fake snow. This resulted in throat problems that forced the production to shoot around her for two days. Despite the mishaps, Shirley still enjoyed making this film, even suggesting the fanciful “In Our Little Wooden Shoes” number herself and during production “helped” direct her fellow child actors through the dance steps.
3. "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” (1947)
The last major success of Shirley’s career, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is, also, one of a handful of films she made in her teens and 20’s. Shirley plays the part of Susan, a somewhat overly dramatic teenager who becomes infatuated with artist Richard Nugent (Cary Grant) after he gives a lecture at her school. Susan’s sister and guardian, Judge Margaret Turner (Myrna Loy), is horrified when she discovers her little sister’s new crush. Margaret has just recently heard the famous playboy’s antics recounted in her courtroom and she’s not very keen on Susan getting too involved with him. So, when Susan’s overzealousness results in Richard being (undeservedly) arrested, Margaret takes the opportunity to offer the artist a deal that will, hopefully, disillusion Susan. The deal is that all charges against him will be dropped if he simply takes Susan out on a couple of harmless dates. Everyone expects that Susan will quickly grow bored of the older man and her schoolgirl crush will run its course. However, after the deal is made, it soon becomes clear that Susan is a lot more persistent than anyone expected. With an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Sidney Sheldon, this screwball comedy pairs extreme teenage slang with intense intellectual jargon (most of it said by Susan). And if the film’s famous patter (“You remind me of a man”. . . “The man with the power”) sounds familiar, you might have, also, heard it used very memorably by David Bowie in the cult film, Labyrinth. Bound to make you smile, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer contains one of Shirley’s best comedic performances and when paired with the charm of Cary Grant, there’s nothing better.
4. “The Little Princess” (1939)
Based on the classic Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, The Little Princess is notable for being Shirley’s first film made entirely in technicolor. Set during the Second Boer War, it tells the story of Sara Crewe, a young girl whose soldier father enlists her in an all-girls boarding school in London right before he leaves for combat. Sara’s father is a wealthy man, so the school’s headmistress, Miss Minchin (Mary Nash), willingly spoils her new pupil, fully expecting a fat check at the end of the term. But when news arrives that Sara’s father has been killed in battle, the bitter Miss Minchin quickly turns her favorite student into a servant. Locked away in the school's freezing attic with fellow servant girl Becky, Sara tries to retain hope that her father is still alive. But, every day that optimism becomes harder and harder for her to hold on to. The Little Princess served to reunite Shirley with a couple of her Heidi co-stars (both Mary Nash and Marcia Mae Jones as the bratty Lavinia). The film, also, marked Shirley’s last major success as a child star. At the age of eleven, she was just beginning to outgrow the roles that made her famous. Despite the liberties this film takes with the original work, The Little Princess has become a beloved classic over the years. It's a heartfelt film that might make you cry but, will, definitely, make you smile.
5. “Bright Eyes” (1934)
The first film made especially for Shirley, this sweet comedy/drama tells the story of Shirley Blake (Shirley), who lives with her widowed mother, Mary, in the home of the rich and mean-spirited Smythe family. Mary works for the family as a maid, while Shirley spends most of her days at the airfield visiting her godfather, ‘Loop’ Merritt, an aviator and friend of her late father. But, when Mary is killed in an accident on Shirley’s 5th birthday, nobody can agree on who gets custody of the little orphan. Loop hopes to adopt Shirley, but the wheelchair-bound patriarch of the Smythe family, Uncle Ned, has, also, grown very fond of the little girl. Despite the reluctance of the rest of the Smythe family, Uncle Ned is willing to fight tooth and nail to keep little Shirley in his life (no matter who gets in his way). Bright Eyes memorably pairs Shirley with the child star most famous for playing brats, Jane Withers (who plays the Smythe’s spoiled daughter, Joy). The juxtaposition between the two girls manages to make little Shirley seem even sweeter and Joy seem even more horrible. But, what makes Bright Eyes truly memorable is the film’s lone musical number, “On The Good Ship Lollipop”. The song would quickly become Shirley’s trademark number and when you see her performance, it’s easy to understand why.
6. “The Littlest Rebel” (1935)
Based on the play by Edward Peple, The Littlest Rebel was made, primarily, to capitalize on the massive success of The Little Colonel. It, also, provided a great excuse to reteam the golden duo of Shirley and her Little Colonel co-star, Bill Robinson. This time, Shirley plays Virgie Cary, a young Southern girl whose little world is torn apart by the declaration of the Civil War. The film follows Virgie as her family struggles to survive the conflict. Virgie’s father enlists in the Confederate army as a scout and attempts to visit his family regularly, even though they are now living behind enemy lines. But when their plantation home is burned to the ground and the family moves to the slave quarters, Virgie’s mother becomes very ill, forcing her father to risk certain capture to be by his wife’s bedside. Even once the family is reunited, the danger increases. With a Union regiment nearby, it soon seems inevitable that Virgie’s father will not be able to avoid capture for long. Despite the movie’s dramatic elements, this film still has its lighter moments and the dance routines between Shirley and Robinson are flawless. Although The Littlest Rebel follows a Confederate family through the Civil War, at its core, this sentimental film is a simple examination of the absurdity of war as seen through the eyes of a child. And that is a viewpoint that will never lose its resonance.
7. “Captain January” (1936)
Based on the novel by Laura E. Richards, this sweet little musical stars Shirley as Star, an orphan who is being raised in a lighthouse by her adoptive father, Captain January. But, when the new truant officer discovers that Star doesn't have any formal education, it becomes her mission to name Captain January as an unfit guardian. Star's only chance to prove that Captain January is a good father is by passing the official 3rd grade examination. If she fails, she might be removed from her beloved “Cap” forever. A major highlight of Captain January is the dance sequence, “At The Codfish Ball”, which pairs Shirley with the talented Buddy Epsen (best known as the man who almost played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz and who, actually, did play Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies). The film, also, includes the adorable song “Early Bird” which some American TV viewers may recognize from its use in a long-running Target ad. Bizarrely, there was a bit of a scandal related to Captain January during its initial release. British film critic and novelist Graham Greene indicated that Shirley looked too much like a “coquette” in this movie. The studio sued Greene for his (very inappropriate) comments and happily won. Naturally, if you watch the film yourself, you’ll see his comments have very little basis in reality (other than within his own mind). In truth, Shirley gives, possibly, one of the strongest performances of her career as the exuberant tomboy, Star.
8. “Little Miss Marker” (1934)
Made shortly before Bright Eyes, Little Miss Marker is the earliest film to make this list. It features a 6-year-old Shirley as Marthy Jane, a little girl whose father finds himself deep in debt due to gambling problems. When her father attempts to win his money back by betting on one last horse race, he leaves Marthy with his bookie, Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou), as collateral. But when Marthy’s father loses the bet, he takes his own life in despair, leaving Sorrowful, unexpectedly, stuck with Marthy (whom the gamblers have dubbed "Marky", short for Marker). As soon as Sorrowful learns of the gambler's death, he insists on leaving Marky at the police station, but gangster’s moll Bangles (Dorothy Dell) soon talks him into letting Marky stay. But, once Marky starts spending more time in a gangster’s world, Bangles begins to wonder about the influence these gangsters are having on this sweet little girl. Though not, technically, a musical, Little Miss Marker does include a couple of very charming songs, one sung by Shirley and the other by co-star, Dorothy Dell. Dell gives a memorably charming performance as Bangles in the film, making it unfortunate that the actress' career was, tragically, cut short by a fatal car accident shortly after production ended (an event that was kept from Shirley as long as possible). Probably the most mature out of all of Shirley’s films, Little Miss Marker is a celebration of the value of innocence and the responsibility one has to keep children’s dreams alive.
9. “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” (1938)
Reuniting Shirley with frequent co-star, Bojangles Robinson (albeit in a much smaller role this time around), this adorable musical comedy is loosely inspired by the classic novel of the same name by Kate Douglas Wiggins. Shirley plays the titular Rebecca, a little girl who has been groomed by her stepfather, “Uncle Harry”, to become a radio star. But, when success doesn’t come quickly enough, “Uncle Harry” gives up and leaves Rebecca in the country with her Aunt Miranda. While in her aunt’s care, Rebecca manages to put her talents to good use and becomes the new star of a popular radio program. When greedy “Uncle Harry” hears of Rebecca’s big break, he quickly rushes back to claim her. But, Aunt Miranda isn’t about to give Rebecca back to her deadbeat stepfather without a fight. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is probably best described as a mini tribute to Shirley’s career. One of the best scenes in the film is a reality-bending medley of Shirley’s real-life hit songs (including “Animal Crackers in My Soup” and “On The Good Ship Lollipop”). Her performance in this number really showcases the maturity and professionalism of Hollywood's littlest star and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is possibly the most complete showcase of Shirley’s talents than any other movie she appeared in.
10. “Wee Willie Winkie” (1937)
Adapted from the Rudyard Kipling short story and directed by the great John Ford, Wee Willie Winkie retells the classic story on an epic scale. Set during the 1890’s, Shirley plays Priscilla Williams, a little girl traveling to India with her mother to stay with her paternal grandfather, a colonel in the British army. In an effort to win her stoic grandfather’s love, Priscilla decides she must become a soldier herself. With some help from the friendly Sergeant McDuff, she's trained in the ways of the British army and even given the “more soldier-sounding” nickname of “Wee Willie Winkie”. But, despite her new training, Winkie still can’t quite grasp the reasoning behind her grandfather’s hatred for the rebel chief, Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero). Seeing things through the little girl's eyes might change the course of the conflict, but the rebel forces may, also, take advantage of Winkie’s childish innocence. One major (and obvious) change made in this adaptation of Kipling’s short story is the interesting decision to rewrite the main character, Percival Williams, as a little girl. Yet, the change works very well in the film, making Priscilla’s decision to become a soldier a much grander ambition than in the original story. Shirley is well supported by a great cast in Wee Willie Winkie with Cesar Romero, in particular, giving a wonderful performance as the complex Khoda Khan. Combining adventure, comedy, and tragedy, Wee Willie Winkie is a wonderful film for the whole family.
Honorable Mention: “Honeymoon” (1947)
When deciding what Shirley Temple movie to add as honorable mention, I realized it was a difficult choice. Nearly all of Shirley’s childhood films have remained as popular (if not more so) with fans as they were when they first premiered. Should I choose Baby Take A Bow? Little Miss Broadway? Curly Top? Dimples? The choices were just too numerous with no obvious favorite so, I decided instead to recommend a film that many Shirley fans might not be as familiar with. Honeymoon is a charming screwball comedy that Shirley made in her teenage years (the same year as The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer). Structured as a showcase for the adult Shirley, the movie acts as an introduction to her new status as a viable (and attractive) romantic lead. Capitalizing on Shirley’s real-life marriage to John Agar, the film features Shirley as Barbara Olmstead, the young fiancée of a soldier stationed in Panama. Barbara has made plans with her intended to meet in Mexico City and elope, but the girl soon finds herself stuck in Mexico without her fiancé. She goes to the American Consulate for help but, Barbara’s simple request for assistance, eventually, becomes a big problem for American consul David Flanner (Franchot Tone), when he finds himself stuck in the middle of the lovers’ plight (possibly ruining his chances with his own fiancée in the process). Filmed on location in Mexico City, Honeymoon offers a fun glimpse of 1940s Mexico. It, also, features two short songs sung by Shirley (and, yes, it really is her singing) both of which are so catchy you may find yourself humming them months after you've watched the film. All in all, this adorable farce is a light and enjoyable ride. Although it can be quite difficult to find, it is a must-see for long-time Shirley fans.
If you would like to learn more about the amazing Shirley Temple, I recommend the books, The Little Girl Who Fought The Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America by John F. Kasson and Child Star: An Autobiography, written by Shirley, herself.
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