Lindsay is a working actress and honors graduate of Texas Christian University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theatre: Film/TV.
Who Was Shirley Temple?
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 George 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over the years and although many of the sample clips you’ll see here are in color, the only film in my top ten originally made in color is The Little Princess (as well as a short scene in The Little Colonel).
A Note on This List's Order
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 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.
Top 10 Shirley Temple Films
- The Little Colonel (1935)
- Heidi (1937)
- The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)
- The Little Princess (1939)
- Bright Eyes (1934)
- The Littlest Rebel (1935)
- Captain January (1936)
- Little Miss Marker (1934)
- Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938)
- Wee Willie Winkie (1937)
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 eventually appeared in four films together, but The Little Colonel marks their first pairing.
Set in the 1870s, the film tells the story of Lloyd Sherman (Shirley), the young daughter of a Southern mother and 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. 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 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 taken to the Swiss Alps by her indifferent Aunt Dete, and 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 advertisement 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. 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 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 20s. Shirley plays Susan, an 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 recently heard the famous playboy’s antics recounted in her courtroom and she’s not very keen on Susan getting involved with him.
When Susan’s overzealousness results in Richard being (undeservedly) arrested, Margaret offers 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 heard it used very memorably by David Bowie in the 1986 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 (1899–1902), 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 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 to hold on to.
The Little Princess reunited Shirley with a couple of her Heidi co-stars (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 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. 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.
When Mary is killed in an accident on Shirley’s fifth birthday, nobody can agree on custody. Loop hopes to adopt Shirley, but the wheelchair-bound patriarch of the Smythe family, Uncle Ned, has also grown 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 quickly became 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 to capitalize on the massive success of The Little Colonel. It was also a perfect 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.
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 when the family is reunited, the danger increases. A Union regiment is nearby, so it's inevitable that Virgie’s father will not be able to avoid capture for long.
Despite the movie’s dramatic elements, this film 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 really a simple examination of the absurdity of war as seen through the eyes of a child. And that viewpoint 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 being raised in a lighthouse by her adoptive father, Captain January. When a 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 third 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 Ebsen (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 inappropriate comments and happily won. Naturally, if you watch the film, you’ll see his comments have very little basis in reality. In truth, Shirley gives 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 as collateral with his bookie, Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou).
Unfortunately, Marthy’s father loses the bet and he takes his own life in despair, leaving Sorrowful unexpectedly stuck with Marthy—whom the gamblers have dubbed "Marky", short for Marker. When Sorrowful learns of the gambler's death, he insists on leaving Marky at the police station, but gangster’s moll Bangles (Dorothy Dell) talks him into letting Marky stay. However, as Marky spends more time in this gangster’s world, Bangles wonders about their influence on this sweet little girl.
Though not technically a musical, Little Miss Marker includes 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, making it unfortunate that her career was tragically cut short by a fatal car accident shortly after production ended—news which 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 innocence and the responsibility we have 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 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 groomed by her stepfather, “Uncle Harry”, to become a radio star. 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 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 of her other movies.
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 1890s, 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 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”.
Despite her new training, Winkie still can’t 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 supported by a great cast, with Cesar Romero giving a particularly 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? Since the choices were just too numerous with no obvious favorite, I opted instead for a film that Shirley fans might not be 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 becomes a big problem for American consul, David Flanner (Franchot Tone). He finds himself stuck in the middle of the lovers’ plight, possibly ruining his chances with his own fiancée.
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's 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 (2015) by John F. Kasson and Child Star: An Autobiography (1988), written by Shirley, herself.
Questions & Answers
Question: What's the name of the movie where Shirley was kidnapped and her grandfather had her rescued?
Answer: I think you're most likely thinking of the movie "Heidi" (#2 on this list). Although Heidi is not "kidnapped" in the traditional sense, her aunt does steal her away from her grandfather without discussing it with him first. In the film's finale, Heidi's grandfather arrives to bring her back home against a great deal of resistance.
Question: Why isn't "The Champ" with Temple and Bandix not part of your Temple movie list?
Answer: Shirley Temple, actually, did not appear in the movie, "The Champ". You are most likely thinking of Jackie Cooper, another major child star from the '30s (and the first child star to receive an Oscar nomination). He starred in "The Champ" opposite Wallace Beery when he was 9 years old. It is a fantastic movie and, definitely, one of the highlights of Cooper's career.
(Unlike Shirley, Jackie Cooper, actually, continued acting well into his adult years. He is fondly remembered, in particular, for his role as Perry White in the original "Superman" films).
© 2011 Lindsay Blenkarn
Lindsay Blenkarn (author) from Nashville, TN on July 06, 2019:
@Maggie: I assume you're thinking of the movie "The Blue Bird". In one sequence, Shirley travels to the spirit realm and meets the souls of children waiting to be born, including her future sister. But, Shirley's character (Mytyl) is merely visiting this heavenly realm, she has already been born and is not a spirit herself.
Maggie on July 06, 2019:
Which movie was the one that she was a soul waiting for her turn to be born?
Rondamansa on February 14, 2019:
HellyNellie on March 27, 2018:
I remember her very well since we were the same age, I watched every movie of hers that I could afford. I even had a baby doll like her in her red dotted dress, have no idea what happened to it I wish I had it now.
SAnyam ghale on November 21, 2017:
I Never knew she exited until I watch her movie after her death at age 85 then I could not stop watching her movies even I bougt her books she is the sweetest child actress ever been born like mj we won’t have like her god is happy to revive her in heaven now miss her a lot
Ray George on August 20, 2017:
What DO YOU MEAN POSSIBLY THE GREATEST CHILD STAR ?...............No One Even Comes Close To Shirley !!!!!!!!!!!!!!
G Rawlings on July 14, 2015:
An interesting and well done overview of Shirley Temples movies.
TL Stahling from US on November 29, 2014:
I had a Shirley Temple doll and my mother used to put my hair in ringlets. It's my understanding that her movies actually saved the studio. She was certainly one of a kind.
Lynn S. Murphy on November 19, 2011:
I so enjoyed Shirley's movies as a kidlet. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Well done hub! UP!