Shirley Temple may have quit acting too soon. The mos arresting moments of "Shirley Temple: America's Little Darling," a pledge-period special airing on Maryland Public Television tonight, arrive near the end in too-short snippets of her performances as a near-adult.
Surprise! In her final films she could actually act.
Indeed, viewers may find themselves wondering what movie gems might have followed had she chosen not to leave films in 1949 at the age of but 20. (The PBS show airs at 8 p.m. on MPT on Washington's WETA-Channel 26, with two built-in pledge breaks introduced by host Tommy Tune.)
Of course, one could hardly denigrate the former box-office princess' remarkable second life (as Shirley Temple Black), when she became a political figure in California and a United Nations ambassador. Next year, she is scheduled to receive the D. W. Griffith Award for Career Achievement from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Inc.
Still, brief clips from her final few films show a capable and intriguing actress, well past the years of fabulous stardom as the moppet the whole world wanted to adopt.
A number of other former child stars, including Jane Withers, Darryl Hickman, Alice Faye and Dick Moore, praise Shirley as a perfectly nice little girl, as unaffected by her fame as possible.
She also apparently loved the work that made her a film star at the age of 4, under the driving tutelage of her mother, Gertrude, and she had some obvious natural gifts for dance and song.
But it seems hard, at least from this distant time, to imagine movie-goers of the 1930s really found her performances believable.
Clips from some of her most beloved films -- including the "Good Ship Lollipop" number from "Bright Eyes" (1934) and her tap dance up the stairs with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in "The Little Colonel" (1935) -- show not an actress so much as an almost freakish impersonation of the most adorable girl ever.
And every camera shot and every plot line emphasized that image, in the same way a Madonna video consciously projects today's most famous female as an imitation sex object.
Rival child star Withers tellingly recalls her first glimpse of Shirley in an audition room.
"In walked the most adorable, the most beautiful, the most precious little girl I ever saw in my life," she says, and it was instantly clear who would get the part up for casting.
To borrow a sports metaphor, the show also makes clear Shirley provided "the franchise" for the 20th Century Fox studio, as the No. 1 box-office attraction for four straight years, 1935-'38.
"Number one, she made a lot of money for that studio," observes actor Cesar Romero, her co-star in "Wee Willie Winkie" (1937) and "The Little Princess" (1939). To protect their investment, studio officials ordered 24-hour security guards to accompany her wherever she went.
Shirley also provided an early model for the kind of merchandising seen with the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and any number of other entertainment fads. Fans could buy Shirley Temple dolls, books, dresses and coloring books.
The child star is even credited in tonight's show, perhaps too fawningly, with lifting people's depression about the nation's economic Depression.
"She could make people believe, if only for 90 minutes, there were no problems in the world," says former child-star colleague Moore, for example.
You cannot argue her unprecedented level of fame, as a story from the wife of a studio executive proves.
On a visit to Rome, the exec and spouse were granted an audience with the pope, she recalls. And what did he say?
"Do you know Shirley Temple? . . . And is she a midget?"
WANTED: YOUR MONEY -- Maryland Public Television's winter pledge drive began Wednesday and continues through Dec. 13.
MPT officials have set a goal of $500,000. The PBS outlet also plans, as has become customary, to end the drive on its final night with a "Viewers' Choice" lineup of favorite shows, as voted by pledge-makers.
And in a children-oriented package, MPT today is also airing "A Barney Bonanza," featuring a marathon, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. run of the popular program about a lovable dinosaur, "Barney & Friends."