The Real Story Behind Shirley Temple's Dramatic Career Move Finally Comes Out

When curly-haired, dimpled 1930s star Shirley Temple tap-danced her way onto the world stage, she captured America’s heart with her optimism and sweetness. She was only seven years old in 1935, her first year as the number-one box office sales draw, and for the next several years, Shirleymania made an indelible impact on pop culture. Shirley’s global fame stayed frozen in her youth, though. By her early 20s, she had changed gears entirely, pivoting from Hollywood entertainment to an entirely different field of work. What brought on this change — and where did Shirley Temple go?

Shirley to the rescue

Back in the days of the Great Depression, American audiences wanted to watch something wholesome and sweet that’d take their minds off problems like economic collapse, inflation, and hunger. Shirley Temple's sunny disposition was just the solution. With her crown of cheerful curls and her infectious smile, Shirley was the antidote to the hopelessness of the '30s.

A star is born

And by that point, Shirley was an old pro in show business. She'd been taking dance lessons from the age of 3, and she was skilled in tap, rumba, and even tango. What really made Shirley a star, though, was her personality: she was a bright, personable child who could charm even the grumpiest of movie-goers. For directors, her best trait was how she could memorize lines easily. So when talent scouts came calling, she was ready.

A "good fairy"

20th Century Fox set up a brand for Shirley that emphasized her qualities as an "emotional healer" or "good fairy." In her movies, she played characters that brought others together despite their differences. She helped heal social divisions, emotional wounds, and broken hearts with a single smile. She couldn't have known it then, but she was laying the foundation for her later career as an adult.

Work and reward

Wherever she went, people would clamor over her. “They like the work you do,” her mother said, putting a practical lens on the fame and giving young Shirley an appreciation for the effects of her actions. All she knew was that she made people happy — that couldn't be a bad thing, right?