We join the outpouring of final farewells to a pair of show business phenomena — one the biggest child star in Hollywood history, the other the finest television comedian of the 20th century.
She died on Feb. 10 at age 85. He outlived her by six years, and died two days later.
Both held American audiences in thrawl, one single-handedly propping up at least one Hollywood studio, the other solidifying network television as the nation’s mid-century mass medium. In today’s chaotic entertainment media universe, it’s impossible to conceive of anyone even remotely like them. They are irreplaceable.
How big was Shirley Temple?
It is a sidelong proof of how far Depression had inroaded confidence in the 1930’s that it took Shirley Temple to reassure so many,” wrote British critic-author David Thomson. Born in 1928, working at age three, her Hollywood career was essentially over by the early 1940’s.
But what a ride.
When Darryl Zanuck, the most discerning of the big Hollywood moguls, took over 20th Century Fox in 1935, he had one true star at his disposal. I think Shirley Temple is endless, he said. There is no one in the world to compare with that child.
I’ve made eight pictures with her, and each time I am knocked dead. It’s just beyond the case of being a freak. This child has rhythm. I always thought when we dropped the curls — this is the end. This mint, the gold mine has gone dry. But now she’s good for years.
One day Zanuck was on the phone with author John Steinbeck discussing the screen treatment of his novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The call was suddenly interrupted by a frantic secretary who reported that an accident had occurred on a studio set — Shirley Temple had lost her front tooth.
After silently listening to the back-and-forth between studio boss and secretary, Steinbeck finally said: Don’t bother about me. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is unimportant compared to Shirley Temple’s tooth.
She was the nation’s top box office star from 1935 to 1938. Her costars included Carol Lombard, Gary Cooper, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, George Murphy and Jack Haley. She was so accomplished that novelist Graham Greene, when assessing 1937’s Wee Willie Winkie, wondered in print if Temple was really a midget masquerading as a child performer. (For this, Greene was sued.)
Despite her enormous following and standing as Hollywood biggest child star, Temple was finally defeated by the inevitable — she grew up.
Sid Caesar was the enormously skilled sketch comedian, pantomimic and satirist who ruled early television from 1949 through to the mid-Fifties.
He was a popular sensation and, according to the late tv encyclopedist Les Brown, he had a special appeal to the literate viewer and may have been, like studio drama, a casualty of the proliferation of TV receivers into the lower income, lesser educated homes during the mid-1950’s.
Caesar was an inspiration for droves of comedians to this day. His Your Show of Shows, a 90-minute Saturday night series on NBC, remains extraordinarily fresh. Caesar was hilarious then, and is so now. The true mark of a classic performer.
Caesar was surrounded by superb writers (including Mel Brooks and Woody Allen) and performers (Carl Reiner, Howard Morris and, most of all, costar Imogene Coca). But he was the driving force in more ways than one. A bull of a man, he could be broad and subtle in quick succession. His range was enormous.
Caesar did a ton of television in a variety of platforms, and it it is in that medium that he excelled. His movies are as diverse — including 1963’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; 1978’s Grease; 1984’s Cannonball Run II; 1986’s Stoogemania — as they are forgettable.
Caesar was a genius — on television.