"She came along at the very right moment," film historian Leonard Maltin tells PEOPLE

By Stephen M. Silverman
February 11, 2014 12:00 PM

Curly Top and The Little Princess weren’t just movie titles. They were apt descriptions for the sensational Shirley Temple.

News of the death of the former child star – whose charm and career were arguably unmatched in the Sound Era of movies – was announced Tuesday. She was 85.

Having helped cheer up the nation during the Depression – as well as movie audiences mourning over the 1935 fatal plane crash of the beloved folk humorist and radio and screen star Will Rogers – “she came along at the very right moment,” film historian Leonard Maltin told PEOPLE Tuesday morning. “At a time when people went to the movies to escape the drudgeries of everyday life, she offered optimism and good cheer.”

Her fans even included the very formal first lady of the land. Invited to Eleanor Roosevelt’s Hyde Park, N.Y., home in 1935, little Shirley practiced some high jinks learned for the movie The Littlest Rebel – and hit Mrs. Roosevelt in the backside with her slingshot.

“I’m still a good shot,” Temple said with a laugh years later.

Above all, she was a natural. There was seldom any forced cuteness in her performances. In fact, it often seemed the camera was always catching her in candid moments, even when singing and, especially, dancing.

“She was always a very unpretentious person,” said Maltin. “She knew who she was. She was confident about herself and comfortable in her own skin. And yet detached in a way from that blinding fame she experienced when she was so young. When I went up with a crew from Entertainment Tonight to interview her, she made sandwiches for all of us.”

About her life as the most revered child star in history, Temple expressed no regrets. On many occasions she said: “I loved every minute of it. I would have paid [20th Century] Fox to make those pictures.”

And they are her legacy. (Turner Classic Movies recently ran a series of them, and no doubt will repeat them to mark her passing.)

“People like you and me, [not] in the grip of the Depression, were still entertained by her and attracted to her,” said Maltin. “If you show those films to little kids today, they respond just as strongly.”

“I’m delighted that kids are seeing the old films and sharing them with their parents and grandparents,” the star and later U.S. ambassador told The Washington Post in 1995. And then, sounding just like Shirley Temple, she added: “I’m glad they’re so popular, too.”

Additional reporting by CHAMP CLARK