July 6, 2014 6:08:50 PM
You can imagine that some artists would have been popular had they come along at any time in history; others merely happened to strike the world's imagination at just the right time. In the latter category is certainly Shirley Temple, who brightened up for millions of moviegoers the gloom of the 1930s. There have been her autobiography and many appreciative biographies, but John F. Kasson's The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America (W. W. Norton) is different. In a series of essays, Kasson has chronicled not the life of the star (although he pays close attention to her life between 1931 and 1940 when she was most influential), but her effect on a troubled nation. Thus his book will be enjoyed by movie fans, especially Shirley fans, but it is also a larger overview of the sociology and politics of the times.
In fact, while the first chapter starts with the meeting and marriage of Shirley Temple's parents, it gives way to pages that have nothing to do with the Temples at all. It is a summary of the boom of the twenties followed by the bust of the thirties, with Herbert Hoover contrasted with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Hoover had been soundly elected to the White House in 1928 (his first try at elected office), and had had decades of useful public service. He was a dour, unsmiling man, a serious technocrat who had helped resolve food shortages during the Great War and had brought relief to those whose lives were washed away when the Mississippi River flooded in 1927. A reporter described him: "Sedate, laconic, undramatic, berating nobody, asserting nothing that his laboriously gathered facts and figures would not sustain." This was a fine image when all was going well, and for Hoover's first years, things went well indeed. He certainly cannot be faulted for the Great Depression that descended upon him and the world, nor was it his fault that there was no quick turnaround while he remained in office, but his renowned ability to deal with calamities could do little in the financial crisis. When he tried to cheerlead and convince others that the crisis was being adroitly handled and that prosperity was just around the corner, his own natural taciturnity and sourness made him unconvincing. He proposed that what was really needed was a good big joke every ten days that everyone could enjoy, or a great poem, or a good song. "To the rapidly swelling army of the unemployed," writes Kasson, "such prescriptions seemed as helpful as tossing a drowning man a whoopee cushion instead of a lifesaver."
Still, he may have been onto something about the value of popular entertainment; that is what this book is about. Hoover's successor knew the value. Roosevelt seemed, unlike Hoover, like someone who could enjoy a good joke. He had a radiant smile that he sincerely flashed often, and it was the perfect opposite of Hoover's natural frown. Optimism and purpose were reflected in that smile. Roosevelt was a real performer himself; he took to the new medium of the radio and made it his own. He might have had a patrician accent, but so did a lot of movie performers, and so that was no obstacle. He had the gift of speaking to the people in their own terms, and analysis of the words he used in his Fireside Chats shows that he overwhelmingly used the same words his listeners used. Will Rogers, who was no slouch in speaking the people's language, said with approval, "He showed these radio announcers and our public speakers what to do with a vocabulary - leave it right in the dictionary where it belongs." He made people feel better; and when that other charming smiler Shirley Temple came along, she, too, made people feel better. FDR acknowledged that they were both agents in the same cause. "It is a splendid thing," he said, "that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles."
Shirley's mother would tell the story of the great good luck of her daughter's discovery by the studios, but it wasn't like that at all. The mother had it all planned out; so had thousands of other mothers, we can suppose, but her plans were wildly successful. The mother enrolled three-year-old Shirley in dance class, and a couple of one-reel moviemakers saw her. She was offered a contract of $10 per day of filming the "Baby Burlesk" shorts, wherein she was able to sing and dance in scaled-down adult costumes. Her mother arranged for her to be seen by a better studio, and Fox Films gave her a singing and dancing role in Stand Up and Cheer! (1934), in which President Roosevelt invents a new cabinet position, "Secretary of Amusement," to cheer everyone up. Shirley does her part to bring cheer in the movie, as she was to do over and over again for six years in which she was the most popular of movie stars and one of the most famous people in the world. Even Anne Frank decorated the walls of her hideaway with Shirley's picture.
Little Shirley Temple didn't know what sociological functions she was pulling off, and maybe her studio bosses didn't, either. Of course they wanted to bring smiles, and they did, and they did increase a little bit the nation's quotient of optimism. The formula was simple, and Kasson says the head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck, nailed it: "Keep her skirts high. Have co-stars lift her up whenever possible to create the illusion now selling so well. Preserve babyhood." Who could object to a baby, and one with such talent? Even when someone talked about Shirley in less-than-reverential tones, the admiration came out. Adolphe Menjou, who played the bookie Sorrowful Jones opposite Shirley in Little Miss Marker (1934) admitted, "This child frightens me. She knows all the tricks."
Little Shirley by dancing and singing, and, to be sure, smiling on screen warmed the hearts of the misers she played against, she reunited estranged couples, and she demonstrated that no matter how bad things were, we could sing and dance and smile our way out of them. That's the superficial message in her movies, and millions bought it. In his analysis of the films, though, Kasson finds bigger meanings. Shirley wasn't just about healing hearts. In movies like The Little Colonel or The Littlest Rebel (both 1935), she may have helped her nation come to terms with the Civil War which some people still remembered first hand. Her films were among the many Hollywood productions that glorified the Old South, and participated in the racism of the early twentieth century. She was paired with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and the two seem to have had genuine affection for each other. But the stereotypes in the story were too strong to break through; only because Robinson played a servant was he able to take the little white girl by the hand and show her how to dance.
The other great influence Shirley had, Kasson shows, was that she made people want to be good consumers. Of course audiences were eager to shell out their dimes for their tickets, but that was just the start. There is a fancy dress ball in Little Miss Marker and a big birthday party for Shirley in Baby Take a Bow and a blow-out Christmas in Bright Eyes. "As a model child, Shirley was also an exemplary consumer," writes Kasson. It wasn't just an artistic stance upon the screen. There were movie tie-ins, Shirley dolls, tableware, soaps, coloring books, and more; as I type these words, Ebay lists 2,500 different bits of Shirley memorabilia for sale. "Shirley Temple's films, products, and endorsements collectively stimulated the American consumer economy at a crucial time, so much so that to some she appeared to be a relief program all by herself," says Kasson.
She made a fortune before inevitably growing too old to play her familiar kid roles, and Kasson mentions in the final pages how she lead a useful non-movie life in her later years. That is not the subject of his book, but there is an interesting aspect of the adult Shirley Temple Black that leads one to grant that her strange and distorted upbringing did produce a sensible and thoughtful adult. Only at the urging of her husband did she come to an assessment of her finances, and she found that her father had bought expensive cars and speculated on risky businesses, and her mother had been able to dress fashionably and to bet at the racetracks, and that only pennies remained on every dollar she had brought them. For the rest of her parents' lives, she said nothing about this discovery. Just like in her movies, she was taking care of the grown-ups who should have known better.