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The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America [NOOK Book]


How the smile and fortitude of a child actress revived a nation.

Her image appeared in periodicals and advertisements roughly twenty times daily; she rivaled FDR and Edward VIII as the most photographed person in the world. Her portrait brightened the homes of countless admirers: from a black laborer’s cabin in South Carolina and young Andy Warhol’s house in Pittsburgh to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s recreation room in Washington, DC, and gangster “Bumpy” Johnson’s Harlem ...
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The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America

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How the smile and fortitude of a child actress revived a nation.

Her image appeared in periodicals and advertisements roughly twenty times daily; she rivaled FDR and Edward VIII as the most photographed person in the world. Her portrait brightened the homes of countless admirers: from a black laborer’s cabin in South Carolina and young Andy Warhol’s house in Pittsburgh to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s recreation room in Washington, DC, and gangster “Bumpy” Johnson’s Harlem apartment. A few years later her smile cheered the secret bedchamber of Anne Frank in Amsterdam as young Anne hid from the Nazis.

For four consecutive years Shirley Temple was the world’s box-office champion, a record never equaled. By early 1935 her mail was reported as four thousand letters a week, and hers was the second-most popular girl’s name in the country.

What distinguished Shirley Temple from every other Hollywood star of the period—and everyone since—was how brilliantly she shone. Amid the deprivation and despair of the Great Depression, Shirley Temple radiated optimism and plucky good cheer that lifted the spirits of millions and shaped their collective character for generations to come. Distinguished cultural historian John F. Kasson shows how the most famous, adored, imitated, and commodified child in the world astonished movie goers, created a new international culture of celebrity, and revolutionized the role of children as consumers.

Tap-dancing across racial boundaries with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, foiling villains, and mending the hearts and troubles of the deserving, Shirley Temple personified the hopes and dreams of Americans. To do so, she worked virtually every day of her childhood, transforming her own family as well as the lives of her fans.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Readers who are expecting a juicy biography of recently deceased child star Shirley Temple (1928–2014) will be disappointed in this analysis of the cultural effects of her movies on a despairing America during the Great Depression. Kasson (history & American studies, Univ. of North Carolina-Chapel Hill), though he gives the basics of both Temple's and her parents' lives, is more focused on the actress's film persona and how it served to raise the spirits of a somber nation. Almost a third of the book focuses on Temple's smile and happy face as a metaphor for the optimism that occurred when Franklin D. Roosevelt (also a smiler) took office after President Herbert Hoover, who was perceived as aloof and insular. Kasson also touches on the movie studios' exploitation of child actors (Temple worked practically every day of her young life) and the racial boundaries that were broken when she performed with the African American tap dancer and actor Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. VERDICT With Temple's passing in February of this year at age 86, this book is a timely and well-researched addition to the genre, and one that film students will welcome. However, those seeking more personal information about the performer's life should look for Temple's 1988 autobiography, Child Star.—Rosellen Brewer, Sno-Isle Libs., Marysville, WA
Publishers Weekly
As historian Kasson eloquently points out in this often repetitive but useful survey of Temple’s role in Depression America, the young star entertained America at one of its lowest points, winning the hearts of a nation and giving hope to a hopeless society. “In all her 1930s movies beginning with Stand Up and Cheer!, Shirley Temple helped viewers summon the emotional resources to persevere in the world.” Kasson confines his deft critical writing to the 1930s, the height of Temple’s popularity, chronicling her rise to fame, her lasting impact on the movies and society, and her view of herself as a professional actor and not a child laborer. At the height of her popularity, he observes, “Shirley Temple’s films, products, and endorsements 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.” Kasson’s insightful book looks back to a moment in American society when, he argues, the movies mattered and when one magnetic star could help change people’s minds and hearts. (May)
Richard Striner - Weekly Standard
“In a time of widespread suffering and frequent despair, this little girl touched the hearts of millions of people in our own land and others… John F. Kasson shows how her films provided therapy as well as entertainment.”
USA Today
“Examines the impact of the child star not only on Hollywood, but on politics as well… Elucidating… a must-read.”
Elizabeth Bennett - Dallas Morning News
“[Kasson’s] insightful new book explores the politics of the time, racial attitudes, movie-going habits and the breadth and depth of Shirley Temple’s appeal.”
Daniel Bubbeo - Newsday
“A wonderful epilogue to Temple's career… and an enlightening examination of the curly topped moppet's impact on Hollywood, the economy and the mood of a troubled nation.”
Steven J. Ross
“Illuminating and highly entertaining.”
William E. Leuchtenburg
“John Kasson delights the reader with his lively account of feel-good films starring the adorable curly-headed moppet who, with radiant smile and winsome guile, lit up the dark nights of the 1930s. A brilliant analyst, Kasson lays bare coruscatingly, too, how exploited child actors serve as canaries in the mine shaft of modern consumer culture.”
Jackson Lears
“Carefully argued and gracefully written. Not since the pioneering essays of Warren Susman has any historian so brilliantly illuminated the emotional life of Americans in the 1930s. The Great Depression—not to mention Shirley Temple and Franklin Roosevelt—will never look the same.”
Ty Burr
“John F. Kasson skillfully uses Shirley Temple as a prism to cast light on a vast range of subjects: The rise of FDR, optimism as Depression-era propaganda, the double existence of African-American stars, innocence as a consumer commodity, the fickleness of star adoration and the dangers of the mob, the meaning of childhood in a changing culture, and Hollywood's exploitation of its human profit centers, no matter how small. Connecting them all is Temple herself, serene, self-composed, and indestructible—the one movie star who wasn't putting on an act.”
Karen Halttunen
“Sparkling, beautifully written, nearly impossible to put down. . . . A compelling and creative new cultural history of the 1930s.”
Kirkus Reviews
A cultural historian examines how the films of Shirley Temple (1928–2014) worked in tandem with New Deal politics to help Americans overcome the Great Depression. The images most associated with the 1930s bear witness to the hardships average Americans faced. But the ones most popular during this time bore the radiant face of child actress Temple. In this study, Kasson (History and American Studies/Univ. of North Carolina; Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America, 2001, etc.) argues that Temple's smile and sunny personality helped bring Franklin Roosevelt's "politics of cheer" to the forefront of national consciousness while providing Americans with much-needed emotional solace. Roosevelt's New Deal legislation, which made government assistance available to "the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid," only went so far. Consumer confidence, which implied faith in the future, also had to be restored to ensure the return of prosperity. Roosevelt accomplished part of this task through the vigorously cheerful outlook he projected in his political addresses. From 1934 to 1940, Temple captivated movie-going audiences all over the United States and the world with her ability to heal broken hearts with her "inexhaustible fund of optimism." Through her extraordinary dance partnership with black entertainer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Temple also called attention to the problem of race in both Hollywood and the United States while bringing hope to African-Americans, who had suffered even more than whites during the Depression. The cult of personality that developed around Temple even helped the struggling economy. At the height of the young star's popularity, fans spent millions of dollars on Temple memorabilia. Informative and well-researched, Kasson's work offers insight into one of Hollywood's most beloved entertainers, as well as the fascinating connection between politics and entertainment.
The Barnes & Noble Review

If you had to name one emblematic cultural product of the 1930s, would you opt for something like Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" photograph or for Shirley Temple warbling her way through "On the Good Ship Lollipop"? The artistic output of the Great Depression is often divided into two camps, with a chasm seeming to separate the serious works of social critique from the lighthearted diversions. Examples of the former, from Lange's documentary photography to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, have come to symbolize the privation of the period, while examples of the latter, whether Temple's films, Busby Berkeley's extravagant musical productions, or the collaborations of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, are often regarded as mere escapism.

But should we be so quick to dismiss a diversion? Shirley Temple films were "vacuous as social critique," John F. Kasson acknowledges at the outset of The Little Girl who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America. Still, he believes that in terms of their effect on the culture, they haven't been given their due. Temple, who died in February 2014 at the age of eighty-five, had an unprecedented and extraordinary run as the country's most popular movie star from 1935 to 1938, and Kasson writes that a reappraisal of her work reminds us "that Hollywood escapism in the Great Depression was never empty."

In films like Bright Eyes, A Little Princess, Little Miss Marker, Curly Top, and The Littlest Rebel, Temple, frequently cast as an orphan, was tasked with the "emotional repair of adults' relationships" — usually adult men who, like many in the audience, were experiencing hard times and humiliation. Quoting Depression-era letters and oral histories, Kasson, a professor of history and American studies at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, makes the somewhat banal argument that Temple helped inspire a depressed citizenry to persevere. Still, his knowledge of and passion for the period — which lead him to interesting digressions on topics including the panic over child kidnappings following the Lindbergh abduction, the changing meaning of the word "cute," and the early-twentieth-century popularization of allowances for children — make this an enjoyable read.

With her dimples, her fifty-six perfect golden curls, and her boundless optimism, Temple, Kasson argues, functioned as a miniature FDR, whose radiant smile, at the start of his administration, was often contrasted with Herbert Hoover's gloom- and-doom frown. He writes, "For all the innovations of Franklin D. Roosevelt's extraordinary first hundred days in office...arguably the most immediate, essential, and enduring achievement was the fundamentally different emotional attitude he successfully projected: a contagious sense of optimism and purpose." At a time when technological advances were helping to knit America's various regional cultures into a unified national culture — when Americans gathered around their radios to hear Roosevelt's fireside chats and when, in spite of the economic crisis, movie attendance actually rose — FDR and Temple together popularized what the author calls the "politics of cheer."

If she was doing repair work on the screen, Temple was doing it offscreen as well. "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," Kasson notes drily. Even in the midst of the Depression, Americans spent $45 million on Shirley Temple dolls, the most popular doll of the period. And her movie wardrobes transformed children's fashion: with 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck relying on "short dresses and tall costars" to keep his most bankable commodity looking as juvenile as possible, Temple popularized, for girls of all ages, the kind of short pleated dresses with round collars that had been customary only for toddlers.

Of course, Shirley Temple's remarkable run had to end eventually, and even the imperious Zanuck, who once ordered staffers in charge of her scripts and wardrobe to "preserve babyhood," couldn't forestall Shirley's inevitable adolescence. When her star began to fade, she wisely retreated to private life, re-emerging years later for her surprising second act as a diplomat. Her parents had managed the considerable earnings from her film career and provided her with a modest stipend well into her twenties. Only after her second marriage, to businessman Charles Black, did Temple examine her finances, discovering that her father and mother had squandered most of her fortune. Adult caretaker to the end, she never let them know she was on to them.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393244182
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/6/2014
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 144,462
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

John F. Kasson is a professor of history and American studies at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and the author of Amusing the Million, among many other seminal works of cultural history. He lives in Chapel Hill.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 8, 2014

    As the description above says the book is not a juicy biography

    As the description above says the book is not a juicy biography of Shirley Temple, but a look at her career and the America she lived in. There is a lot of interesting stuff about the movie making business, the movie theater business, and the effect of the Depression on America. There is also a lot of information about Shirley-as an actress, as the daughter of an ambitious mother, as the center of a huge merchandising operation, as a beacon of hope during that dark time. It is well worth a read!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2014

    Liked it very much

    I am doing my National History Day project on Shirley and this was very helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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