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 his timely new book, 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 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-20th-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.