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The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America

The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America

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by John F. Kasson

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“[An] elucidating cultural history of Hollywood’s most popular child star . . . a must-read.”—Bill Desowitz, USA Today

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


“[An] elucidating cultural history of Hollywood’s most popular child star . . . a must-read.”—Bill Desowitz, USA Today

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.

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.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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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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The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
ARS1953 More than 1 year ago
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!
JCgirl More than 1 year ago
The book begins very strong, setting up all the characters of the Great Depression and how Shirley Temple would chance the hearts of the world during a trying time in American history perfectly, but then the very long chapters begin to go off into many scatty directions. The author John F. Kasson has a great knowledge of history, but at times goes on a tangent of information truly not important to the book just to use as an example to highlight the point he is making about Shirley Temple of the Great Depression. This isn't a book that is a great source of the Great Depression, but really a biography on the films during the 30s made by Shirley Temple and how the studio needed to keep a live the “little girl with the big smile” young as long as possible. The author makes many references to Shirley Temple Black’s biography that causes a reader to really want to read that book instead. The ending was very flat and seemed to really be tied up in only a few pages. Closed the book very disappointed and yearning for more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am doing my National History Day project on Shirley and this was very helpful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago