Aug 11, 2014

READ THE MOVIE - The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America (Review)

by John F. Kasson
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Released: April 14, 2014

Available in Hardcover and eBook editions (including Amazon Kindle) - Hardcover Reviewed

This past year, I finally got around to reading Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People.  Published in 1936, right in the middle of the Great Depression and during the events chronicled in The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression, there is a full chapter dedicated to the importance of smiling.  That is also a major theme in this book as author John Kasson effectively makes a case that an upside down frown was effective in bringing people to power and fame, and helping a nation forget the rampant poverty and weakening economic conditions they were facing daily.

 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Less a biography than it is a snapshot of a phenomenon in American and Hollywood History, Kasson quickly moves from Shirley Temple's birth and dancing lessons at a young age to the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the 32nd President of the United States.  The theme of a winning smile is introduced  immediately as the much more upbeat and energetic Roosevelt handily defeats incumbent President Herbert Hoover who was seen as grumpy, stand-offish and had an attitude of "things will right themselves" that was quickly alienating the population.

FDR's win seemingly paves the way for the three-year-old Shirley to embark on what would become a meteoric rise in the picture business.  A bright, cute and optimistic ball of happy energy, Temple's curls, winning smile and dimples helped Americans struggling to pay for basic necessities like food escape their problems for a few hours in a darkened theater.  Mr. Kasson does an excellent job linking the young star's success with the newly elected President, especially with her appearance in Stand Up and Cheer (1934).  The film fashioned to "cheer up" the American public and support FDR's New Deal, it features Ms. Temple in one of her first dance routines with an adult male - which would become a significant trademark in the majority of films she appeared in - as well as concluded with her leading a patriotic parade, complete with marching band that looks confident and unstoppable - just what the downtrodden population needed to see.  It also brought her to attention to Twentieth Century-Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck and a star was born.

Shirley Temple and James Dunn in Stand Up and Cheer (1934 - Twentieth Century-Fox)

As Mr. Kasson outlines the plight of rampant unemployment and the lengths Americans had to go to eat substances that often barely qualified as food (not to mention, struggling to eat daily IF they were lucky or strategic enough to do so), he points out that they still made entertaining themselves a priority in the form of the movies which was an inexpensive way to escape their dire surroundings.  He perfectly segues into Ms. Temple's films of the time, a successful formula that featured her as an orphan surrounded by pessimistic adults who she eventually wins over.  This is where the book transforms into the more traditional Hollywood biography format as it chronicles her home life - especially in terms of how her mother Gertrude handled her career and contract at Fox - and chronicles the plot, some behind-the-scenes details and most importantly the critical and public reaction of each film. It also highlights that lengths that Mr. Zanuck took to keep his star looking young and prodigious which included moving her birth date up a year,  pairing her with much taller co-stars to make her look shorter, and dressing her in short clothing to enhance the appearance of youth.

Shirley Temple in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938 - Twentieth Century-Fox)

The theme of a smile winning over the depression is enforced with the introduction of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, an African American dancer/actor who appeared in four films with Ms. Temple.  The winning combination broke the color barrier as they became the first on-screen interracial dance partners.  Mr. Kasson solidly establishes that Mr. Robinson managed to break the color barrier by the same means that FDR won over the nation and Ms. Temple wowed audiences, with a smile that seemingly never disappeared from his face.

 Shirley Temple dances with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in The Little Colonel (1935 - Twentieth Century-Fox)

Mr. Zanuck teamed Shirley up primarily with adult males, the demographic that was struggling the most during the Depression to gain and hold onto employment as well as feed their families.  There is an irony in the fact that Shirley usurps her father's place as the family bread winner which becomes even more apparent when he lands a substantial bank position thanks to his famous daughter (people would even come into the bank just to shake his hand or have their picture taken with him).  They were the ones that needed the most cheering up, and according to her movies, Shirley Temple was the only one who could melt their hearts and restore confidence in themselves and the country.

 Shirley Temple and Buddy Ebsen in Captain January (1936 - Twentieth Century-Fox)

Shirley Temple also became a boon to the economy as her merchandising reached staggering sales heights even as Americans were unable to purchase basic necessities.  Mr. Kasson includes entertaining letters of Young Americans writing to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt pleading their case for her to somehow supply them with a much coveted Shirley Temple doll.  In addition, her fans were rabid, turning out in the thousands just to catch a glimpse of her (sometimes placing her in danger), and there were several "Shirley Temple look-a-like" contests held through the nation.  Shirley Temple fever hit an all-time high.

 Shirley Temple with a Shirley Temple Doll

As the saying goes, all things must come to an end, and while the country was happily coming out of the depression and into the war years of the 1940s, Darryl Zanuck kept placing his much heralded star in films stuck in the same formula, and audiences - as well as Shirley's mother - grew tired of seeing the same story over-and-over again (something that Hollywood loves to do evidenced in Mark Harris' recent book Five Came Back which chronicled how audiences tired of countless war pictures, and something we are evidencing now with numerous reboots, remakes and a long lineup of superhero movies that have been mapped out for the next 5 to 10 years.)  While Shirley's career leveling off takes the forefront (her films in the 40s and beyond never really amounted to much), the Depression takes a back seat with the idea that the nation no longer needed a curly haired little girl - who was increasingly becoming not so little anymore - to cheer them up.

 Shirley Temple Black photographed in 2006

Shirley Temple Black - as she came to be known following her second marriage - passed away this past February, two months before this book hit the shelves.    Hopefully she had a chance to read a draft of this book before her death, as it's a fitting tribute to how a little girl armed with a smile and curls reinvigorated a nation that had lost its confidence.