By John F. Kasson
Norton. 308 pp. $27.95
THE LITTLE GIRL WHO FOUGHT THE GREAT DEPRESSION
Shirley Temple and 1930s America
By John F. Kasson
Norton. 308 pp. $27.95
Cultural historian John F. Kasson’s “The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression” isn’t a biography of the child star Shirley Temple, who died in February at age 85, nor is it a critical study of her films. Instead, it’s a brisk argument for how Temple’s “politics of cheer” dovetailed with the New Deal to defeat the greatest economic crisis in American history. To pursue this premise, Kasson uses the original Little Miss Sunshine as a symbol of the complex cultural forces at work in the 1930s. His book’s commercial success would raise the specter of publishing houses running with the formula for a host of American Ages: “How Han Solo Blasted America Out of Stagflation,” “The Moonwalk That Stopped the Cold War,” “Beliebers Beyond the Housing Crisis” and so on.
Thankfully, Kasson’s enjoyable but slight study is unlikely to set any trends. At its best, the book vividly conjures an American popular culture revving up to its current Honey Boo Boo speed. Kasson details how during the heyday of Temple’s fame, her “stardom marked dramatic changes in the interrelated cultures of celebrity, consumption, and the commodification of childhood.” He does this by placing her work in various contexts, comparing and contrasting her smile with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, her tap dancing with Bojangles Robinson’s, her celebrity with Charles Lindbergh’s, and her personal life with those of other child stars, such as Jackie Coogan. It’s a kind of PBS “American Masters” episode in book form. It makes no claims to be the pop culture version of Robert Caro’s epic study of Lyndon Johnson or a definitive cinematic David Thomson-esque history, though readers already well-versed in Temple studies might wish for a bit more heft than these 200-odd pages of text deliver.
In sturdy if occasionally corny and hyperbolic prose, Kasson shows how Temple arose at a crucial time in Hollywood history, at the height of both the star and studio systems, when the motion picture industry was beginning to exert its vast influence on the American economy. Kasson makes clear that Temple’s success mattered in material ways to thousands of people who were otherwise adrift in the Depression, and so the fetishization of all things Shirley wasn’t just creepy or naive (despite the way it looks now). Her outfits and lookalike dolls had a magical power — to sell non-utilitarian merchandise on Main Street when an astonishing number of Americans were out of work. This was no mean feat. Kasson shows how people from Sunset Boulevard to Madison Avenue tried to answer the central question of Temple’s film “Little Miss Marker”: “What is a little girl really worth?”For nearly a decade, the answer was millions.
“During the golden age of Hollywood,” Kasson writes of 1930-45, “the movie industry received eighty three cents out of every dollar spent on entertainment.” And Temple was the box-office leader for almost a third of that time, making her the engine of a robust industry. Eighty years later, when the Bureau of Labor has reported that most Americans spend more on entertainment than on gasoline, household furnishings and clothing, a Shirley Temple would be a frightening, Mao-esque thing indeed. But in the ’30s our mass consumer culture was just beginning, and the studios, marketing firms and even Temple’s parents pushed to have her sausage curls and dazzling dimples in front of as many people as possible. And the people loved it. Kasson quotes liberally from regional film exhibitors’ letters that joyfully reported how this adulation won over massive crowds — and translated into profits. “She is still the girl that will lift the mortgage,” one Arkansas theater manager wrote ecstatically in 1935. And she remained so until the end of the decade, a truly remarkable run that hasn’t been matched since.
Kasson makes a less convincing case for Temple’s smile and positive attitude helping turn the tide against the Depression in political terms. FDR put on a happy face, too, but he also had his first 100 days. But we can forgive Kasson for reaching for hyperbole when trying to describe the totality of Temple’s emotional impact. His collection of testimonials from fans ranging from Anne Frank to Oprah Winfrey does more to build the case for Temple’s awesome appeal than any purple prose could.
Kasson argues that her legacy — beyond the staying power of her films — is her role in the evolution of the popular conceptions of the words “cute” and “personality.” He tells us that before Temple, “cute” was simply a diminutive of “acute,” meaning “shrewd” in a not completely nice way. Ask any corgi owner what it means now, and you’ll feel the difference. And as for “personality,” Kasson explains that it used to be mainly a legal concept guaranteeing individuals the right to “pursue their personal lives and domestic arrangements free from intrusive regulation or exposure.” The lesson of Shirley Temple and the Great Depression, then, was that “personality” could — and, if cute enough, would — lift the mortgage.
Nichols is a poet and novelist. His most recent book is “The More You Ignore Me.”