The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression, 2014 W.W. Norton, By John F. Kasson
By David Cotner 07/24/2014
It’s hard to believe that Americans weren’t in the habit of smiling until Shirley Temple came along.
It’s one of the more encouraging revelations in The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression (subtitled “Shirley Temple and 1930s America”), John Kasson’s riveting new biography of the child movie superstar who was for years the top box-office draw; only Mickey Mouse came close to her rampant popularity. It’s rare that any celebrity biography includes revelations that might be considered “encouraging,” and yet Shirley Temple is precisely that rare star worth celebrating in that regard. This is not to say that Americans didn’t have enough going on with the Depression haunting every waking moment. It is, in fact, to say that the courage, charm and charisma emanating from Shirley Temple were towering enough to eclipse depression — Great or otherwise.
Her sunny disposition came to prominence in 1934 with the film Stand Up and Cheer! and was fortuitously matched with the optimism of newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose similarly sunny outlook (despite his crippling polio) was a relief after unbearable years of misery under the helm of Herbert Hoover. If people sometimes viewed his smiles with suspicion, Temple’s tireless cheer bolstered their spirits even as the Depression ground onward.
She could sing, dance, act and perform in any number of spectacles to keep audiences delighted in theaters across the nation, protecting them, if only for a little while, from the harsh reality awaiting them outside. Her mother, Gertrude, was a screen mother of the first water; clashing regularly with Twentieth Century-Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck over the direction Shirley would take in her films. Through films like Wee Willie Winkie, Heidi, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the four films she danced through with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and later films, she was presented as either an orphan or a child who had lost a parent. In a masterstroke of metaphor, she stood in for the fatherless and motherless young masses that peopled America as the Depression forced parents to give up their children in one way or another. She dazzled everyone from Einstein to H.G. Wells and J. Edgar Hoover with her pluck and untroubled cheerfulness; so beloved was she that, as a girl, Oprah Winfrey says she prayed for curly hair just like Shirley’s.
Temple ultimately found out that her parents had squandered and pillaged every savings and investment fund that had been meant to preserve her, ironically enough, from the terrors of the Depression. A regular allowance had kept her complacent until her husband urged her to have professionals examine the family accounting, discovering that her $3.2 million nest egg had dwindled piteously to $44,000. The scandal that would have befallen her parents had the public found out was something from which she graciously protected them until they died. For practically anyone else, this would have spelled the end, but not Shirley Temple. Shirley Temple left show business before time and cynicism could conspire to erase the legend she had become on her way to growing into an individual adult human being. She had conquered the Depression as hope incarnate. Her husband, intelligence agent Charles Black, had worked with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and wasn’t impressed by her former stardom. Competent, athletic and loving, he provided her with insight into what would become her career as an adult: charity work, staunch support for Republican Party functions and ambassadorships to Czechoslovakia and Ghana. One singular, exceptional little girl fought the Great Depression — and in John Kasson’s entertaining, reverent and illuminating chronicle of that life, we see that in the fullness of time, she won.