Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Review: The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression

I recently started reading The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930's America by John F. Kasson.

The title is daring because of its claim that Shirley Temple alone remedied the decade of nation-wide unemployment, evictions, starvation and upheaval inherent in the Great Depression. As Lisa Simpson retorts, when Marge claims that Vicki Valentine (the fictionalized Shirley Temple)"brought America right out of the Depression", "I think World War II helped a little."

Books about the Golden Age of Hollywood are my catnip. They make me simultaneously excitable and irritable (because I wasn't alive to revel in it when it was actually happening). I happen to be a Shirley Temple connoisseur. I've been one for much of my life. I remember watching her tap dance up the stairs in The Little Colonel for the first time, and I remember talking to my great-grandmother about the Shirley Temple doll she had in her attic, which belonged to my grandmother as a little girl.

I inherited that doll, and my 18th birthday present was her restoration.

I have collected other Shirley dolls, but the one in the red and 
white polka dotted dress is my prized possession.

I've read her autobiography Child Star, and I own the Disney movie that's based on it. I also read the biography Shirley Temple: American Princess by Anne Edwards, as well as the children's book that was written by Gertrude Temple How I Raised Shirley Temple. 

So naturally I had to grab that book when I saw it on display at my local library.

This book is the most recent book on Temple. Prior to this, there had only been a handful of biographies written on her, which isn't surprising because since she penned her own story, no biographer was going to outshine her while she was alive to protect her legacy. Temple passed away in February of 2014, and a celebrity's death always renews the public's interest in his or her personal life.

I assumed that since the name Shirley Temple was in the title that it was a biography of her, but that's not quite accurate. The book is really a biography of the decade, viewed through a Shirley Temple lens.

For example, the first chapter in the book covers FDR: how the Hoover administration and the economic failings associated with it paved the way for the President to comfort his nation and offer hope for the future. I think the name Shirley Temple appeared once in that chapter.

I'm also noticing how this biography is more willing to interrogate Gertrude Temple's true intentions for her daughter's career. Whereas the story of Shirley Temple has been characterized as a charming youngster who was discovered by chance, this book directly addresses the financial impact of the Depression on the Temple family, and how Gertrude desperately wanted her daughter's career to be a lucrative investment. 

The book of course provides a general timeline for the evolution of film and the cinema, providing popular touchstones such as The Jazz Singer for an indication of the success of talkies, but it goes further than simply recounting film history and delves into analyzing why the miniature starlet stuck a chord with her audiences. It's more than just blonde ringlets and dimples.

Kasson writes that the stories told by Shirley on the silver screen addressed the widespread sense of shame and humiliation in the country. Her movies often depict her triumphing over male authority figures (grouchy grandfathers, miserly school chairmen, hucksters) and at that time, many men were unemployed and losing the breadwinner status. 

How does she triumph over them? She offers kisses and hugs and caresses and impish flirting to melt their macho hearts, which is a fairly common discussion point in Shirley Temple film criticism.

The interpretation of Temple's fame from a gender theory viewpoint is not the only literary scholarship Kasson includes; he also comments on the consumership involved in her films and merchandising mania, giving a Marxist flavor to his narrative.

The chapter titled Dancing Along the Color Line and the discussion of her dancing partnership with Bill Bojangles Robinson is also par for the course, though he does provide some context by reminding readers that this era of film was sowed on the "fertile ground of racism" that was nurtured by DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation. While the films of the 30's did not toe the racial divide in such an extreme way, the country's love for nostalgia led to the romanticization of slavery and the Civil War on screen. The Marxist flavor comes through again in this discussion, pertaining to how The Littlest Rebel was calculated to appeal to both Northern and Southern audiences, so as to not alienate potential profits.

I think my favorite part of the book is in Chapter 4, in the discussion of the Shirley Temple dolls. Kasson writes "Once purchased, usually as a gift, Shirley Temple dolls entered deeply into the imaginations of young girls" and then cites an oral history project in Rochester, NY.


I can't help but feel especially pleased that my home city, where I lived my childhood, and where my grandmother lived much of hers too, is mentioned in this book. It somehow validates my fascination with Shirley Temple and my collection of look-alike dolls.

Another point I'd like to make special note of is the final chapter, titled What's a Private Life? in which Kasson discusses the unfathomable fame that Temple achieved, and its price on her family and her privacy. Her parents regularly feared for her safety; blonde hair and widespread adoration do not ensure against inhuman violence, as evidenced by the Lindbergh baby's kidnapping and murder. The Lindbergh baby became a macabre child celebrity, and children's author Maurice Sendak recalled the country's fascination and experienced it as a "personal torment." Sendak is of course the author of the beloved classic Where the Wild Things Are, which has been challenged numerous time since its 1963 publication because it's "too dark and frightening." 

I can't help but get excited when my passions intersect. 

In closing, because the book is not strictly a biography of Shirley Temple, but rather of the time period, the details of her life are reiterated alongside some commonly chosen pictures, but Kasson does offer some fresh perspectives on her place in history and her impact on it.

If you're interested in Shirley Temple, film history or postmodern America, then it's worth a read.

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