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

Image of The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America
Release Date: 
April 14, 2014
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“When Kasson sticks to his premise, his book is both intriguing and powerful. Given the obvious parallels between the Great Depression and its sister, the Great Recession, this is a book particularly well timed.”

Before cracking open the cover of John F. Kasson’s The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America, it is important that the potential reader understand two things: what the book is and what it is not.

To begin with what it is not, despite the title, the work is not, strictly speaking, a Hollywood biography of Shirley Temple.

It is, instead, something more interesting and very likely more important. As the subtitle suggests, Kasson’s work is an examination of a particular time in American history and of the child who was uniquely capable of doing something about it. As such, it presents a variant of the American Dream, offering substantial proof that the individual can make a difference to the multitudes, even if that individual is a three-and-a-half-year-old who did nothing more than sing and dance. And smile.

As author Kasson puts it:

“The emotional resiliency embodied in the smiles of Shirley Temple, Franklin Roosevelt, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and others in this decade has been largely taken for granted. Yet such smiling figures repay close investigation. They yield important insights into the character of American life during the greatest peacetime crisis in American history. They have broader implications for modern culture as well. ‘We can see emotional expressions as a medium of exchange,’ the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has written. ‘Like paper money, many smiles and frowns are in circulation.

“The circulation of a new emotional currency during the Great Depression formed a little-understood but essential part of the nation’s recovery, a sort of deficit spending with immense effects. In a time of great financial hardship, spending on amusements actually increased—eloquent testimony to its emotional necessity.”

It is important to note here that John F. Kasson is a professor of both history and American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and that his background displays a particular depth of knowledge of American cultural history, allowing him the authorial clout to make statements like the following:

“Altogether, Shirley Temple allows us to explore the intricacies of Hollywood and consumer culture in the Great Depression more fully and freshly than any other figure of the decades. By placing Shirley Temple and her fans within the context of FDR and his constituents, we can see how popular entertainment as well as New Deal politics helped Americans to surmount the Great Depression. The forces set in motion by their smiling faces have shaped American life ever since.”

It also merits mentioning the book is largely based on two essays that Professor Kasson has previously produced: “Behind Shirley Temple’s Smile: Children, Emotional Labor, and the Great Depression” and “Shirley Temple’s Paradoxical Smile.”

Which brings to mind the problem at hand. The Little Girl who Fought the Great Depression seems at once rather bloated and rather skimpy. It reads as being exactly what is it: the fleshing out of two essays into a hopefully coherent and entertaining book-length project. And in that it only partially succeeds.

The reader suspects that the bulk of the information contained in the source material is here presented in the early chapters of the book. In these, the reader is given an excellent background in the fundamentals of the American economy prior to the Depression. As FDR’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover put it in his 1928 acceptance speech for the Republican nomination for President:

“We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us. We have not yet reached the goal, but, given a chance to go forward with policies of the last 8 years, we shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.”

With promises like these, Hoover swept into office.

And in October 1929, a mere eight months later, the stock market collapsed, triggering the Great Depression.

Although the stock market was set right in a matter of months, allowing Hoover to declare that the “panic” (rather strangely, this was his preferred term for “depression”) over and the economy sound, the Great Depression dragged on throughout the bulk of Hoover’s term, a period of time in which the White House seemed notoriously out of step with the lives of average Americans.

Never more than in 1931 when President Hoover commented to a reporter, “No one is actually starving. The hoboes, for example, are better fed than they have ever been. One hobo in New York got ten meals in one day.”

On a personal level, Hoover felt crushed the weight of his office. The words used to describe the man in print included “peevish,” “cold,” “gloomy” and “dreary.” Even the creator of Mount Rushmore, Gutson Borglum, commented about the President, “If you put a rose in Hoover’s hand it would wilt.”

The man who would soundly defeat Hoover for the presidency in 1932 took note of this. And understood how fundamentally Hoover had misread the mood of the American public. And in his own inaugural address in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt identified the most basic aspect of that mood:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

The other thing that FDR apparently immediately understood was that he, the new President, needed to do the one thing that Hoover had never done: smile. And from his first hundred days onward, he understood that the public needed to be consoled, that their emotional trauma was as great has their physical suffering. He manipulated the new medium of radio to its best effect, speaking regularly to the public, frankly updating them on the trouble at hand and the plans for its solution.

FDR soon manipulated another, newer medium, film, when he recognized in child star Shirley Temple a smile that could match his own.

As author John F. Kasson puts it:

“Not only did FDR and Shirley have the two most famous smiles in the country, but ever since the release of [Temple’s star-making film] Stand up and Cheer! hers had been associated with his confident leadership. Together, they fought and licked the Great Depression. At least that was Hollywood’s version of what happened. Fox released Stand Up and Cheer! in April 1934, just over a year after Roosevelt’s inauguration, and it aimed to show how the entertainment industry was dispelling the gloom of the Depression right alongside the president. The face of the fictional president in the film is never shown, in compliance with White House policies protecting FDR’s dignity. Nonetheless, speaking with unmistakably Rooseveltian inflection and cadences, and advancing Roosevelt’s most famous theme, he earnestly tells a theatrical producer named Lawrence Cromwell (played by Warner Baxter): ‘Our country is bravely passing through a serious crisis. Many of our people’s affairs are in the red, and, figuratively, their nerves are in the red.’”

Fascinating stuff, the concept of FDR as the first media-savvy world leader, who, before Hilter and Mussolini, understood the power of mass media.

When Kasson sticks to his premise, his book is both intriguing and powerful. Given the obvious parallels between the Great Depression and its sister, the Great Recession, this is a book particularly well timed.

But much of the work is also given over the Shirley Temple’s parents, Gertrude and George, and to their ongoing struggles with Hollywood studios and their squandering of the little star’s salary. And when the author chooses to include lengthy discussions of the plots, casts and direction of Shirley Temple’s movies, each a little worse than the one before, the book slows to a crawl. Kasson is obviously more at home with American cultural history and the power of consumer culture than he is writing about Hollywood infighting or Shirley Temple’s marriages—and it shows.

Still, this is a book of new insights, fresh ideas. In its pages, author Kasson undertakes to explain the power of the smile—of optimism as an economic tool and largely succeeds. Had he spent more time and ink on the causes of the Depression and looked more deeply into both FDR’s coherent use of electronic media and at the ongoing ties that were at this time created between Washington (and, especially, the Democratic party) and Hollywood, the book would have been better for it.

But as it stands, The Little Girl who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America is an achievement, thought-provoking, and past Depression to ongoing Recession, highly relevant.