The Great Depression and the Optimism of Shirley Temple

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The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930’s America by John F. Kasson


Shirley Temple.  She’s one of those people whose iconography far outweighs the person she actually was.

Of course, I came along long after she was famous, but I would still see advertisements for her records and so forth on T.V. 

Even my mom was a bit too young to remember Shirley Temple in Temple’s prime, but I remember my mom saying two things about her:

1.     All of her movies are the same (all of your anything being the same was a bad thing in my mom’s book).

2.     She was (at the time) an ambassador. 

Both she and I thought that was cool. I was always extremely interested in any woman who had a career role that wasn’t mom, teacher, or nurse, and so was my mom.

U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Shirley Temple Black talks with MAJ Carolyn May, the European Command representative for the Defense Department’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs, following the arrival of a transport aircraft from Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany. The aircraft carried 130,000 pounds of donated medical supplies that will be turned over to the Czech government for distribution.Date25 October 1990. SSGT DAVID S. NOLAN, USAF


The point of The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression, however, is not so much Shirley Temple herself but more the phenomenon of Shirley Temple and what she meant during the Depression.  In fact, I warn you, if you are going into this book to read about Shirley Temple, you may find yourself disappointed, at least until the last chapter.


What this book does do, however, is help the reader see what was going on during the 30’s, partly because of the Depression itself and partly because of other forces, and the role that both the phenomenon of Shirley Temple and the films and actress herself played.


The renowned dancer, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who partnered Temple in several films, is the subject of one entire chapter as his appearances in Temple’s films in some ways, broke the mold of the typical appearance of an African-American performer in a mainstream film at the time.  In some ways, of course, they way his is depicted is highly racist: he’s always a servant, and of course it’s only ok for him to dance with Temple because she is a child. 


I’ve watched quite a few clips of Temple’s performances while writing this article, and I have to say, the scene of her dancing with Robinson is one of the best, not just because of his incredible talent (compared to some of the other partners she had), also because it’s classy (I noticed the clips as whole got classier as she got older, and her parents no doubt had more clout), and both Robinson and Temple seem to really be enjoying themselves and working with each other.


Another chapter that is a bit of a surprise but very interesting is Kasson’s analysis of Herbert Hoover, who was the U.S. president at the beginning of The Depression and is mainly known for making it worse, or anyway, not doing much to help the country.  Kasson asserts that Hoover was a man with many admirable traits who perhaps was caught off guard by the unprecedented events that occurred while he was in office.  I am certainly far from an expert on this topic, but as a casual reader, Kasson’s comments gave me  insight into some of the response of President Trump to the Covid-19 Pandemic while he was in office.


The last chapter of the book focuses on expectations for childhood in the 1930’s, along with economic pressures, that came to play in how Shirley Temple was raised.  To be honest, given her enormous celebrity and the novelty of film as a medium, I personally think it’s a miracle that she grew up as well as she did. 

Shirley Temple Black tells more about her experiences in her autobiography, Child Star, and this 1988 interview with Larry King upon its release. The subsequent volumes she mentions were apparently never finished.





The Legacy of Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple continued to work in film into her teenage years, although her popularity declined as she moved into adult roles, and she eventually stopped acting altogether.  After a short-lived teenage marriage, her second marriage ended when her husband died decades later.  She was also active in the Republican party, and, as my mom told me, served as U.S. ambassadors to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, and was also a Chief of Protocol under Ford and Carter.

When you look at how Shirley Temple started out, it’s amazing that her adult life was so productive, and it seems that she grew up to be a happy, normal, and highly productive adult. 

As a child star, she was an ambassador of sorts; even the U.S. government exploited her for her international fame. According to Kassen she was frequently called to “sit in the lap” (literally) of foreign dignitaries. 

A national asset is a national asset. When you read the caption that originally went with this picture, the scene in The Littlest Rebel where Temple’s character visits Abraham Lincoln doesn’t seem so preposterous: Shirley sees her old friend the president. Washington, D.C., June 24. Shirley Temple leaving the White House offices of the president today after a very important conference with the President. Shirley told the President about losing a tooth last night, and he told her about Sistie and Buzzie losing their teeth, Shirley expects to be in Washington a week checking on the affiars of government with different government officials, 6/24/38, Harris & Ewing, photographer

This sounded fairly creepy to me, but it turns out that was nothing…I actually felt a little sick to my stomach when I started watching some of Temple’s early film clips. 

Her earliest roles were in a series called “Baby Burlesks”, in which toddlers reenacted actual adult films.

I’ve been debating whether to post a clip because it is so skeevy; honestly, I haven’t made it through an entire 10 minute short or even through any of the mini-docs on Youtube you will find about these films.

I’m warning you, you can’t unsee it. Shirley Temple plays a prostitute in a bar full of soldiers. And an African American male toddler does a striptease. I kid you not.

This is not the worst one I found; it makes the point.

If you haven’t seen her early feature films, you might be shocked at how short her skirts were and how much she is sexualized.

Film scholar Ara Osterweil writes an analysis of this theme in Temples work in “Reconstructing Shirley: Pedophilia and Interracial Romance in Hollywood’s Age of Innocence”/Camera Obscura (the link is to the full text of the article).

I also noticed, from the clips of her dancing when she was older, that the gross factor was toned down considerably and she often danced in trousers: No more short, short skirts flapping up. 

So perhaps Temple’s parents (who apparently weren’t the best stage parents ever but not the worst either) were able to tone down the sexual overtones of Temple’s work as she became an established star.

Another aspect of Temple’s films that Osterweil addresses is racial imagery in Temple’s films. She costarred (yes, costarred) with famous tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in four films.

Their dance scene from the first of these films, The Little Colonel, is famous for being the first time a Black and White person danced together on film.

Of course the whole thing is a set up: it’s “ok” because she is a child and Robinson portrays a servant (the film is set post Civil War), and even then, the shot of their holding hands was cut from prints distributed in the South.

What I see, however, is a child actor/dancer who has great respect and admiration for her mentor…and was also kept innocent of many realities of the world at the time, including segregation.

Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple dance on stairs in “The Little Colonel” (1935 film), 20th Century Fox press photo (public domain)

NPR talks about the relationship between Robinson and Temple at the time of Temple’s death: Shirley Temple And Bojangles: Two Stars, One Lifelong Friendship

It’s much harder for me to watch the Dixie-Anna minstrel number from Dimples although, ironically, featured the Hall Johnson Choir, a ground breaking ensemble (see Osterweil above), it is in full minstrel attire. I’m pretty sure I’m not imagining that Temple seems a bit uncomfortable; the “minstrel show” was pretty much over by this time.

So what does all of this mean? Well, thank goodness we have laws now to protect children who aren’t as famous as Shirley Temple…or don’t have decent parents.

Thank goodness that Shirley Temple did not become a victim of neither The Depression nor her fame.

And maybe there is more for all of us to learn from The Depression that we can apply to the challenges of the early 2020’s.

The Legacy of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson


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