What President Obama needed was a Shirley Temple!
Not the popular non-alcoholic drink named for the childhood star.
What he needed as he faced the nation’s worst economic situation since the Great Depression was the kind of help President Franklin D. Roosevelt got from a bright, cheerful, optimistic child actor who lifted the spirits of almost every American during the dark times of the 1930s.
Even after her recent death at age 85, people still remember – indeed worship – her. She rivaled FDR as the most photographed person in the world. From 1934 until 1940, she made 22 feature films and was the most popular star at the box office. How do we explain this little girl’s appeal, and what role does she play in America’s cultural history? UNC-Chapel Hill professor John Kasson tackles these questions in his new book, The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America.
Kasson asserts, “The circulation of a new emotional currency during the 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. Satisfying the craving of many deep in need of emotional loans and replenishments challenged political leaders and entertainers alike. The politician who succeeded most effectively was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The entertainer who did so most spectacularly was a little girl, Shirley Temple.”
In 1934, soon after the new president took office, Temple’s breakthrough film, Stand Up and Cheer!, unapologetically “linked arms with FDR in celebrating national recovery.”
“Amid the deprivation and despair of the Great Depression,” Kasson explains, “Shirley Temple radiated optimism and plucky good cheer that lifted the spirits of millions and shaped their collective character for generations to come.”
Kasson writes, “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.”
Like FDR, our current president tried to lift the country’s spirits during the recent dark times. From time to time he even flashed an FDR smile. But nothing and nobody lifted our spirits like Shirley Temple lifted those of our grandparents 80 years ago.
Would the help of somebody like Shirley Temple have made a difference for Obama’s efforts to turn the nation’s economy around?
Recently, Kasson told me that he does not like to speculate on such “what-if” questions. However, he pointed out a couple of factors that would have made it difficult for anybody to have duplicated the Shirley Temple-FDR cheerleading success.
First, compared to Obama, FDR had more support from Congress at the beginning of his presidency. While FDR also faced partisan division and factionalism, what Obama faced was much more entrenched.
Secondly, Shirley Temple may have been a one-of-a-kind figure. “What distinguished Shirley Temple from every other Hollywood star of the period – and everyone since – was how brilliantly she shone.”
Kasson’s book is much more than an account of Temple’s Depression-fighting partnership with FDR, as is well explained by Ty Burr, author of Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame. Burr wrote, “Kasson skillfully uses Shirley Temple as a prism to cast light on a vast range of subjects: The rise of FDR, optimism as Depression-era propaganda, the double existence of African-American stars, innocence as a consumer commodity, the fickleness of star adoration and the dangers of the mob, the meaning of childhood in a changing culture, and Hollywood’s exploitation of its human profit centers, no matter how small. Connecting them all is Temple herself, serene, self-composed, and indestructible—the one movie star who wasn’t putting on an act.”