A cultural historian examines how the films of Shirley Temple (1928–2014) worked in tandem with New Deal politics to help Americans overcome the Great Depression.
The images most associated with the 1930s bear witness to the hardships average Americans faced. But the ones most popular during this time bore the radiant face of child actress Temple. In this study, Kasson (History and American Studies/Univ. of North Carolina; Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America, 2001, etc.) argues that Temple’s smile and sunny personality helped bring Franklin Roosevelt’s “politics of cheer” to the forefront of national consciousness while providing Americans with much-needed emotional solace. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, which made government assistance available to “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” only went so far. Consumer confidence, which implied faith in the future, also had to be restored to ensure the return of prosperity. Roosevelt accomplished part of this task through the vigorously cheerful outlook he projected in his political addresses. From 1934 to 1940, Temple captivated movie-going audiences all over the United States and the world with her ability to heal broken hearts with her “inexhaustible fund of optimism.” Through her extraordinary dance partnership with black entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Temple also called attention to the problem of race in both Hollywood and the United States while bringing hope to African-Americans, who had suffered even more than whites during the Depression. The cult of personality that developed around Temple even helped the struggling economy. At the height of the young star’s popularity, fans spent millions of dollars on Temple memorabilia.
Informative and well-researched, Kasson’s work offers insight into one of Hollywood’s most beloved entertainers, as well as the fascinating connection between politics and entertainment.