by Bill Desowitz)
With the recent death of Shirley Temple Black at age 85, the timing of John F. Kasson's elucidating cultural history of Hollywood's most popular child star makes it a must-read.
Shirley Temple was a key icon of the Depression, making more than two dozen movies in the 1930s and earning $50,000 a picture at Fox. Her irrepressible charm and innocence entertained and revived a dispirited nation.
While Temple (April 23, 1928-Feb. 10, 2014) smiled and cheered and tap-danced across racial boundaries with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel), her international celebrity, in fact, was unique: she rivaled FDR and Edward VIII as the most photographed person in the world, and she revolutionized the role of children as consumers, even spawning a worldwide spate of imitators.
As far as her cinematic impact, Temple personified the importance of never giving up. Her breakout hit, Stand Up and Cheer (1934), a musical about the president of the United States using entertainers to help boost morale, inextricably linked Temple with FDR, making her a poster child for the New Deal.
In a string of successes (including Little Miss Marker, Curly Top, Heidi and The Little Princess), Temple foiled villains and rejuvenated hardened adults. She also redefined cuteness.
No one understood this better than Darryl Zanuck, the head of Fox, who did everything to exaggerate Temple's youth and diminutive stature, accentuating her curls, broad brow, dimpled cheeks, small nose and chin, and short torso and legs through careful costuming and camera work.
Yet a battle ensued over the handling of Temple's persona between her mother, Gertrude, and Zanuck. This came to a head with the making of The Blue Bird, the allegorical fantasy about the search for happiness and Fox's Technicolor answer to The Wizard of Oz. Temple's mother wanted her to be more "impish, spoiled and naughty," and while Zanuck darkened the role, her mother thought she could have been "even meaner."
As for her personal life, success certainly didn't spoil Temple. According to Kasson, she represented the ideal child and appeared to embody middle-class values, which was important in fostering a successful acting career, though there was hardly a wall of privacy. Temple believed she was "just having fun."
Inevitably, Temple's five-year reign of unprecedented popularity came to a close with the coming of World War II. She was growing into adolescence and the country had grown tired of her formula. Fox terminated her contract in 1940 before she became a teenager and her career declined throughout the decade. Temple retired from acting at 22 after accumulating more than $3 million.
After a second marriage to businessman Charles Black, who was oblivious to her celebrity, Temple embarked on a second career as a foreign diplomat, serving in the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and becoming U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. Life had definitely imitated art for the movie icon, who found a way to "Stand Up and Cheer" all over again.
Bill Desowitz is author of James Bond Unmasked.
The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America
By John F. Kasson
W. W. Norton, 320 pp.
*** out of four
by John F. Kasson
(W. W. Norton & Company)