The Magazine

America’s Sweetheart

In the 1930s, there really was one.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By RICHARD STRINER
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In a time of widespread suffering and frequent despair, this little girl touched the hearts of millions of people in our own land and others. Shirley Temple was a cultural force to be reckoned with in the 1930s, and John F. Kasson shows how her films provided therapy as well as entertainment.

Bill Robinson, Shirley Temple in  ‘The Little Colonel’ (1935)

Bill Robinson, Shirley Temple in ‘The Little Colonel’ (1935)

20TH CENTURY FOX / Newscom

Her breakthrough to stardom occurred in 1934, in Fox’s Stand Up and Cheer! A mediocre film, it nonetheless contained an impressive production number, inspired in all likelihood by the New Deal’s NRA parades. “We’re Out of the Red” was a triumphant parade of Americans who had fought their way back to prosperity. The music rings with the spirit of mobilization; its melody suggests other thirties period pieces, such as George and Ira Gershwin’s “Dawn of a New Day.”

In “Out of the Red,” the marchers prance in uniforms either representative of distinctive professions or suggestive of youthful Scouts and Young Pioneers: bare knees, neckerchiefs, snazzy belts. In front of them all, Shirley Temple, a beaming toddler, struts as drum majorette. By 1935, she was a star.

Kasson argues, convincingly, that Fox (later 20th Century Fox) used Shirley Temple in plots designed to reassure. To Depression-ravaged families suffering from the demoralization of the breadwinner and the alienation of the spouse, these movies showed a plucky, dauntless, and delightful little child giving everyone renewed faith: faith in themselves, faith in each other, faith in the future of the family. Shirley Temple, often cast as an orphan, helped adults to recover their self-esteem and bravery. She healed the sicknesses of shattered families, brought former family members together to form new families, and, in the process, created a brand new home for herself. The orphan—the forsaken child—helped to rescue everybody else.

The idea was hardly unique. In The Crowd (1928, MGM), a boy saves his father from a suicide attempt and inspires him to look for a job. In Deanna Durbin’s debut as a child star in Three Smart Girls (1936, Universal), she and her sisters find a way to reunite their divorced parents (perhaps an inspiration for the later Disney classic The Parent Trap). But no one else could put it over like Shirley Temple.

Kasson extends his analysis in several different directions: He compares the reassuring and inspiring appeal of Shirley Temple to the different but related appeal of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He provides an insightful commentary on the racial screen dynamics of Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. He discusses the promotional industry that arose in response to the initial success of Shirley Temple: the public relations campaigns, the Shirley Temple-themed products, the careful choice of film vehicles for the child star.

For nearly six years, Shirley Temple was a cinematic sensation. From 1935 to 1938, she was Hollywood’s number-one box-office star, and her fan clubs had a total membership of more than three million. Kasson observes that “on the occasion of her seventh birthday, twenty thousand admirers in Bali gathered to pray for her health. A Japanese movie magazine filled two issues solely with photographs of Shirley and sold a million copies.” 

Twentieth Century Fox stoked the fans with one promotion after another: Shirley Temple birthday parties and Shirley Temple look-alike contests were held all over the world—girls vied with one another for the honor of being proclaimed the French Shirley Temple, the Cuban Shirley Temple, the Japanese Shirley Temple—while the Shirley Temple doll accounted for one-third of all dolls that were sold in the United States during 1935.

From 1935 to 1940, producer Darryl F. Zanuck worked sedulously to roll out the Shirley Temple formula in one movie after another, to capitalize on the fad while it lasted by giving Shirley’s fans exactly what they wanted. Shirley was growing up quickly, and she could only be passed off as a wee sprite for a few precious years. Shirley’s mother wanted her daughter to be given a chance to be an actress, to demonstrate the range of roles she could perform. But Zanuck was determined, and, of course, his star was under contract—so Shirley Temple became immortalized as we know her. 

When Zanuck did permit a change of format, in The Blue Bird (1940), the results disappointed her fans. In any case, the fad was losing its momentum, and the films that Shirley Temple made as a teenager in the 1940s never really caught on.