The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America (Hardcover)
How the smile and fortitude of a child actress revived a nation.
Her image appeared in periodicals and advertisements roughly twenty times daily; she rivaled FDR and Edward VIII as the most photographed person in the world. Her portrait brightened the homes of countless admirers: from a black laborer’s cabin in South Carolina and young Andy Warhol’s house in Pittsburgh to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s recreation room in Washington, DC, and gangster “Bumpy” Johnson’s Harlem apartment. A few years later her smile cheered the secret bedchamber of Anne Frank in Amsterdam as young Anne hid from the Nazis.
For four consecutive years Shirley Temple was the world’s box-office champion, a record never equaled. By early 1935 her mail was reported as four thousand letters a week, and hers was the second-most popular girl’s name in the country.
What distinguished Shirley Temple from every other Hollywood star of the period—and everyone since—was how brilliantly she shone. Amid the deprivation and despair of the Great Depression, Shirley Temple radiated optimism and plucky good cheer that lifted the spirits of millions and shaped their collective character for generations to come. Distinguished cultural historian John F. Kasson shows how the most famous, adored, imitated, and commodified child in the world astonished movie goers, created a new international culture of celebrity, and revolutionized the role of children as consumers.
Tap-dancing across racial boundaries with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, foiling villains, and mending the hearts and troubles of the deserving, Shirley Temple personified the hopes and dreams of Americans. To do so, she worked virtually every day of her childhood, transforming her own family as well as the lives of her fans.
About the Author
John F. Kasson is a professor of history and American studies at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and the author of Amusing the Million, among many other seminal works of cultural history. He lives in Chapel Hill.
The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression is an illuminating and highly entertaining look at the life and career of the greatest young movie star of her era. John Kasson perceptively reveals how Shirley Temple brought hope and joy to a diverse array of people throughout the world while simultaneously transforming the nature of celebrity, consumption, and childhood culture in 1930s America.
— Steven J. Ross, author of Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics
John Kasson delights the reader with his lively account of feel-good films starring the adorable curly-headed moppet who, with radiant smile and winsome guile, lit up the dark nights of the 1930s. A brilliant analyst, Kasson lays bare coruscatingly, too, how exploited child actors serve as ‘canaries in the mine shaft of modern consumer culture.’
— William E. Leuchtenburg, author of In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to Barack Obama
Carefully argued and gracefully written. Not since the pioneering essays of Warren Susman has any historian so brilliantly illuminated the emotional life of Americans in the 1930s. The Great Depression—not to mention Shirley Temple and Franklin Roosevelt—will never look the same.
— Jackson Lears, author of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
John F. 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.
— Ty Burr, author of Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame
Sparkling, beautifully written, nearly impossible to put down. John Kasson moves behind the seemingly effortless smile of Shirley Temple to uncover the child labor it required, and explores the complex emotional work performed by that smile for Americans struggling to survive the Great Depression. A compelling and creative new cultural history of the 1930s.
— Karen Halttunen, author of Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study in Middle-Class Culture, 1830-1870
[A] look back to a moment in American society when…the movies mattered and when one magnetic star could help change people’s minds and hearts.
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… John F. Kasson shows how her films provided therapy as well as entertainment.
— Richard Striner
Examines the impact of the child star not only on Hollywood, but on politics as well… Elucidating… a must-read.
[Kasson’s] insightful new book explores the politics of the time, racial attitudes, movie-going habits and the breadth and depth of Shirley Temple’s appeal.
— Elizabeth Bennett
A wonderful epilogue to Temple's career… and an enlightening examination of the curly topped moppet's impact on Hollywood, the economy and the mood of a troubled nation.
— Daniel Bubbeo