Eleanor Roosevelt and Shirley Temple, 1938. U.S. National Archives.

The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression
John F. Kasson
W.W. Norton, $27.95 (cloth)


Before the late twentieth century, when adults came to believe that their ordained task on earth was to promote the happiness of children, children served the well-being of adults and families.

Children went down the mineshaft and trudged behind the plow. To increase their wealth and power, wealthy and powerful families traded their children in marriage. The bodies of the young were savored in sex and wasted in battle.

Eventually most child labor was abolished in the West, and childhood evolved into a long period of incompetence and dependency. Today in America, as sociologist Viviana Zelizer puts it, children are “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”

Yet there remains one category of child who is both economically valuable and emotionally priceless: the child actor. Indeed, from Jackie Coogan to Quvenzhané Wallis, the young star’s bankability depends on the feelings she arouses. And in U.S. history there has been no child star as bankable as Shirley Temple—or as emotionally critical to a nation in distress. That is John F. Kasson’s argument in his stimulating new book, The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America.

Shirley may be the most successful child star of all time. Her picture hung in J. Edgar Hoover’s house and Anne Frank’s hideaway. She met—and entranced—Albert Einstein, Benito Mussolini, and the prince of Siam. Her smile sold millions of dollars worth of dolls, dresses, and breakfast cereals.

On her fleet-tapping feet, it seemed she could not stumble. From 1934 to 1940, she made twenty-four feature films, almost every one a hit. While Americans stood on breadlines, Shirley earned $1,000 a week plus bonuses up to $35,000 for each film, pulling in $20 million for her studio, Twentieth Century-Fox.

Kasson, a professor of history and American studies at the University of North Carolina, expands the biography of this ever-ready engine of good feeling into an original thesis about the evolution of the child in the marketplace, as ideal and as person, as commodity and as consumer. In so doing, Kasson illuminates the nation-building role of popular culture and the power of emotion in politics and the economy.

“Market economies are social institutions,” Kasson writes. “They depend on moral and social values, including confidence, trust, and expectations of stability.” The stock market crash of 1929 not only exposed the need for fundamental reforms in American capitalism; it also battered these red-white-and-blue values nearly to death. “To reinvigorate [them] was thus not a distraction or an escape,” Kasson writes. It was a “potent political act.”

As Kasson tells it, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enlisted Shirley to join him in plying “the politics of cheer.” Her trilling laughter provided the soprano reprise to his reassuring tenor; her truth-to-power directness answered the plain language of his fireside chats. While in Washington he set about turning New Deal rhetoric into concrete policy, in Hollywood she took on the symbolic work. In every film of the 1930s, “Shirley’s central task was emotional healing”—reuniting estranged lovers, encouraging downcast hobos, reforming crooks, and reconciling warring political factions. An early draft of The Littlest Rebel (1935) even had Shirley, as a plantation owner’s daughter, inspiring Lincoln to write the Gettysburg Address, but the script doctor nixed this as too implausible even for her most devoted fans.

Shirley helped make America happier and more optimistic—and that, as Kasson’s title declares, was crucial to getting workers back to work and shoppers back into shops. The two matching smiles—hers punctuated by the famous dimples, Roosevelt’s pierced by the ever-present cigarette holder—were as emblematic of the Great Depression as the anxious faces of Dorothea Lange’s sharecroppers.

But cheering up the country was no song and dance, not for Shirley and not for any of the children whose occupation was to perform carefree youth even as many kept their families afloat. Grounding his argument in sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s concept of “emotional labor,” Kasson describes the toils of young actors, both physical and psychic, preserving for adult viewers “a consecrated sense of childhood as a refuge from the anxieties of adulthood.”

Shirley Temple’s central task was emotional healing.

Shirley’s friend in the White House may have been a champion of the working man, but his attitude toward the working child was less steadfast. When Hollywood, backed up by child psychologists, advanced the propaganda that the happy little actors onscreen were not really working but were instead engaged in developmentally salutary play, FDR was willing to go along. As the Fair Labor Standards Act, which outlawed most child labor, made its way to the president’s desk in 1938, Fox sent Shirley to the Oval Office to lobby the studios’ case. As always, her charm triumphed. Along with exemptions for children in family businesses, minor-age farm workers, and newsboys, the law carved out a loophole for child actors.

Washington did institute some regulations on the young workers’ hours and conditions, but the studios flouted them. And, in spite of a 1939 California statute requiring families to establish trust funds for their professional children, of the more than $3 million Shirley earned, the Temples squandered all but $44,000 on cars and clothes, gambling, and handouts to family members.

• • •

The Temples deployed the ideal of the economically naïve child in a novel way: to keep their daughter in the dark while stealing her money. But the ideal wasn’t itself new. Childhood innocence has long been a euphemism for childhood ignorance, and both are wishful thinking. The eighteenth-century Romantics concocted the ideal of the innocent child uncorrupted by knowledge of money, politics, and other mean adult concerns. In the nineteenth century, the Victorians figured childhood innocence/ignorance in more specifically sexual terms. The ideal is versatile. It can mask children’s economic or sexual exploitation, mobilize reform to better children’s lives, rationalize censorship or the denial of sex education, and much more.

But if this fiction assuaged Depression-era adults’ anxiety about the trauma they might be inflicting with their own economic woes, it also implied a greater need to protect and coddle the young. Kasson finds that in a burgeoning consumer economy—burgeoning in spite of widespread penury—such coddling began to take the form of acquisition on the child’s behalf. This new meaning of the Child—one who is cared for through the purchase of things—“depended on an economy of abundance [defining] a stage of life . . . characterized by the pleasures of economic consumption rather than productive labor.”

That was an irony, to say the least, during the Depression. But it also softened people up to commercial persuasion. Just as parents today will take on debt in order to pile toys beneath the tree, during the Christmas season the Shirley Temple doll was introduced, Americans snapped up 50,000. The smallest version cost $3, roughly $50 today.

In the 1930s, Kasson argues, the child became both commodity and consumer. And Shirley was the ultimate product, her managers capitalizing on the mania for cuteness. Combining “the pert and the powerless,” Kasson says, cuteness “invited the beholder’s responses on various levels: aesthetic delight, moral protection, and possessive desire.”

Children wanted both to have and to be Shirley. In addition to coveting the dolls and dresses, girls from Iowa to Bombay entered look-alike contests. But just what possessive desire did Shirley arouse in adults?

The objects of her attention were almost invariably adult men. There was, Kasson notes, scarcely a male lap she did not climb into on or offscreen, and there was an extravagant amount of manhandling in the films. He describes, for instance, a famous song-and-dance sequence in Stand Up and Cheer (1934) that begins with Shirley’s widowed father showcasing his glamorous fiancée, exclaiming “Baby take a bow!” and ends with the same exhortation to his diminutive daughter, who emerges from between his legs, organza dress extending like a parasol from above her waist, barely covering her panties. In “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” from Bright Eyes (1934), a planeload of hunky aviators pass Shirley up and down the aisle, each copping a handful of naked thigh as she goes.

But no sooner has Kasson reviewed these scenes of soft-core kiddy porn than he banishes the obvious inference: that they might, just might, be designed to get a reaction from another part of the viewer’s body than his heart.

“In the course of [“Baby, Take a Bow”] eroticism has been supplanted by cuteness,” Kasson writes. “The father-daughter bond is evidently sufficient protection from Shirley’s flirtatiousness.” Having tallied Shirley’s lifters and caressers in Bright Eyes at “at least fifteen men,” he calls this airborne orgy of intergenerational appreciation a “celebration of childhood innocence,” which “contains an implicit contrast with a romantic adult alternative.”

To a few contemporaneous observers, there was no such contrast. “Watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity,” Graham Greene wrote in 1937. “Her admirers, middle-aged men and clergy-men, respond to her dubious coquetry, to the signal of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”

Kasson acknowledges that some admirers felt what Greene described. Bright Eyes “left me helpless in a new kind of love. I am wild to be my best girl’s father,” a letter writer confessed to a trade magazine. This man’s moral protectiveness was as compelling as his possessive desire, however: his was “a terrible amour for an old gent like me.”

Yet Kasson suggests that the old gent was an outlier and Greene’s views anachronistic, more in tune with our time than his own: “It is a striking measure of shifts in cultural attitudes that such flamboyant cuddling between Shirley and the fathers and father-figures in her films, deeply suggestive of pedophilia and incest to many critics today, clearly delighted Depression audiences.”

For Kasson, delight canceled out desire. Cuteness was the antithesis of eroticism. He rejects the persuasive thesis advanced by literary scholar James R. Kincaid in Child-Loving (1992) and Erotic Innocence (1998), that adults’ delight in child movie stars—and, per the letter writer, simultaneous self-disgust—was pedophilic desire.

• • •

The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression punctures one fantasy—the eighteenth-century Romantic ideal of the child innocent of material cares. Kasson illuminates the contradiction between that imaginary figure and the real child actor. He exposes the cynicism of Shirley’s handlers, who “worked like alchemists to turn her ebullient child-spirit into gold.” They exploited every ounce of her energy while selling the image of a “normal” little girl unhardened by show business, unspoiled by adulation and riches.

Yet is there not a similar contradiction between the idealized sexual innocent and Shirley’s short-short skirts, her sashaying and pouting and promiscuous lap dancing—er, sitting? Might her sexiness have been a rich source of profit, all the richer because it could not be censured, even mentioned? When Greene brought it up, Twentieth Century-Fox sued him for libel and won. The studio knew such classified information had to be squelched.

We are still trying to squelch it and are still confounded by it. We criminalize photographs of families on nudist beaches as child pornography, yet the fashion pages are filled with models only recently graduated from middle school. Eros is a principal element of consumer desire, even—Kincaid would say especially—when the commodity is the body of a child. Might we wish, at least unconsciously, not to know this, just as we would rather not know that children are picking our tomatoes and sewing our blue jeans?

The Romantic and Victorian iterations of childhood innocence are two phases of the same dream. They both deny the reality of childhood, which, as every former child is aware, is not all it’s cracked up to be. If Kasson doesn’t muster an objection to the myth of the sexually innocent child, it is not because he misses it (he mentions Kincaid) or sets it aside as peripheral to his thesis. It is just that he is a man of his time: he buys it.

So the book is not perfect. Yet what it achieves far outweighs what it doesn’t. The Girl Who Fought the Great Depression is more than a biography as beguiling as its subject. It is a significant contribution to our understanding of the mechanisms of emotion, both pleasure and pathos, in shaping American politics, moving the economy, and creating national identity.