The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America (28 page)

BOOK: The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America

Zanuck’s story outline was also a kind of dream-work, of the Hollywood rather than Freudian variety. He took the fear that Shirley’s own career as a child performer had run its course and that she might soon retire from movies, attend school rather than be tutored at the studio, and lead a normal childhood and converted it into a nostalgic tribute to vaudeville and an encore to her association with Twentieth Century–Fox. Certainly Zanuck knew by this time the depths of Gertrude and George Temple’s dissatisfaction. And, as he watched Shirley slide from top box-office champion from 1935 through 1938 to fifth place in 1939, he clearly feared that her success could not last. His temporary title of
The Girl Who Came Back
expressed a hope that Shirley could recover her Midas touch. If not, the movie could still make money and also serve as a kind of parting gold watch, a pink slip cut into a valentine.

The film to blossom from Zanuck’s seed was
Young People
. Filming finally began in late March 1940, the time of
Blue Bird
’s general release, and was finished by early May. By this point Gertrude Temple’s long-simmering frustrations had boiled over: “I’m just waiting here for Shirley’s contract to be over,” she declared in an interview. Twentieth Century–Fox might be content with repeating the Shirley of old, but her mother was not. Gertrude ached for her daughter to tackle more challenging and realistic roles. Starting to attend school at the age of eleven and a half (like her character Wendy Ballantine in the screenplay) and no doubt swayed by her parents’ opposition to the studio, Shirley herself fabricated an illness as shooting began. Zanuck saw right through her and permitted no excuses.

Almost all of the cast of
Young People
joined Shirley Temple for the first time (Mae Marsh was the exception), but they played familiar roles: affable Jack Oakie as Shirley’s adoptive father; tall, long-legged Charlotte Greenwood, the “only woman in the world who could kick a giraffe in the face,” as Shirley’s adoptive mother; and Kathleen Howard as the formidable pillar of prim conservatism, who could roll her
’s so as to make a word such as “thrift” spin like a top.
Shirley herself gets a chance to act more her age while still playing the emotional scales from hearty cheer to loving devotion, as well as occasional tears of rejection and gratitude. Allan Dwan, whose long film career dated back to Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, directed, making this his third Shirley Temple film. The songs, with lyrics by Shirley Temple veteran Mack Gordon, now joined by composer Harry Warren, returned to the upbeat ditties and lullaby tributes of old. The movie’s finale marveled at the “merry world” all around us and urged people once again to smile through the rainstorms, knowing that the stars would shine again.

Maybe not. Immediately after making
Young People
and starkly exposing the difference between life and art, happy endings and bitter divides, on May 11, 1940, Gertrude Temple announced that Shirley would end “her screen career for the present and will retire to the life of a normal child.” In an “amicable settlement” with Twentieth Century–Fox Studios, the Temples canceled the remaining fourteen months of Shirley’s contract. Gertrude Temple reiterated her dissatisfaction with Shirley’s story material but stressed that the Temples chiefly desired to have Shirley regularly mingle with other children. During the past five years, the United Press news service reported, she had earned $20 million for the studio and had accumulated $3 million in her own right. However brief Shirley’s “retirement” would prove, the years with Zanuck were over.

Thus, the release of
Young People
three months later, in August 1940, assumed special poignancy to Shirley’s fans. Gertrude Temple must have found bitter satisfaction from those reviews that castigated the screenplay Zanuck had inspired. Howard Barnes dismissed the film as “a hodgepodge of variety turns, precocious antics and overly sentimental drama, with a hurricane thrown in for good measure. The little veteran has had some bad deals on story material in the past, but [this] . . . offering establishes a new low.” Despite lobbing these rotten tomatoes, Barnes threw his own bouquet to Shirley: “Being one of those who always found her extremely attractive, unself-conscious and artful, I am sorry that she has decided to retire before reaching adolescence.” Richard Coe delivered a similar verdict in the
Washington Post
: “In ‘Young People’ Shirley is called upon to deliver New England to the New Deal. Although she saved the Empire in Queen Victoria’s glorious days, the job is pretty tough with no help whatever from a script department which obviously pulled the lines out of an old box.”

Yet Bosley Crowther, who had replaced Frank Nugent at the
New York Times
, regarded the movie more indulgently. “As usual in Temple pictures, ‘Young People’ goes heavy on sweetness and light,” he conceded. “But perhaps because it is a modest production, because the budget prohibited excessive splash, it keeps within reasonable bounds. For patrons who can take so much precocity, it should be one of the more charming of the miracle child’s films.”

A few independent exhibitors agreed with Crowther. “Oh, why wait till Shirley’s last picture to give her a story,” sighed one from Brooksville, Kentucky. “Good picture and story. . . . Too bad they did not give her better stories in the past,” an exhibitor from Roaring Spring, Pennsylvania, lamented. Nonetheless, most exhibitors reported poor business.

Zanuck’s formula for a good Shirley Temple movie, which he had inherited from Winfield Sheehan, was fashioned in response to the demands of movie audiences in the midst of the Great Depression. For five years it sustained Shirley Temple’s unprecedented popularity, buoying up spirits of children, women, and men in the United States and worldwide at a time when cheer and the promise of happiness were badly needed. That it finally lost its appeal is hardly surprising. What is most remarkable is its immense staying power. Unquestionably, it confined Shirley to a relatively narrow series of roles, but it might equally well be argued that it gave her special talents extraordinary prominence. Several factors conspired to bring her reign as a child star to an end: the onset of her adolescence, the exhaustion of the formula, and the changing context of the emotional needs and desires of the moviegoing public. By 1940 war had erupted in Europe, the international movie market had contracted significantly, action and adventure movies had gained new popularity, and even family audiences hungered for different fare, such as Charlie Chaplin’s
The Great Dictator
. The abundance of young child actors, so prominent in Hollywood films of the early 1930s when Shirley achieved her breakthrough, lost the spotlight to a formidably talented group of adolescent stars, including Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and Deanna Durbin.

Twentieth Century–Fox, too, had arisen from the financial disarray that surrounded its union to an impressive stature, measured both in profits and also in its best films, including a much more searing examination of the Great Depression than any Shirley Temple movie,
The Grapes of Wrath
, released in January 1940. By this time the little girl had burst into adolescence, President Roosevelt was increasingly preoccupied by the looming war, and neither the studio nor the nation needed saving by her cute ways and adorable smile.


Onscreen, Shirley triumphed fundamentally as a personality. Many admirers believed that she was simply portraying herself. Still, they wished to authenticate the shadow on the screen with testimonials to the flesh-and-blood little girl. For the success of Shirley’s career, this reassurance was fundamental. For Darryl Zanuck, film reviewers, and small-town movie exhibiters, a pressing question throughout the 1930s remained: how long could Shirley’s box-office magic last? For many of her fans, however, the most urgent and abiding question that they combed fan magazines and newspaper articles to answer was, would success spoil Shirley Temple?

The image of the spoiled child—pampered, willful, unfeeling—remained a prominent concern for parents, and the abnormal terms of child actors’ lives appeared to place them at special risk. Suspicions about the emotional perils of the professional child actor, a charged issue earlier in the century, still lingered in the 1930s. Acting might encourage artifice, success breed self-importance, studio and public pressures lead to a warped personality. Child-rearing experts in the 1920s and 1930s enshrined the concept of the normal child and stressed parents’ responsibility for that development.
Many parents were themselves torn between older values of thrift, self-control, and deferred gratification and the rising consumer values of self-expression and indulgence. In addition, many middle-class parents and child experts worried about the seductive pleasures of commercial amusements, movies especially, that pulled children away from the home. Shirley embodied many of those pleasures. She helped to transform merchandising to children. She influenced the ways that little girls dressed, wore their hair, and shopped with their families, and the dolls, toys, and games they played with, as well as the films that they watched. Still more profoundly, she shaped their own personalities, desires, and dreams, and those that their mothers and often fathers had for them. The question of whether Shirley was spoiled, then, held enormous stakes. She represented the ideal child. How did she, her family, and the film industry in which she worked—or played, as her mother always insisted—manage to balance her acting career and her private life, her integral participation in the media that transfixed children and her own moral development as a child? If she was spoiled, might others also be tainted? If she was not, what could others learn from her example? Was she abnormal? Unique as was her situation, the answer to such questions contained important implications for millions. If Shirley was truly as good as gold, if she could pass reporters’ acid tests and not expose base metal, then the consumer market in which she was so deeply enmeshed might be safe for all children and their families.

The boundaries between public and private life have always been porous, but beginning around the turn of the twentieth century, the pressures of an emerging celebrity culture eroded them considerably. In fact, the right of personal privacy as a modern legal concept was first formulated to protect individuals from the prying intrusions of celebrity-chasing journalists. It was famously articulated in an 1890 article by Samuel Warren and his law partner the future United States Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis as “the right to be let alone.” Warren had married into the socially and politically prominent Bayard family, whose weddings, funerals, and social doings attracted persistent press coverage, and so his complaint had a personal dimension.
“Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life,” he and Brandeis wrote, “and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’ . . . Gossip . . . has become a trade,” they lamented, “which can only be procured by intrusion upon the domestic circle.” Warren and Brandeis argued that this breach was not only a domestic intrusion but an act fundamentally at odds with American law. They conceived of the “right to privacy” as “a part of the more general right to the immunity of the person,—the right to one’s personality” shielded from public exposure.

Thus, two understandings of “personality” emerged around the turn of the twentieth century in dialectical tension with one another, and the contest between them held momentous implications for modern life. The legal assertion of privacy defended the “personality rights” of individuals to pursue their personal lives and domestic arrangements free from intrusive regulation or exposure. A quite different understanding of personality, however, emerged at the same time as part of a new concept of self in modern consumer culture. Here personality meant the personal qualities that distinguish an individual from the crowd, such as charm, poise, magnetism, charisma. These were the qualities of a performer, and the supreme exemplars of such performers were movie stars.

More than any other child star of the Great Depression, perhaps more than any other Hollywood star of the twentieth century, Shirley Temple carried this performative notion of personality into the private lives of many families. Yet the public fascination with her personality meant that her own family’s private life was rocked as well. This was the ironic outcome of Gertrude Temple’s ambitions for her daughter. Mrs. Temple could not have imagined the scale of Shirley’s ultimate celebrity when she groomed her as a child performer, for the magnitude of that success was unprecedented. Nor could genial George Temple have anticipated that his daughter would become the family business, turning his own role as breadwinner topsy-turvy.

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