The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America (8 page)

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

In other Baby Burlesks, the children speak their own lines, but the heavy-handed humor remains the same. A hip-bumping Shirley burlesqued actress Dolores del Rio’s role as Charmaine de la Cognac in
War Babies
(a satire of
What Price Glory?
), Marlene Dietrich (“Morelegs Sweettrick”) in
Kiddin’ Hollywood
, Mae West in
Glad Rags to Riches
(in which she tap-danced and sang), and a strumpet bent on seducing a senator in
Polly Tix in Washington
. The child actors’ broad gestures and mugging recall the silent-film era that had just ended.

Shirley as the vamp Polly in a production still for the Baby Burlesk
Polly Tix in Washington
. (Photofest/Educational Films)

However cartoonish these shorts were, making them was not child’s play. Quite the contrary, they demanded strenuous effort from both mother and daughter. For her first film,
Runt Page
, finished in January 1932, three-and-a-half-year-old Shirley and Gertrude Temple shuttled back and forth from home to studio for weeks of unpaid rehearsals. Then, just as shooting began, Shirley’s cold erupted in a painful ear infection. Gertrude rushed her to a hospital to have the eardrum lanced and stayed up with her all night. Gertrude begged producer Jack Hays for a rest, but he insisted that they be at the studio the following morning, or else Shirley would have to be replaced. If the film proved a success, he coaxed, then Shirley would star in the whole series. That day Shirley spent almost twelve hours in the studio. Recounting these events in a letter to her own mother, Gertrude concluded by confessing what she never revealed publicly: the link between her hopes for Shirley’s film career and the family’s financial worries. Immediately after saying how everyone anticipated that the movie would be a great success, she remarked on the empty shops and widespread unemployment in the Los Angeles area. Then she added, “George is also very worried, as our financial condition is pretty bad.” Amid the wave of banking panics and depressed conditions, the abundant credit of the 1920s had slowed to a trickle. With her husband’s position precarious, a lot of hopes rested on their daughter.

Shirley might have just got her foot in the door of an outpost on Poverty Row, but Gertrude Temple imagined it as the first step on a stairway leading swiftly to the top. Anxious and excited, she seemed never to have doubted that the movies offered her daughter a golden opportunity. Hays had assured her that Shirley would have “a very good dramatic teacher,” the use of a kitchenette, and a place to nap, so that her daily routine would proceed much as usual.

These promises proved empty, however. Far from expert dramatic instruction, Jack Hays and Charles Lamont spoon-fed Shirley and the other child actors their lines one at a time and urged them to mug broadly. The children’s job was not acting but mimicry, Shirley later observed. Gertrude coached her at home as best she could, urging her to “sparkle” and teaching her how to arch her eyebrows, round her mouth in surprise, thrust out her lower lip, and cock her head sideways with a knowing smile—gestures that would become characteristic in Shirley’s later films.

The set of the Baby Burlesks resembled a workhouse more than a day nursery. To threaten and punish uncooperative child actors, Lamont kept a soundproof black box, six feet on each side, containing a block of ice. An offending child was locked within this dark, cramped interior and either stood uncomfortably in the cold, humid air or had to sit on the ice. Those who told their parents about this torture were threatened with further punishment. When, nonetheless, Shirley confided to her mother, Gertrude Temple dismissed her report as a fanciful tale. A half century later, Shirley would still insist on its veracity, but it was not a story that Gertrude wished to hear. Lamont was equally ruthless behind the camera. In a
film spoof,
Kid in Africa
, for example, he concealed a tripwire to level the “savages” played by African American children. In filming
Polly Tix in Washington
, a terrified ostrich pulling Shirley and another child in a surrey careened wildly about the set before crashing into a wall. “This isn’t playtime, kids,” she remembered Lamont saying. “It’s work.”

Looking back on her childhood from middle age, Shirley Temple Black agreed. Once she started in Baby Burlesks at age three, she observed, “[I] worked for the rest of my childhood.” Though not solely the creature of the studio, “I went to work
every day
. . . . I thought every child worked, because I was born into it.”

Gertrude Temple, by contrast, insisted that her daughter’s time at the studio was carefree recreation. “Motion-picture acting is simply part of her play life,” she declared in 1935. “It is un-tinged with worry about tomorrow or fear of failure.” Indeed, similar words were put in Shirley’s mouth by a journalist the same year, when she supposedly told her “autobiography” as a seven-year-old: acting “is like playing a game of make-believe. That’s the easiest game in the world to play. It is for me, anyway.”

This justification was a common, even threadbare, defense by parents and producers of child performers.
Such assurances constituted an implicit reply to an unnamable charge: that child acting, far from harmless play, in fact constituted a form of exploitative child labor. The defense of child acting as a legitimate activity, separate and distinct from oppressive child labor in textile mills, coal mines, glasshouses, tenements, street trades, and the like, had been fought by theatrical interests and the children’s parents for over half a century. The position of the child actor was highly paradoxical, as one who fascinated audiences in the ability both to imitate adults and to portray the unique characteristics of childhood innocence. As the sociologist Viviana Zelizer has observed, such actors “were child laborers paid to represent the new, sentimentalized view of children.”
Even very young children could score phenomenal triumphs in such roles, as they seemed not to work but to play—and earned far more for their families than most adults. One of the first American child stars, Cordelia Howard (1848–1941), appeared onstage at the age of four in
Oliver Twist
and soon afterward played Little Eva in
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
, a part for which she became famous. Kate Bateman (1842–1917) began her acting career at age three in
Babes in the Woods
. A generation later, Elsie Leslie (1881–1960) launched her professional career as a four-year-old and achieved two of her greatest successes in dramatic versions of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s
Little Lord Fauntleroy
in 1888 and Mark Twain’s
The Prince and the Pauper
in 1890. In the first decade of the twentieth century, spectacular Broadway productions featuring children reached their height, led by
The Wizard of Oz
The Little Princess
The Blue Bird
Babes in Toyland
, and
Peter Pan
In the 1920s Hollywood brought forth Jackie Coogan, “Baby Peggy” Montgomery, and the popular Our Gang two-reelers, and legions followed in their footsteps. Film allowed child actors greater freedom of movement and intimacy of expression than did the stage. Moreover, the introduction of sound created new possibilities for giggling, sobbing, whining, shrieking, singing, and dancing.

Nonetheless, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, defenders of professional child actors frequently battled reformers who made little distinction between child performers on the legitimate stage and those performing in circuses or saloons.
Gradually abandoning arguments for the economically useful child, which had acquired a mercenary taint, such defenders claimed the higher ground of acting’s educational benefits for children. They also extolled the realization of the playwright’s artistic vision and the wholesome pleasures children’s performances gave to the public. A pamphlet published in 1911 by the National Alliance for the Protection of Stage Children argued for uniform laws that would eliminate children’s performances under hazardous, unhealthful, or indecent conditions while preserving their appearances on the legitimate stage. The authors sharply distinguished between “the few moments of mental effort of the stage child” and “the blind, constant and degrading toil of the little slave of the mill, whose drudgery dwarfs mind, body, and spirit.” They spoke glowingly of “the emanation of the spirit of childhood; an emanation which only a little child can convincingly give forth.” The pamphlet even leapt to the defense of stage mothers and fathers, often depicted as mercenary and demanding: “Parents of the child genius do not lose their parental solicitude by reason of their child’s unusual talents.” The wages that a child actor earned were entirely secondary, even though these children were “mostly little geniuses of the poor, or of those in moderate circumstances.”

Others objected, however, that the professionalization of child actors turned childhood itself into a commodity. “The idea of a professional child—a child in whose case simple childhood is the sole stock in trade,” a writer protested, “is touched with sacrilege.” Learning to perform childhood innocence, the child actor lost the unself-conscious spontaneity that was its essence: “One of the most inalienable and fatal attributes of the true show-child . . . [is that] it has learnt to watch itself, and will go so far as to make a study of its own emotions.” Such critics nonetheless feared that the “capitalization of childhood’s appeal” might be an irreversible trend.

Shirley Temple’s career proved to be a monumental step in precisely that direction, but it came within an inch of not happening at all. In September 1933 Shirley’s modest prospects with Educational Films ended abruptly when Jack Hays filed for bankruptcy.
George Temple bought back the remainder of Shirley’s contract, or so he thought, for a nominal sum. (After Shirley’s success, Hays bedeviled him for years with legal suits.) Then, as Shirley and her mother viewed her last short for Educational Films in a Los Angeles movie theater around Thanksgiving, Shirley was spotted by or, more likely, thrust by her mother before the songwriter Jay Gorney, who was seeking a little girl to carry the song-and-dance number in Fox Film’s
Stand Up and Cheer!

Gorney was a composer with a political conscience and a talent for voicing the hardships and disillusionment of the decade. With lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, he had written the plaintive hit song of the Great Depression “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1932), based on a Yiddish lullaby he had known as a child.
In the voice of a “forgotten man” on a breadline, it traces the broken dreams, lost sense of fraternity, and withered pride of an American worker and veteran of the Great War, now friendless and spurned. Once he built railroads, towers, and dreams, the man remembers in a minor key. Then, brightening to a major key and a jauntier march rhythm, he recalls how, as a drummer boy, he trudged with other doughboys through the hell of the Great War. The song rises an octave to a loud, urgent C with its entreating, “Don’t you remember? I’m your
!” before its appeal collapses, no longer addressing the fraternal brother but the more impersonal “buddy,” as he repeats the title plea, “Can you spare a dime?”
Introduced in early October 1932 in the Shubert brothers’
revue, the song also represented a moving rebuke to the violent dispersal three months earlier of the Bonus Army of World War veterans outside Washington, D.C. Indeed, the number served as an election-year riposte to Herbert Hoover, the figurative flip side of Roosevelt’s “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Bing Crosby’s famous rendition of the song was quickly issued by Brunswick Records, and by Election Day on November 8, less than five weeks after the song’s Broadway debut, it was the most popular record in the country.

James Dunn and Shirley in the “Baby Take a Bow” number from
Stand Up and Cheer!

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