The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America (9 page)

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

Stand Up and Cheer
was already in production when Gertrude and Shirley Temple hurried to the Fox studio for a hastily arranged audition with Gorney and fellow songwriter Lew Brown. (The later report that she was among 250 children vying for the part was a publicity fabrication.) Shirley sang satisfactorily and then performed a dance routine that she had learned at Mrs. Meglin’s. Suddenly she had a bit part, replacing a less winning little girl. Yet “Baby Take a Bow,” the song-and-dance number by Gorney and Brown that Shirley performs in the film, was no paean to the forgotten man. On the contrary, all thoughts of the Depression are banished, and the carefree party of the 1920s remains in full swing. The number begins as a tribute by Jimmy Dugan, little Shirley’s fictional father, in the persona of a boulevardier, to a supposed fiancée, “the future Mrs. Hemingway,” who is the source of widespread attention. Wearing top hat and tails and carrying a walking stick, Jimmy sings the title lyric and dances with a single platinum blonde, then a cluster of scantily clad chorines. Recalling the much more elaborate dance sequences that Busby Berkeley made for Warner Bros., the camera moves to a series of close-ups on the chorines’ faces and then, disorientingly, to doll-like figures in frilly dresses that turn out to be their knees and legs. Prepared for by this miniature scale, little Shirley, in a frilly, very short white organdy dress with red polka dots, emerges from her father’s spread legs to become the new “baby” who is the source of everyone’s tribute. With beaming smile, chest out, hands clenched, shoulders and arms moving to the rhythm, she returns the song’s compliment, inviting her daddy to take a bow in turn. The two then perform the tap dance that Shirley brought from Mrs. Meglin’s, and Jimmy scoops her up in his arms for a final embrace and kiss. In the course of the number, eroticism has been supplanted by cuteness, and the father-daughter bond is evidently sufficient protection from Shirley’s flirtatiousness.

Shirley’s place in the dance number is justified, as is the position of child actors generally, within the very storyline of
Stand Up and Cheer!
An important official must decide whether little Shirley Dugan’s performance in her father’s song-and-dance act should be exempt from a ban on child actors under the age of seven. “Shirley doesn’t really work,” protests her fictional father, played by James Dunn, an ex-vaudevillian himself. “She just sort of comes on at the finish, and she really loves it.” Even here, however, his motives are decidedly mixed. He explains that his wife, who used to be in the act, has died, and little Shirley has taken her place. “Besides, I got to have her in the act with me,” he insists. “She helps me over the rough spots. . . . And look at her . . . she thrives on it.” Winding up his appeal, he asks, “How’s chances?” It was a catchphrase of the day, made all the more popular by Irving Berlin’s song of the same title in the hit Broadway revue
As Thousands Cheer
(1933). Pressing her father’s plea, Shirley fixes the official with luminous eyes and disarmingly lisps, “How’s chances?” He can only scoop her up in his arms and reply, “I think chances are great.” The conquest of an influential man’s heart in this way would be a recurrent theme in Shirley Temple films.

Arguments for the exceptional situation of child actors ultimately prevailed under the New Deal. The codes of the National Recovery Administration, one of the monuments of Roosevelt’s Hundred Days, which sought to place limits on child labor, made an exception for children in motion pictures, and, in any case, the Supreme Court struck down the codes as unconstitutional in 1935. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 became the administration’s most effective and enduring weapon against child labor, and it too made exceptions for children working for their parents outside of mining and manufacturing and for children less than fourteen years of age working in agriculture or newspaper distribution, or performing in motion pictures and the theater.

“How’s chances?” Shirley and Warner Baxter (with James Dunn in background) in
Stand Up and Cheer!

Anticipating Roosevelt’s signature on this legislation, with its lustrous loophole for child actors, Twentieth Century–Fox arranged a brief meeting between Shirley Temple and President Roosevelt at the White House. He signed the bill the next day, June 25, 1938. Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, had already met Shirley the previous spring in Hollywood and wrote in her syndicated column how impressed she was by Shirley’s “natural simplicity and charm.” “Why aren’t you smiling?” FDR asked after Shirley was escorted into the Oval Office, trailing her tongue-tied Republican parents. “I thought you were famous for your smile.” He spoke as one trouper to another. She was keeping her lips in place, she explained, because she had just lost a tooth.

Not only did FDR and Shirley have the two most famous smiles in the country, but ever since the release of
Stand Up and Cheer!
hers had been associated with his confident leadership.
Together, they fought and licked the Great Depression. At least that was Hollywood’s version of what happened. Fox released
Stand Up and Cheer!
in April 1934, just over a year after Roosevelt’s inauguration, and it aimed to show how the entertainment industry was dispelling the gloom of the Depression right alongside the president. The face of the fictional president in the film is never shown, in compliance with White House policies protecting FDR’s dignity. Nonetheless, speaking with unmistakably Rooseveltian inflection and cadences, and advancing Roosevelt’s most famous theme, he earnestly tells a theatrical producer named Lawrence Cromwell (played by Warner Baxter): “Our country is bravely passing through a serious crisis. Many of our people’s affairs are in the red, and, figuratively, their nerves are in the red.” As he endeavors “to pilot the ship past the most treacherous of all rocks, fear,” the president intends “to dissolve that destructive rock in a gale of laughter.” Accordingly, he appoints Cromwell to a new cabinet position, secretary of amusement, “whose duty it shall be to amuse and entertain the people—to make them forget their troubles.”

Shirley leaving the White House after her meeting with FDR, June 24, 1938. Gertrude Temple and Shirley’s bodyguard John Griffith stand at left. (Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress)

This premise, of course, was a transparent Hollywood self-justification. The fictional president regards commercial amusement not as frivolity in the face of the Great Depression but as a necessary and vital force in combating it. Hitching its wagon to Roosevelt’s star, the film extolled innocent laughter as the best medicine for the economy, and healthful amusement as one of the highest forms of patriotism.

Opposition to the patriotic work of the new cabinet secretary in
Stand Up and Cheer!
comes from two quarters: conspiratorial businessmen reaping vast profits from the crisis, and stuffy senators placing their sense of dignity above the needs of the nation. Ultimately, the progressive forces of amusement triumph over the gloom and lift the country out of the Depression, emotionally and economically, but not without a struggle. Just when Secretary Cromwell’s efforts appear defeated, the news comes, like a deus ex machina, that the Depression is over: “There is no unemployment! Fear has been banished! Confidence is reborn! Poverty has been wiped out! Laughter resounds throughout the nation! The people are happy again! We’re out of the red!” Special credit for this sweeping victory goes to the Children’s Division of the Department of Amusement. The smiling faces of Shirley Temple and other children have evidently done the trick.

Stand Up and Cheer!
ends with vast parades through the streets of the nation—emulating the Roosevelt administration’s determination to declare victory over the Great Depression. In summer and fall 1933, General Hugh Johnson, head of the National Recovery Administration, a major agency of the early New Deal, publicized reemployment efforts in various cities with spectacular parades of newly hired men and women, garbed in the attire of their trades. One such event in New York attracted nearly two million people. Using Fox’s studio lot,
Stand Up and Cheer!
surpassed even Johnson’s Blue Eagle ballyhoo as reemployed workers and civic and military organizations jubilantly celebrate national recovery. They include chorines, forest rangers, sailors, nurses, firemen, policemen, locomotive engineers, farmers, milkmen, housewives, office staff, miners, chefs, maids, schoolgirls, sanitation workers, postmen, men in kilts, soldiers, marines, railroad porters (led by Stepin Fetchit in top hat and tails), Boy Scouts, and others. Shirley Temple appears twice in close-up as she leads portions of the marching throng. What’s good for the country, the film suggests, is good for Hollywood, and vice versa.

Shirley celebrates “We’re out of the red” in
Stand Up and Cheer!

Shirley in another view of the “We’re out of the red” parade. (Photofest/Fox)

Shirley’s prominence in this triumphal march was prophetic. The hitherto obscure little girl, just six when the movie was released, had a relatively small part in the story and received only seventh billing. But she would play a major role in the history of Fox Film, Hollywood, the nation, and the moviegoing public in the years that followed. Her breakthrough came at a pivotal moment when movie audiences—and the film industry—needed her most. Although the movie as a whole, loosely structured and stuffed with vaudevillian gags, garnered mixed reviews, even jaded critics found Shirley irresistible: “Such a happy little face! With a dimple close to the laughing mouth. Such starry, friendly brown eyes!” a critic for the
Chicago Tribune
exclaimed. The
Boston Globe
agreed: “
has the most adorable smile and the most daintily poised charm of any little girl who has yet played in the talkies.” The
Louisville Courier-Journal
’s critic could hardly stay in his seat: “For once an infant prodigy appears upon the screen with such charm as to disarm any abhorrence of the usual nuisance. . . . Little Miss Temple is blonde, dimpled and all smiles but better than these attributes for picture taking she seems to know her power and it is very great right now. Not being overly tender about these matters I must confess nevertheless one wants to walk up to the screen and snatch her off it and hug her.” Indeed, by one report, “a roomful of unsentimental Hollywood reporters (all male and all ‘cold’ to the usual run of precious child actors)” thought her performance especially impressive, and predictions arose that she would be one of the “big stars” to emerge that year.

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