The Sunshine of the Depression

Well it’s finally done. I’m posting late today because I was busy finishing up my essay on Shirley Temple this morning. It wasn’t just your basic biography either; I studied how the child star had a signficant impact in American cinema during the Depression. I have to say, this has been my favorite essay to write since I’ve been in college–it doesn’t get much happier than Shirley Temple. I thought I’d share with you what I’ve been working on the past week and pass on a little of Shirley’s Sunny Side Up!
“It’s a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” That smiling face President Roosevelt was referring to belonged to none other than the cherub-cheeked and Boticelli-curled child star, Shirley Temple. By the age of seven, the “Wonder Tot” became the most popular star in the world, using her sparkling eyes, charm, and toe-tapping numbers to not only uplift the American public in the midst of the Great Depression, but also to salvage the struggling production companies that employed her. She had perfect timing. A national sensation by 1934, Shirley offered optimism and hope to her audience, both through her characters and her personal identity working as a “Little Miss Fix It” not only on screen but also off-screen in the hearts of her troubled viewers and in the pocketbooks of many struggling movie moguls.
It was a tough crowd. With the Stock Market Crash of 1929, nearly everyone was pinching pennies and the film industry was no exception. William Fox’s company, self-titled, was in near collapse after losing a bid due to the crash and an intervention by the Justice Department. In an attempt to save face, Fox merged with the Twentieth Century Film Corporation in 1935.But thankfully, Fox Studios had a star to save them from financial ruin: Shirley Temple. Signed in 1933 at the age of five, the child star gave good a face to the company as she became an overnight box-office success dancing in her polka-dotted dress in Baby Take a Bow (Harry Lachman 1934). The film industry was able to flourish once more due to the Fox’s “find of the year,” loaning Shirley out to other studios like Paramount, Universal, and Warner Brothers.”
Even though Shirley became internationally famous before reaching first grade, it took some time before audiences caught on to her act. According to Shirley’s mother, Gertrude Temple, her daughter was born a star on April 23, 1928.The little girl was discovered at the age of three in a dance class by the director Charles Lamont. Lamont worked with Hayes, who was the producer of Baby Burlesks (Charles Lamont, 1932), a comedic series of one reelers featuring children portraying adult stars, and the two quickly hired Shirley with the independent studio Educational Films. While the short films did not immediately shoot Shirley to stardom, audiences did make note of the special glint in her eye and the way her ringlets bounced when she danced. They liked it—and soon they would love it.
Shirley and her stories were the perfect remedy for heartache. Audiences across America were burdened by the woes of the Depression and they longed for movies that preserved the “basic moral, social, and economic tenets of traditional American culture.” Protesting the initial dramatic storylines that Shirley’s characters were placed in, viewers did not want to see the little girl get abducted at gunpoint in Baby Take a Bow, even though there were scenes of song and dance. Instead, they wanted to see Shirley as the golden girl who always saved the day. Films like Bright Eyes (David Butler, 1934), The Little Colonel (David Butler, 1935), and Curly Top (Irving Cummings, 1935) portrayed her as the character, often poor and parentless, who could solve any dilemma—in 90 minutes no less. There was always a happy ending. In a Shirley’s onscreen world, lovers were united, children found homes, and money was available. There was hope. As onlookers watched these stories on the screen, they saw them as their own eventual stories in their real lives. Shirley helped them see that a better future awaited and that there was always something to smile about, even if it was just watching the “Little Miss Miracle” giggle and tap dance for an hour and a half. 
One of her most successful films featured Shirley as the quintessential orphaned child in Heidi (Allan Dwan, 1937). The movie had everything that her viewers loved to see: softening hard hearts, in this case her grandfather’s, helping a friend find hope again, like teaching her crippled companion how to walk, and singing a jovial song and dance number, “In Our Little Wooden Shoes” which Shirley suggested herself. This was not the only time that Shirley took charge. Creating the Shirley Temple Police on the set of Heidi, Shirley labeled herself as the “Chief” while she tried to keep the cast and crew in check. Both off screen and on, Shirley commanded a presence that affected everyone who interacted with her.
The Depression was a prime opportunity for a child star to make a mark. Shirley, of all children, could make her mark. Known as the “One-Take Temple,” she only required one rehearsal and one take for each scene. Aided by her ever-present mother, Gertrude, the little Temple’s professional performance encouraged the Hollywood studios to feature a child as their headliner, which they were previously cautious. She always came to the set prepared and focused, and it showed in her performance and her paycheck. Just in salary, Shirley earned $307,014 compared to other top stars like Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Spencer Tracy, who all earned less than $300,000 in 1937. Shirley even earned more than Twentieth Century Fox Studios executive Darryl Zanuck who earned $265,000 in that same year. With such an outstanding income and her dedication to the craft, Shirley proved her worth in American cinema. It was a win-win situation; she cheered on viewers who were in the depths of the Depression, and she helped save the Hollywood studios that were struggling to survive.
Shirley was one of the first children to have star power. It was not just because she was a child, though. Studios theorized that “the stars who enjoyed the longest tenure could appeal to both sexes.” While male stars usually had more lasting power than females because of their masculine personalities, Shirley was still able to hold her own because she appealed to men and women of all ages. This was because Shirley’s presence was reminiscent of a better time, when life was simple, reliable, and carefree. It was a dream that everyone in the audience shared; every man, woman, boy, and girl hoped for a brighter future. And while the Great Depression inspired the film industry to push the boundaries of sexuality, social decorum, and governmental structure, it was also a period where audiences yearned for the American tradition of goodness and wholesomeness. Shirley Temple epitomized that desire with her classic tunes, like “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in Bright Eyes, her duo-dancing numbers, like dancing with “Bojangles,” also known as Bill Robinson in the Little Colonel, and of course, with her exuberant chuckles that were heard in every film.
Part of what made Shirley a huge success was that her characters were never alone. Because audiences were drawn to the star system, especially the strong male lead in particular, “Shirley’s cuteness was paired against strongly masculine or brusque personalities of actors” like Warner Baxter in Stand Up and Cheer (Hamilton McFadden, 1934), Frank Morgan in Dimples (William A. Seiter, 1936), and Victor McLaglen in Wee Willie Winkie (John Ford 1937). Her stories were not meant for a “kiddie” audience. Perhaps if Shirley had arrived on the scene before or after the Depression she would have been a child entertaining children, but this was not the case. Shirley starting singing and smiling just as the market and the mentality of America crashed. Everyone, not just children, needed to see a happy face and Shirley Temple had it.
Shirley Temple’s fans adored her. “No matter what time of day, fans stood pressed against the bars waiting for a glimpse of America’s first little princess.” Receiving four to five hundred letters a day, Shirley and the movies in which she starred became a central focus of the American public. She was the perfect distraction for the nation. Nearly everyone was under the spell of her “sparkle” as her mother coined it. Rather than visiting influential figures herself, Shirley was visited by Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart among many others. In 1935, she was even presented with a miniature Oscar for her performances in Little Miss Marker and Bright Eyes. She was the first child actor to receive the honor, but age did not matter. The country, and the world, was enamored with Shirley Temple.
Shirley did more than cheer up her audiences. She directly improved the downfall of the 1920s by helping keep the big name studios afloat in the 1930s with her own name. And that name went a long way. “From a business viewpoint, the studio found many advantages in the star system. A person could be marketed and sold as a standardized product that a movie audience, banks, and exhibitors could regard for large profits.” Creating hundreds of new jobs, the Shirley Temple mania was more than just her movies; it was also about the books, dresses, and dolls that needed to be manufactured, dressed, and distributed. These products earned fifteen times more (4.5 million) than her actual acting. “Her influence was felt all around the world” both emotionally and financially.
As more than a movie character, people were interested in the identity of the actual Shirley Temple. Her fans were frenzied to know all of the details of her life; everything from her diet to how many ringlets she had (55-56 to be exact). Eventually the issue of her age would come into play; not even Shirley knew that she was actually a year older than what the studio claimed. Her persona became just as important, if not more so, than her performance on screen. As magazines and news syndicates divulged information on the child’s hobbies, health, and general happiness, fans were able to momentarily forget about their personal troubles and instead focus on the innocence of childhood embodied in Shirley Temple.
Shirley’s films were the perfect escape. Audiences knew “they would be guaranteed a view of a naïve world where happiness and fortune could come with a little girl’s dimples.” Miss Temple made her mark in many ways; not only was she one of the first child stars to become internationally successful, she was also one of the first to be uniquely paired with adult actors for an adult audience. The Depression fostered a new environment for the film industry. Shirley Temple was the saving grace that producers and audiences alike needed at the time. Not only was she able to inspire and entertain audiences around the world, she was also able to help her struggling employers, especially Twentieth Century Fox Studios, because of her box office successes and the eventual franchise based on her identity. With her beaming smile, her chipper step, and her jovial voice, Shirley Temple was the perfect remedy for audiences and the film industry undergoing the woes of the Depression in the 1930s.
Keep shining,
The Sunny Girl, Lauren Cook
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2 Responses to The Sunshine of the Depression

  1. Tiffany Van Horne says:

    This is great! Very well written! A+ 🙂

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