Shirley Temple once killed off a British cultural weekly. In October 1937 a review of her film Wee Willie Winkie (directed by John Ford) was reviewed in the journal Night and Day, whose co-editor and resident film critic was Graham Greene. In his review Greene dwelled on Temple’s “neat and well-developed rump”, her “sidelong searching coquetry” and “dimpled depravity”, calculated to appeal to “middle-aged men and clergymen”. Temple, along with her studio Twentieth Century-Fox, sued for libel. The British courts, shocked at this “gross outrage”, awarded £500 damages against Greene and £3,000 against Night and Day. The magazine, cash-strapped like most cultural journals, promptly folded.
John Kasson briefly mentions the Greene incident, conceding that the “flamboyant cuddling between Shirley and the fathers and father-figures in her films” now appears “deeply suggestive of pedophilia and incest to many critics today”. This apart, however, he sidesteps such sensitive territory in favour of his central thesis that Temple’s key task in her films of the 1930s was “emotional healing…not by ingenious stratagems but by trusting to her inexhaustible fund of optimism” and draws parallels between her public persona and that of president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both, he maintains, through their staunchly positive attitudes “helped Americans to surmount the Great Depression”.
Kasson’s book resists easy classification. It scarcely qualifies as film criticism: he eschews any hint of exegesis, largely limiting his accounts of Temple’s films to plot summaries, quotes from fans and exhibitors (almost always adulatory) and reports of box office performances. (No filmography, either.) In terms of social and political commentary it reads fluently but never digs deep. And although the publisher classifies the book as biography, it covers barely 10 years of Temple’s life and gives us scant insight into her as a person, rather than as a showbiz phenomenon.
Phenomenon she undoubtedly was. A year after her 1934 breakthrough in Stand Up and Cheer!, Temple was ranked America’s top box office star – a position she maintained for three more years. Shirley Temple dolls, dresses and other merchandise sold in their millions. Shirley Temple lookalike contests were held around the globe. She met Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Leopold Stokowski, Nelson Rockefeller and H. G. Wells. Fan magazines and publicity campaigns made her curly-topped features as universally known as those of Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Mouse.
But all this is the public face of Shirley Temple: relentlessly cheerful, cloyingly cute, unfailingly happy and biddable, everybody’s ideal little daughter. Here and there Kasson gives hints of a darker picture. The songwriter Jule Styne was one of the few who recalled a child prone to vicious temper tantrums, screaming at her father, “I earn all the money in this family! Don’t tell me what to do!” Nor were her parents quite the supportive, nurturing figures they liked to appear. Her mother, who always claimed little Shirley fell into stardom purely by luck with no parental pushing (the reverse was true), knocked a year off her daughter’s age – something Temple discovered only when she turned 13. And when, aged 22 and at the urging of her new husband, she examined the trust in which her parents had caringly deposited her huge earnings, she found they had squandered more than 95 per cent of the money.
Temple died in February of this year. Time, perhaps, for a more searching biography.
The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America
By John F. Kasson
W. W. Norton, 384pp, £18.99
Published 15 April 2014