Shirley Temple: Origins of the Optimistic Image

Shirley Temple: Origins of the Optimistic Image

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Shirley Temple: Origins of the Optimistic Image


Shirley Temple. When the name is uttered an image of the dimpled faced, curly haired, tap dancing four year old from the 1930s automatically appears in everyone's mind. She was the child actress of the depression era, winning over the hearts and pocket books of many. Films, dolls and even a drink named after her, her face and name were ones that couldn't be missed. She was Fox's gem and saviour. She was an escape from the hard life. She was a star. The image that she gave off, of love for the needy and pure optimism, must have had an origin. Did it rise from the social needs of the public to escape the depression or was it purely constructed by Twentieth Century-Fox? Her image clearly correlates with the mentality of the public at the time, but Fox must have had a hand. Undoubtedly her image was created through a mixture of both elements.

To analyze the degree to which Shirley Temple's image was formed through the needs of the time or through manipulation by Fox, one must first look at stars' images in general and how they come into being. What do stars represent to the audience? What is the nature of their images?

Many people might say that stars are merely a product of the Hollywood system needing to make a profit; Hollywood manufactures a product and creates the demand for it. A star's image is processed through advertisements and promotions and has little to do with what the audience wants and needs from entertainment. There is a widespread mentality that any Average Joe can become a star with enough resources backing him up. Richard Dyer points out, however, that even movies full of stars fail, and stars can and do fall out of fashion (12). A star's economic worth is not invulnerable to audiences' opinions. The audience isn't so easily controlled.

As Dyer says, "Stars ... are the direct or indirect reflection of the needs, drives and dreams of American society." (6). The star's image is formed by what the audience chooses to see, and the audience will choose to see a movie that fills their societal needs, even if unconsciously. Once the audience has made its decision, it empowers that star to fulfill these needs. "Stars have a privileged position in the definition of social roles and types, and this must have real consequences in terms of how people believe they can and should behave" (Dyer 8).

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Several types of relationship are formed between stars and audience to create this influence on behaviour. Emotional affinity occurs when the audience has a general sense of involvement with the main character. Self-identification happens when the audience members put themselves in the same situation as the protagonist. Imitation is a relation in which the star becomes a model to which the audience looks up, mimicking clothing, hairstyle, and so forth (Dyer 20). Since Hollywood executives and marketers are aware of the existence of these relationships, it seems likely that the star's image is formed through a combination of the audience's needs (i.e., society's needs) and the Hollywood system catering to these desires to create the three relationships, inevitably to gain more profit.

This brief look at how a star's image is formed may provide insight into why and how Shirley Temple's image was produced. To examine it further, we need to look first at what was happening in society -- happening to the audience -- at the time that Shirley Temple became popular, and how Shirley Temple's popularity and her type of image were therefore affected by what was occurring socially and economically to her fan base, producing needs as a result.

Economic and Political Conditions of the 1930s

The first feature film to star Shirley Temple, Little Miss Marker, was made in 1934, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. Herbert Hoover had struggled before him with the huge problem of the Great Depression. Hoover labelled free relief and "the dole" (welfare) as destructive and tried to produce a national feeling of charity to humankind. As a result, the poor were basically taking care of the poor. Clearly, the joblessness and starvation of the depression were not going to be solved by charity alone.

When Roosevelt came into power in 1933 he stated that what the people needed was work, work, and more work. Roosevelt set up more relief for American citizens and worked on producing more jobs for the unemployed. He did much of this through the New Deal, a set of economic and social reforms. Jobs were created through the National Recovery Administration and the Works Progress Administration. Although Roosevelt was politically liberal, Ralph A. Brauer argues that the New Deal gave the American people a socially conservative mentality, rewarding conservative views over revolutionary thinking and action (20). Sadly, even though Roosevelt could communicate better with the people and the New Deal did instill new confidence, when Shirley Temple arose as a public figure the country was still in a dire state. Many people still were on relief, with more asking for assistance every day. Despite all of the efforts of the New Deal, the Great Depression kept on going strong.

This was the social environment that Temple's audience was enduring when she first began performing in feature films. Audiences at this time didn't need stars and movies that presented the horrible state of the country, but films that gave them a feeling of optimism and hope, and which also ignored or suppressed the dark parts of the depression. Shirley Temple's image seemed to emerge naturally to fit the ideologies of the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, while also slipping nicely into what the American people wanted. This is what gave her the wooing powers she possessed.

Charles Eckert states,

Shirley's act of softening, interceding and the rest are spontaneous ones, originating in her love of others. Not only do they function as condensations of all of the mid-depression schemes for the care of the needy, but they repress the concepts of duty to give or of the responsibility to share.... The solution Shirley offers is natural: one opens one's heart ... and the most implacable realities alter and disperse (195).
What Eckert is essentially saying is that Shirley promoted the idea of charity through love, but that one didn't have to truly give anything up to dispel the evils of the depression. Shirley's image correlated with the government's agenda while presenting audiences with a positive message counteracting their ever-increasing worries about money and well-being.

Since Temple's movies presented such a seemingly easy solution to an seemingly impossible problem, audiences began to form relationships with her, making her image as a social and economic antidepressant more powerful. She wooed them through her bouncy, unspoiled optimism and guided them towards the conservative views of the New Deal by listening to authority. "It was a conservative dream of comfortable surroundings and submission that little Shirley hid behind those innocent eyes," writes Brauer (23). People needed answers, so why not get lost in Shirley's innocent eyes, which promised so much? She gave them what they wanted, an escape from the inescapable.

Zanuck's Strategy

As noted earlier, this image of curly-haired goodness most likely did not rise purely from the social and economic needs of the people, as an accidental reassurance that everything was not wrong with the world. To what degree was her image consciously constructed, formed, and morphed?

Like other manufacturing firms, production companies in Hollywood were influenced by their potential customers as to what they produced. They had to find out what the public wanted or they would quickly go out of business. Naturally the companies assessed what the public needed, so they could figure out what image to produce for their films in general and their stars in particular. Shirley Temple's image grew from the contexts of the depression period but was also devised and constructed by Twentieth Century-Fox. Fox never would have never produced her antidepressive image had it not been for the people striving for a cute, lovable star to imitate, but someone had to have the insight to come up with the star that would fit perfectly the needs of the day.

Darryl F. Zanuck had many plans for Fox, and Shirley Temple was definitely a huge part of them, according to George Custen:

Zanuck knew his new company needed a safety net in order to pull off the risky films he intended to make. He found it in Shirley Temple and in similar films of rural and musical nostalgia. Her aura of purity and preternatural goodness would pervade a program of rural, old time films that positioned the studio's house style at variance with the rest of Hollywood. (201)

Zanuck knew that if his strategy of using Shirley to give the people an escape from the times worked, he might be able to pursue films that were more controversial and expressed his views of the depression era later on. He was smart enough to use Shirley has a door-opener to the people, instead of trying to bombard them with harsh messages they didn't want to hear at the outset. Film was more vulnerable to public opinion than the press or radio were, so Zanuck had to produce an image that wouldn't push people away from the box office (Custen 202).

Zanuck concealed Shirley's urban vaudeville talent and revealed her instead as a young, pure girl of the country. To go along with this, he created a distinctive character for Shirley that would continue from movie to movie. She always pined to be normal and was very social, bringing love and happiness no matter whom she met or where she was. This was a character that Zanuck knew the audience wouldn't object to. He centered many of the plots around the fact that you didn't need money to buy happiness and other simple antidotes to wipe depression away. Nonetheless, he made sure that each movie gave Shirley ample opportunity to show off her showgirl talents (Custen 206).

Also, through the flak Zanuck had received about his more honest movies, society directed him to come up with Shirley as a solution. Had the public mood been different at the time, Zanuck might have been able to make his more controversial films with no conflict, avoiding the need for Shirley's image to help Fox.

Zanuck not only had to produce a correct image, but he also had to control it. Luckily, he knew how to sustain her image so it would last longer. If not managed properly, even a star the audience wants can fall through the cracks. Zanuck continued to make Shirley Temple films with the same formula to the point where they produced their own genre. Though criticized for making the same film over and over again, Zanuck stuck to his guns, stating, "Now she's lovable. The less she changes, the longer she lasts" (Custen 208). He knew that the public had caught the Shirley Temple bug and weren't going to let go until she satisfied their hunger.

Curly Top

A stereotypical example of the Temple image that was produced from the combination of the public's hunger and Darryl F. Zanuck's strategy is present in Curly Top, made by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1935, following several previous, successful pictures starring Shirley. The plot is light and seems to exist only to string together an arrangement of different performances by Shirley Temple and a number of optimistic messages to lift people's hearts. The formula, of course, was once again a success. As the New York Times pointed out, the film "is dedicated to the simple things of life, with special reference to the power of the hello-neighbor smile in conquering the ills of humanity" (Sennwald). Several musical performances in the film exemplify this message, particularly a tune sung by Mary (Shirley's sister, played by Rochelle Hudson), "The Simple Things in Life." The song states, "The simple things in life/ are around you everywhere right outside your door/ why keep reaching for the moon?" These lyrics convey the conservative values of Roosevelt's New Deal. They instill the idea that not being able to attain huge accomplishments is fine; that is, why reach for the moon? Shirley also sings a song that highlights her cuteness and sends the message to look optimistically into the future. The song, "When I Grow Up", shows Shirley progressing from sixteen years old to an old woman, knowing that everything is going to be fine, even when she is old and in a rocking chair.

We can see secondary evidence that Curly Top is purely a vehicle for Shirley Temple to project her image in that many of the reviews of the film list her adorable actions and performances:

In the course of her impersonation Shirley Temple sings two songs (Animal Crackers in My Soup, When I Grow Up), impersonates Whistler's mother, rides piggyback, does a solo tap-dance on a piano top, learns how to use a finger bowl. (Time)

The fact that she "learns how to use a finger bowl" is mentioned in the review suggests that this is an important part of the film, information the public should know before making the decision to attend. This blatantly exhibits that audiences weren't going to Curly Top for the plot but for Shirley's cute behaviour, a motivation that Zanuck suspected for the majority of the Temple films.

Advertising Campaign

Since the viewers obviously didn't care much about the story as long as Shirley showed her stuff, Twentieth Century-Fox's advertising campaigns in both the United States and Canada took much the same approach to the film. They knew that the advertisements didn't need much more than Shirley's face and name to lure viewers. The US advertisements presented Temple's name in huge type boldly across the page. They made such statements as "America's outstanding personality at her very, very best!"

The Canadian advertisements portrayed the film in a similar vein, but even more so. The day before the opening of Curly Top, the Toronto Daily Star printed an advertisement that displayed a collage of Shirley faces, and a slogan on a banner across the top reads, "Tomorrow Shirley sings and dances too!"

The next day, an ad stated, "Hear Shirley sing, Watch Shirley dance, See Shirley smile" These statements are only telling the potential audience that Curly Top is another display of Shirley Temple's talents, not that it is a must-see masterpiece. The Ottawa Journal carried by far the most blatant ad, which consisted of a large picture of Shirley's smiling face and a slogan at the top saying "Here's Shirley as she really is!"

All of these advertisements from both the United States and Canada show that the campaign for Shirley Temple was fairly straightforward for Twentieth Century-Fox. All they needed was a picture of her dimpled, smiling face, her name scrawled across the page, and a slogan cheering that, yes, Shirley sings and dances in this film!

Shirley Temple: an image that fought against the horrors of the depression. The people needed to look up to a star who stopped their worries. They needed a star that personified the ideologies of the New Deal and the other attempts to defeat the dark period. She rose naturally through the pure need of the public, but also artificially, with a boost from Darryl F. Zanuck. He constructed the image that was soaked up with ease. The reviews and ads for the film Curly Top simply drew in audience members with a face and a slogan. She never would have been created without the public's love and despair. She never would have been created without Zanuck's wits. She never would have been created without the joining of the two in one place (the movie theatre and the industry that supported it) at one desperate time.

A Broader Look

By looking at how Shirley Temple's image was built and maintained the general structure of star image formation can be uncovered. The creation of a star's image depends on three main variables: environment, audience, and industry. The variables interact to form an image that fits for all three. If it doesn't satisfy the needs of each the star will falter.

First, the environment creates a need for a certain type of image. In Shirley's case the political and social environment of the depression called for a distraction from troubled thoughts, creating a bouncy smiling child. The environment, overall, sets the stage for a star image to be born, but the audience and industry must come into play before action takes place.

The audience or the people react to both the environment and the industry. They react to the world around them, having emotional responses to events and the time period. For example, when the depression occurred in America much of the population became sad. Since events have an impact on people in different ways, several types of stars may be formed. Shirley Temple came about to make people happy, but Hollywood also produced its gangster stars, catering to other needs. The environment therefore forms the people's opinions and feelings of the time, which then are projected into mentalities.

The industry looks at the mentality of a country or a group of people and assesses what image is going to be entertaining and need fulfilling. They try to put a star out there that produces profit, meaning a star that the audience loves. The people (now the audience) react to the image that has been shown to them. If the star doesn't fulfill the audience's needs, the industry will tweak the image until the star brings in a satisfactory number of viewers. If the idea isn't working, the image will be dropped. The industry will always continue to look for profit while the audience will always strive to be entertained. Their interaction is ongoing.

A certain image may work for a long time, but, when the environment changes, the audience's views are altered. The image may not function anymore, forcing the industry to come up with new ideas and drop old ones. Sadly, in another scenario the environment and the audience may be stable, but the industry is unable to sustain the image of a certain star. In Shirley Temple's case, as she grew older the audience continued to want the five-year-old, dimpled angel but got a twelve-year-old, who just wasn't as charming.

The origins of Shirley Temple's optimistic image are based strongly upon the interactions of these three variables, making her a prime example of star image production. As the audience was influenced by the environment, the industry created a tap-dancing gem that the audience received with open arms, approving the Hollywood's creation. The people were entertained and the industry made money. A star's image was born.
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