Shirley Temple and the Crisis of Capitalism – by Peter Eisenstadt

Shirley Temple and the Crisis of Capitalism
Peter Eisenstadt

It seems to me that the major media is taking the passing of Shirley Temple all too lightly, as if they were somehow embarrassed by her, don’t quite know what to make of her. Certainly, in comparison to many of the other stars of the golden age of Hollywood–Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, Jimmy Stewart, Judy Garland, whomever—her performances have not dated well. Her icky cutesy-pie persona is certainly an acquired taste, and most of her films, one saccharinely sentimental weepie after another, are pretty hard to watch today. I was surprised by how much of the commentary on Shirley Temple this week has focused on questions of her pre-pubescent sexuality, and whether it was the bumps of her rear end, as she strutted her stuff in her short dresses that was the real key to her success.

Perhaps, and we certainly have different standards about these things today. (We live in sexually liberated times, but childhood sexuality has become a more taboo, or at least, a much more complicated issue than it was in the 1930s.) But this is, I think, to miss the point about Shirley Temple. It certainly was not why, from 1935 to 1939, she was the most popular actor in Hollywood, which probably made her, after Franklin Roosevelt, the best known person in the United States at the time.Shirley Temple was an icon of depression-era America. If there were folks, like the late Pete Seeger, who saw in the depression evidence of the systemic failure of capitalism and the need for radical measures to transform it, they were definitely in the minority, though they wrote most of the good books and the good songs, and have tended to hog the attention of subsequent critics and historians.

But most Americans, I suspect, did not look at the depression in that way. They thought there was nothing wrong with capitalism that a little luck couldn’t cure. It’s not that they were entirely uninterested in politics, or the cause of the depression, but it somehow struck them as unimportant, out there, somewhere else. Whatever changes were made, wouldn’t alter their lives too much anyway. What was important was that somehow, their luck had to change. And compare my problems with those of Shirley Temple, an orphan, a stepchild, a gamine of the streets, who is always plucky, looking for the silver lining in any situation, and has enough self-possession to take control of her life, improve its circumstances, and by force of personality and strength of character, take control of the adults around her.

She was always lucky, but luck favors the resourceful. Shirley Temple and Pete Seeger were America’s two answers to the depression. As long as we’re talking about movies, who do like for the Oscars this year? If Scarlett Johansson is the voice of a super-smart computer that knows everything, how come she knows so little about the situation in the West Bank? Why is 12 Years a Slave just about the first serious film Hollywood has ever made about slavery, only a century or so after Birth of a Nation and dozens of silly films about the ante-bellum South? (Here’s looking at you, Shirley Temple.) Why wasn’t All is Lost with Robert Redford, in my humble opinion the best film of the year, not nominated in any major category? And why are there two films nominated for best picture about Jewish conmen in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s?

American Hustle, a fictionalized account of the Abscam scandals of the 1970s, is a decent enough film, taut, compelling, with enough twists and turns in the plot to hold one’s interest, but is ultimately forgettable. Political corruption scandals in New Jersey is the gift that keeps on giving. “Time for Some Traffic Problems in Fort Lee” would be a great name for a film.The other film, The Wolf of Wall Street is more problematic. It is the more or less true story of Jordan Belfort, a sleezeball stock trader who made a fortune screwing investors, and used his ill-gotten gains to, evidently, to set all-time records for indulgence in sex and drugs, before he had his inevitable comeuppance.

The film certainly doesn’t moralize. (It has more T&A than anything one might see outside of hardcore pornography; why not, my wife complained, a few penises along with the parade of breasts, asses, and vaginas?) It has been widely seen as more of a celebration of Belfort’s lifestyle rather than a critique, with Leo DiCaprio, our capitalist everyman (with this year’s title role in The Great Gatsby among his recent credits) scumbaggilly reveling in his fortune until the feds break up the party. I was going to pass on “The Wolf of Wall Street” before my brother reminded me that I sort of know Jordan Belfort. I certainly know his brother, who is one of my brother Eric’s best friends.

All of us attended Camp Shomria, the summer camp of Hashomer Hatzair, the left wing socialist-Zionist movement, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So I had to see the film. (I give it a big thumbs down.) Jordan Belfort attended Camp Shomria for a few years, but I guess he wasn’t socialist or Zionist material, and soon went on to other pursuits. And I have been struck by this image—this camp of serious bookish young people, doing Israeli folk dances, reading Heschel, reading Marx and early Amos Oz, determinedly exploring our “Jewish identity,” learning about socialism, the complexities of Israel’s past and present, and so on, along side this little schmuck, laughing at our pretensions, “you worry about the world’s problems or what it means to be a Jew, I’ll take care of #1, thank you very much.” Is Jordan Belfort the Shirley Temple for our times?

The basic message of Shirley Temple in her films is that capitalism, post 1929, may have had a few bad breaks, but it basically works—all you need is self-confidence and patience, and eventually, good people and goodness are rewarded. This is, in my opinion, very naïve, but it is infinitely preferable to the capitalism of Jordan Belfort, which seems to be, capitalism basically does not work, it is dishonest and vicious to its core, honesty is for fools, and the only way to get ahead is to be more ruthless than the next guy. (And in this way, perhaps, Jordan Belfort perhaps learned his lessons at Camp Shomria too well; the rest of us only thought capitalism was evil; he found a way to do something about it, and prove it.)

One of the most striking differences between the films of the 1930s and those of today is that in the 1930s, capitalists were invariably portrayed as greedy, or were redeemed at the end by someone like Shirley Temple, who demonstrated to Mr. Top Hot Stuffed Shirt Moneybags Top Hat, beneath his crusty avaricious exterior, there was a heart that beat, and cared about others, and cared about human suffering. It at least retained the pretension that capitalism could be made right, altered, and bettered.

In 2014, with left wing alternatives to capitalism dead or dying, the labor movement seemingly on its last legs, and the rejection of the notion government has any positive role to play in people’s lives by at least half the country, capitalism might have a lot to apologize for, but there is no one to apologize to. 25 years ago, Gordon Gecko in Wall Street could proclaim “greed is good” but for Jordan Belfort that is too elevated a standard. It is simply “greed is greed,” and screw you. As for me, rather than riding out the financial storms and tempests of the present on one of Jordan Belfort’s eye-candied, supersized yachts, I’ll take a ride on the good ship lollypop.