Through the mid-depression years of 1934 to 1938 Shirley Temple was a phenomenon of the first magnitude: she led in box-office grosses, singlehandedly revived Fox and influenced its merger with 20th Century, had more products named after her than any other star and became as intimately experienced at home and abroad as President Franklin Roosevelt. Her significance was then, and has been ever since, accounted for by an appeal to universals: to her cuteness, her precocious talents, her appeal to parental love and so forth. But one can no more imagine her having precisely the same effect upon audiences of any other decade of this century than one can imagine Clint Eastwood and William S. Hart exchanging personas.
One would not feel impelled to state so tawdry a truism if it were not for the anticipated resistance to a serious study of Shirley Temple, and especially to a study that regards her, in part, as a kind of artifact thrown up by a unique concatenation of social and economic forces. One anticipates resistance because Shirley was, first of all, a child (and therefore uncomplex, innocent of history) and, secondly, because the sense of the numinous that surrounds her is unlike that which surrounds culture heroes or political leaders, in that it is deeply sentimental and somehow purified. But this very numinosity, this sense of transcendental and irrational significance, if we measure it only by its degree, should alert us to the fact that we are dealing with a highly overdetermined object (in the Freudian sense of an object affected by more than one determinant).
A search for external determinants, however, initially faces a difficult paradox: there is no evidence in any of Shirley's films or in anything contemporaneously written about her that she was touched by the realities of the depression. For instance, in the mid-1930s, when 20 million people were on relief, Shirley awoke in the morning singing a song entitled 'Early Bird'; in the brutally demanding business of filmmaking, she thought everyone was playing games; and as for economics, Shirley thought a nickel was worth more than a dollar.
All of this would be intimidating if it were not that external determinants