Temple and the
by Charles Eckert
Cut, no. 2, 1974, pp. 1, 17-20
Through the mid-depression years of 1934 to 1938 Shirley Temple was a phenomenon of the first magnitude: she led in box-office grosses, single-handedly revived Fox and influenced its merger with 20th Century, had more products named after her than any other star, and became as intimately experienced here and abroad as President 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 resistance one anticipates 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-thirties, when twenty million were on relief, Shirley awoke in the morning singing a song entitled “Early Bird” ; in the brutally demanding business of film-making, 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 often cannot be perceived in a finished object, whether that determinant be the repression that produces a pun or the sweated labor that produces a shirt. And Shirley in film and story was as highly finished an object as a Christmas tree ornament. Some contemporary libels against her which depicted her as a thirty-year-old dwarf or as bald headed, and the irreverencies of critics who called her a “pint-size Duse” or the moppet with the “slightly sinister repertoire of tricks” show that the surface was often too perfect to be accepted and that deceit was suspected. But libels are not theories, and everything written about Shirley was ultimately helpless to explain her—or to exorcise her.
We might begin to chip at her surface (analytically, not iconoclastically) by noting that the industry she worked in was possibly more exposed to influences emanating from society, and in particular from its economic base, than any other. To the disruption of production, distribution and consumption shared by all industries one must add the intense economically determined ideological pressures that bore upon an industry whose commodities were emotions and ideas. Politicians directly charged Hollywood with the task of “cheering Americans up;” and such studio ideologues as Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer gloried in their new roles as shapers of public attitudes. But far more significant pressures arose out of the grim economic histories of the major studios which saw all of them by 1936 come under the financial control of either Morgan or Rockefeller financial interests (F. D. Klingender, Money behind the Screen, 1937). In addition to rendering films more formulaic and innocuous, is domination drew Hollywood into a lackeying relation to the most conservative canons of capitalist ideology. It is not my intention to recount this history, but rather to assess its effects upon the content of Shirley’s films and her public persona. To do this systematically I must first survey a portion of the economic history for the period 1930-1934 and describe the ideology it gave rise to. At this point my study will move synchronically, from the economic base through the ideology to Shirley Temple (her first feature films were made in 1934). I will then hedge on the synchrony by including films from 1935 and 1936 (on the pretest that Shirley’s films conservatively repeated situations and themes).
The most persistent specter that the depression offered to those who had come through the crash with some or most of their fortunes intact was, as it turned out, not that of Lenin nor of Mussolini, although articles on Communism and Fascism filled the magazines, but that of a small child dressed in welfare clothing, looking, as he was usually depicted, like a gaunt Jackie Coogan, but unsmiling, unresponsive, pausing to stare through the windows of cafeterias or grocery stores—his legs noticeably thin and his stomach slightly swollen. This specter had thousands of incarnations.
These children are, of course, symbolic, both in the context of the depression and of this article. What they symbolized was the flashpoint of the millions on relief who showed themselves, early on in the depression, largely immune to acts of revolt and willing to tough out the hard times if their children’s minimal needs for food and clothing could be met. In November 1930 Hoover was forced to reply to the observation by the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection that six million American children were chronically undernourished. He said,
This may have washed with some at this early stage of the depression, but later on the tactics had to be more frontal. “No One Is Starving” the New York Times and Herald Tribune announced in front page headlines on March 17, 1932. This was the substance of telegrams from thirty-nine governors. The issue of starvation was debated, and many cases of death by starvation were adduced by newspapers; but the statement, which begged the issues of chronic malnutrition and near-starvation, was essentially true. And it was vitally important for those in positions of wealth and power that it remain essentially true.
To this end, the most minimal subsistence needs had to be provided. And as the estimate of those needing help rose, reaching about twenty million on the eve of the election in 1932, it became increasingly likely that a federal relief program would have to be inaugurated. But to the captains of industry and the traditionally wealthy who made up Hoover’s official and private entourages the prospect of massive federal relief was dismaying. All of the initial reactions of Hoover and the class he so steadfastly represented had been self-serving. Tariffs were placed upon foreign imports, absurdly low income taxes upon the wealthy reduced even further, and federal reserves hoarded in a miserly fashion or loaned at reduced rates to select banks and industries. The remedy for the depression, the country was told, lay in the protection, and where possible the augmentation, of the capital resources of the wealthy, for these resources were the key to renewed economic growth and revived employment.
Such naked opportunism at so desperate an hour had to be dressed in Emperor’s clothes of the first order. And Hoover and his supporters spent most of their time spinning and sewing. What they fashioned was a formidable ideological garment made of the following materials: The economy of the country was fueled, not by labor, but by money. Those who possessed money would bring the country out of the depression as their confidence was restored by a protective and solicitous government. If the needy millions were served instead, a double blow would be struck at the nation’s strength. First of all, the capital resources of the government and of the wealthy (who would have to be taxed) would be depleted. And, secondly, the moral fiber of those who received relief would be weakened—perhaps beyond repair.
The latter argument, less amenable to mystification because it was not couched in financial terms, needed more than assertion to give it weight. Recourse was therefore made to the deities who dwelled in the deepest recesses of the capitalist ethos. Initiative, Work and Thrift were summoned forth, blinking at the light. An accusing finger was pointed at England where the dole had robbed thousands of any interest in self-help. Hoover’s attacks upon the evils of relief were echoed at state and local levels; and it became common to insist that those who received relief, even a single meal, do some work in compensation, such as sweeping streets. This demeaning, utterly alienating “work” became one of the most common experiences of the depression—and one of its scandals.
Early in the depression William Green, President of the AFL, led organized labor in denouncing the dole and unemployment insurance as “paternalistic, demoralizing and destructive.” Governor Roosevelt of New York, thinking of the votes he would need to get in the White House, asked in Fall of 1931 for an increase in state taxes to give “necessary food, clothing and shelter” but noted that “under no circumstances shall any actual money be paid in the form of a dole.” Observed a writer in The Nation,
Indeed, the only ones who seemed to be taken in by the argument that relief destroyed character were reactionary governors and grim county relief agents.
Clearly some other ideological weapon was needed, one which could effect material changes in conditions rather than merely mask the hardened indifference of the Hoover administration. And one was found, calculatedly developed, and financed with some of the cold cash that was anathema to the poor. Declaring that “no one with a spark of sympathy can contemplate unmoved the possibilities of suffering,” Hoover, late in 1931, appointed Walter S. Gifford Director of the President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief and Owen D. Young Chairman of the Committee on Mobilization of Relief Resources. In their official capacities they took out a series of full page advertisements in major magazines.
Say This to Your Wife,
The vulgarity of this charade can more fully be appreciated if we know that Gifford was President of A. T. and T. and Young Chairman of the Board of Directors of General Electric. This attempt to shift the burden of charitable work to the middle class and the poor was, ironically, unnecessary. As a reporter observed at a later date,
But face-saving was the order of the day, and to the advertisements and the repeated appeals to local charities by Hoover, one must add the many Charity Balls, at one of which debutantes dressed in hobo clothes and dined at red and white checked tables on cornbread and hotdogs.
Then there were, of course, the publicized, and the modestly unpublicized, donations of the wealthy to charity. In March of 1933 when the income tax statistics for 1931 were finally published a Nation reporter noted, “The results are startling, even to those who never had much faith in the philanthropy of the wealthy.” The figures “destroy completely the myth of the generosity of America’s millionaires.” What they specifically showed was that contributions were usually of an order that reduced net taxable income to a favorable level—and no more.
But the endorsement of charity by those in power made the attacks upon the concept of welfare more consistent. Early in 1932 the Costigan-LaFollette Bill, which would have allocated $350 million for aid to local welfare agencies, was voted down by both parties. A critic noted,
If the Democrats hoped to buy it by actively demonstrating their conservatism, Hoover made his bid by requesting and getting federal relief grants of $300,000,000 just before the 1932 election. Since the number of needy was about 20 million, the grant provided $15 per person per year, or about four cents per day. But it was doubtful that many were listening to Hoover, because shortly before he made the request Roosevelt had accepted the nomination for President with the words:
sound of the whole passage seemed to be drowned out in the resonating
final line, “It will soon fulfill that responsibility.” Roosevelt did, of course, act on the issue of unemployment. The NRA, WPA
and CCC produced jobs—at rather pathetic wages—for some. But a distinction
must be made between the creation of a few hundred thousand jobs and the
vast needs of 20 million destitute. When Roosevelt addressed the first
CCC men by radio in July, 1933, he said, “You are evidence that we are seeking to get away, as fast as we
possibly can, from the dole, from soup kitchens and from free lodging.”
But it soon became easier. In October of 1933 Roosevelt addressed the Conference of Catholic Charities:
In January of 1934 he addressed Congress on the budget:
And, finally, in an address to NRA authorities in March, 1934:
By degrees, in a purely rhetorical process, relief was demoted in importance, then mentioned in passing, then forgotten.
But Roosevelt was not only more politically expedient than Hoover, he was more culpable. Hoover was insulated from, and insensitive to mass thought and feeling. He could call children “cheerful human electrons” and think he would be understood. Roosevelt was a common sentimentalist. At Warm Springs in Georgia, he helped maintain a hospital for crippled children (he had suffered from polio himself) which he loved to visit. He also liked to lecture the children, on one occasion anticipating the thesis of this article with a bedtime exploration of the relation of economics to society.
The proof, to summarize Roosevelt’s prolix demonstration, lay in the fact that almost every crippled child required the care of an adult; rehabilitation made the child a “useful member of society” and released the adult “to be an economically useful unit in the community.” In another address on the occasion of his birthday and the holding of over 6000 birthday balls to raise funds for Warm Springs, Roosevelt said,
of crippled children compelled to heave at the oars would be monstrous
if it were not so ingenuously political.
As the second year of Roosevelt’s administration drew to a close in the winter of 1934, sufficient federal relief was no longer a serious possibility. Commentators noted that the impression that the Democrats would act had utterly demoralized charity efforts. And yet in New York alone there were 354, 000 on relief, 77,000 more than a year before. Relief applications were coming in at the rate of 1500 a day. One reporter passing through Ohio discovered families receiving one cent and a half per person. The Nation noted,
As the days grew shorter and drier, it became obvious that for millions the hardest times were still ahead. Those already mentally and physically stunted by years of malnutrition would know many more years of diminished existence before the economic boom of World War II would turn the depression around. And a few parents, broken under the responsibility of caring for hungry, ill and constantly irritable children, would kill one or more of them—and sometimes themselves. But then, on the other hand, there was Shirley Temple.
Since birth, Shirley had never awakened at night. She had never been ill, although her mother seemed to remember “a little cold once.” She refused to take a bottle and had to be fed with a spoon at three months. She spoke at six months and walked at thirteen. She arose every morning either singing or reciting the lines she had memorized for her day’s work. She was a genius with an I.Q. of 155. She did not mark her books, scrawl on wallpaper or break her toys. She did not cry, even when physically injured during the shooting of a scene. Doctors and dentists wrote her mother asking for the secrets of her diet and hygiene: her mother responded that there weren't any. Her relations with her parents were totally loving and natural. She had no concern for, or sense of, herself, and was consequently unspoilable.
If her mother were not so straightforward a woman, and if there were not independent corroborators for some of these facts, one would have to presume that Shirley was not real—that she was a rosy image of childhood projected like a dialectical adumbration from the pallid bodies and distressed psyches of millions of depression children. But she was real. Her biographies are not, as with most Hollywood stars, cosmeticized myths, but something on the order of fundamentalist “witnessings.”
Or, Adolfe Menjou speaking, “That Temple kid. She scares me. She’s, she’s ...’ He finally settled for “She’s an Ethel Barrymore at four.”
Shirley’s relation to the depression history I have outlined goes far beyond this dialectical play between her biographies and the real childhoods of many depression children, however. And it is at once easy and difficult to conceptualize. There is a felt resonance between the persona she assumed in her films and the ideology of charity that no one can miss. But to state why it exists demands a theory for her studio’s conscious or unconscious ideological bias, and the making of distinctions between intended ideology (propaganda of the Gifford-Young sort), opportunistic seizing upon current ideas and issues (the “topical” film syndrome), and a more diffuse attunement to the movie audience’s moods and concerns. When one takes into account Fox’s financial difficulties in 1934, its resurgence with Shirley Temple, and its merger with 20th Century under the guidance of Rockefeller banking interests, one feels that the least that should be anticipated is a lackeying to the same interests that dominated Hoover and Roosevelt.
But such lackeying need not appear as a message or the espousal of a class view; it can as well operate (and more freely) as a principle of suppression and obfuscation. Shirley’s films and her biographies do contain messages of the Gifford-Young sort—one should care for the unfortunate, work is a happy activity—but they seem more remarkable for what they do not contain, or contain only in the form of displaced and distorted contents.
I'll assume that this contention is a viable one and rest the case for it upon the analysis which follows. But before beginning, a few biographical facts are needed to place Shirley relative to the history already outlined. Shirley was born April 28, 1928, six months before the crash. She was discovered at a dance studio in 1933, given bit parts in shorts, then graduated to a musical number in Fox’s STAND UP AND CHEER early in 1934. During the number she pauses for a moment, puckers, leans forward and blows a little marshmallow kiss past the camera. Audiences emerged from the experience disoriented and possessive. After another minor role in CHANGE OF HEART, Shirley was moved up to feature roles in LITTLE MISS MARKER (Paramount), BABY, TAKE A BOW (Fox), NOW AND FOREVER (Paramount), and BRIGHT EYES (Fox), all produced in 1934. The box-office grosses made both studios incredulous. No star of the thirties had affected audiences so. Fox tied up its property with major contracts and produced nine more films in the next two years, the period of our concern.
Shirley’s most intimate connections with the depression history I have traced are those found in her films. I will deal opportunistically with the details of these films: what I shall principally omit are Shirley’s functions as an entertainer—her many dances, songs, exchanges with other cute children, and so forth. In any given film the sheer quantity of sequences in which Shirley entertains may make her other functions seem peripheral. But in the eleven films made between 1934 and 1936 the sequences devoted to plot and to the development of a persona predominate.
In these films Shirley is often an orphan or motherless (LITTLE MISS MARKER, BRIGHT EYES, CURLY TOP, DIMPLES, CAPTAIN JANUARY) or unwanted (OUR LITTLE GIRL). She is usually identified with a nonworking proletariat made up of the dispossessed and the outcast (clearly in BABY, TAKE A BOW, LITTLE MISS MARKER and DIMPLES; more covertly in OUR LITTLE GIRL, NOW AND FOREVER, and THE POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL). And when she is of well-to-do origins (THE LITTLE COLONEL, POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL and THE LITTLEST REBEL) she shows affinities for servants, blacks and itinerants. Her principal functions in virtually all of these films are to soften hard hearts (especially of the wealthy), to intercede on the behalf of others, to effect liaisons between members of opposed social classes and occasionally to regenerate.
We can detect some very obvious forms of repression, displacement and condensation at work within this complex. Although proletarian in association, Shirley is seldom the daughter of a worker, much less an unemployed one. In the two films in which her parents are workers (LITTLE MISS MARKER, BRIGHT, EYES) they are killed before the film begins or during it. Therefore the fact that the proletariat works is generally suppressed in the films. What proletarians do to get money is to con people, beg or steal. This libelous class portrait is softened by comedy and irony, which function, as they usually do, as displaced attitudes of superiority and prejudice. A comical proletariat is also a lovable one, opening the way to identification, and even to charitable feeling.
Shirley’s acts 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 a responsibility to share (income tax, federal spending). The solution Shirley offers is natural: one opens one’s heart, a la Gifford and Young, and the most implacable realities alter or disperse. We should also note that Shirley’s love is of a special order. It is not, like God’s, a universal mana flowing through all things, but a love that is elicited by need. Shirley turns like a lodestone toward the flintiest characters in her films—the wizened wealthy, the defensive unloved, figures of cold authority like Army officers, and tough criminals. She assaults, penetrates and opens them, making it possible for them to give of themselves. All of this returns upon her at times forcing her into situations where she must decide who needs her most. It is her agon, her calvary, and it brings her to her most despairing moments. This confluence of needing, giving, of deciding whose need is greatest also obviously suggests the relief experience.
So strongly overdetermined is Shirley’s capacity for love that she virtually exists within it. In Freudian terms she has no id, ego or superego. She is an unstructured reification of the libido, much as Einstein in popular myth reified the capacity for thought. Einstein’s brain bulged his forehead, dwarfed his body and stood his hair on end. Shirley’s capacity for love drew her into a small, warm ball, curled her hair, dimpled her cheeks and knees, and set her in perpetual motion—dancing, strutting, beaming, wheedling, chiding, radiating, kissing. And since her love was indiscriminate, extending to pinched misers or to common hobos, it was a social, even a political, force on a par with the idea of democracy or the Constitution.
That all of this has great ideological potential scarcely needs arguing. But it would be naive to trace Shirley’s film persona exclusively to an origin in the policies of the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations. One senses, rather, that Shirley is a locus at which this and other forces intersect, including those of the mitigation of reality through fantasy, the exacerbated emotions relating to insufficiently cared for children, the commonly stated philosophy of pulling together to whip the depression, and others. Yet it would seem equally naive to discount the fact that Shirley and her burden of love appeared at a moment when the official ideology of charity had reached a final and unyielding form and when the public sources of charitable support were drying up.
But depression attitudes toward charity, as we saw earlier, must be understood in terms of forces emanating from the economic base; and I have so far said nothing of Shirley’s relation to economics. Here we must move between her films and her biographies. For our purposes all of this material has the same status: it simply tells us all that people knew about Shirley. We have already noted that one of her functions was to pass between needy people—to be orphaned, exchanged, adopted. She always wound up in the possession of the person who needed her most. And he who possessed her owned the unique philosopher’s stone of a depressed economy, the stone whose touch transmuted poverty to abundance, harsh reality to effulgent fantasy, sadness to vertiginous joy. All of this works as a displacement of the social uses and the efficacy of money.
If the argument needs strengthening we do not have to seek far. Shirley’s absolute value was a constant subject of speculation. The usual figure quoted was ten million dollars in depression dollars an almost inconceivable sum. As a writer in the Ladies Home Journal put it in a symptomatic passage,
was a bank clerk at the time of her discovery (1932) but through his fame
(which could attract deposits) he soon became manager of a posh branch
of the California Bank. This conjunction of a banker and an inestimably
valuable property is in itself suggestive, especially for an era when
bankers like J. P. Morgan symbolized the capitalist system.
If we add to all of this Shirley’s function as an asset to the Fox studios, her golden locks and the value of her name to the producers of Shirley Temp dolls and other products, the imagery closes in. She is subsumed to that class of objects which symbolize capitalism’s false democracy: the Comstock Lode, the Irish Sweepstakes, the legacy from a distant relative. And if we join her inestimable value with her inability to be shared we discover a deep resonance with the depression-era notion of what capital was: a vital force whose efficacy would be destroyed if it was shared. Even Shirley’s capacity for love is rendered economic by our awareness that Fox duplicated the Hoover-Roosevelt tactic of espousing compassion for anterior economic motives (specifically, by making a profit from the spectacle of compassion). And because of the unique nature of the star-centered movie industry of the thirties, Shirley was a power for monopoly control of film distribution.
This intricate nexus of functions and meanings contains enough material for a major study of how capitalism simultaneously asserts and denies its fetishistic attachment to money and how it embeds these attitudes in the metaphoric surfaces of the commodities it creates. Shirley, orphaned, often in poor clothes, with nothing to give but her love, was paradoxically specular with the idea of money. And the paradox could as easily be perceived as an oxymoron in which the terms “need/abundance” were indissolubly fused. Of course, paradoxes and oxymorons are classical devices for the creation of numinous effects of the sort I referred to at the beginning of this article. By the time she had made her first eleven films Shirley’s name alone gave off little intaglios of energy, like a Saint’s head in a religious woodcut. A blind man came to the studio and asked to run his hands over her face. A woman wrote her father asking him to conceive a second Shirley upon her—or perhaps she upon him. Eleven industries paid Shirley to produce commodities bearing her name, and several of them grew rich. And Shirley’s mother drew one thousand dollars a week just to keep her daughter healthy and functioning and primed for work.
And it is
Shirley’s relation to her work that we must next, and finally, consider,
both because it received constant attention in her biographies and because
it may lead us to fresh insights into her relations to love and to money.
The commonplace that most work under capitalism is alienated seems never
more valid than during those crisis moments known as depressions. Work
during such periods is not only more affected by feelings of personal
insecurity, but by a very real harshening of work conditions. For instance,
millions of workers during the early thirties suffered from one or more
of the following conditions: speed-up, reduced work hours, reduced salaries,
the firing of high salaried employees and the employing of those willing
to work for much less, exposure to deteriorated and dangerous machinery
and a general reduction of safety standards, thought and speech control
so intense in some plants that workers never spoke except to ask or give
instructions, inability to question deductions from paychecks, beatings
by strike-breaking Pinkertons and thugs, and compelled acquiescence to
the searches of their homes by company men looking for stolen articles.
And there were the ultimate forms of alienated work—street cleaning,
mopping a floor, painting a wall in exchange for a meal, often a bowl
of soup and a piece of baker’s stale bread: this was the work that saved
one from the loss of initiative and character. One cannot read far in
the records of any class of workers during the depression without discovering
how abrasive and anxiety-ridden most working experiences were.
Second, from an article written by her mother:
this work, accomplished with joy and ease, Shirley received $10,000 per
week and over 3500 letters thanking tier for the pleasure she gave. The
disparity between Shirley’s work and the reality of most depression working
experiences was ludicrous. And the frequency and consistency of descriptions
of the sort just quoted indicates that the disparity was also mesmerizing,
much like the disclosure in 1932 that J. P. Morgan paid no income taxes.