Sweetheart In the 1930s, the United States suffered immense economic turmoil known as the Great Depression. Americans were full of hopelessness and sorrow and no longer were able to go to the movies because there was no money for it. Therefore, it was no surprise that when a bright and young new face came onto theater screens, people latched onto it with extreme fascination; some near obsession. This rising starlet, who could put a smile on even the saddest face, was Shirley Temple.
In 1935, at just three and a half years of age, Shirley instantly became the number one box office sensation and held onto the title for four straight years; yet she remained successful way beyond those years. Men, women, and children adored her loving personality and innocence; she was a breath of fresh air in a time of hardships and struggles. During the Great Depression, less people went to the theaters because they could no longer afford the extra expense.
In response, desperate movie makers produced films with more sex and violence to lure the audience and money back in. This posed as a great problem in society, mainly with women and children, because no mother would want to subject her child to such filth. Therefore, when Shirley Temple movies premiered in the early 1930s, women were excited about going to the theaters again. Shirley provided pure and classy entertainment that mothers would not hesitate to take their children to.
Although the films that Shirley starred in were by no means spectacular, she managed to rise above the script and give the audience what they needed and craved in such a time of despair. People were so enthralled by this little girl with such big talent, spirit, and liveliness that they did not care how “mediocre…[the] movie might be, the people flocked to see her” regardless (Fuller-Seeley, 49). She provided her audience with laughter in a gloomy time, pure love in a lonely world, and innocence in a place of filth and greed.
And for that one to two hours that her glowing face would shine on the screen and little voice would talk and sing, people were given an escape from their day to day stresses and worries and they became encapsulated by this tiny girl. She gave America what it had long been in need of and they were not about to give it up, no matter the ticket cost. Shirley Temple wooed America with her cheerful singing and dancing and made women, children, and men all over the world fall in love with her.
They desired to be her, to know her, and to share in her love and joy. Women’s fascination stemmed from their maternal nature. To them, Shirley was a child whom they longed to love, care for, and protect. Since they obviously could not attain this satisfaction, mothers would try to mold their daughters into their own little Shirley Temple; only they could never get fifty six perfect curls. Children’s fascination with her, however, was more of a desire to be her and share in her experiences.
They watched in amazement as Shirley explored life in the adult world, which instilled in them a longing for adventure and ambitious goals. Children, mainly girls, not only adored Shirley, but identified with her. “Rather than just seeing her as a spectacle on the screen…” they imagined themselves in her roles and became one with her character (51). Men on the other hand, were mesmerized with Shirley in a slightly different way. Many only saw her from a paternal view and, like women, desired to have her as their own daughter. Others however, had a more pedophilic enthrallment with Shirley.
Men in this time were sad and lonely, so when a young new face shined before them, they were naturally drawn to it. What was unnatural about this, however, was that they became so drawn to Shirley that some began to obsess and fantasize over this prepubescent little girl. While some kept their shameful fantasies more private, others were less discrete about it. For example, in a London magazine titled Night and Day, the author writes that “’middle aged men and clergymen’ lusted after her shapely body and…her appeal [was] more secret and adult” (57).
This idea that older men lusted after a five year old girl was sickening to all. However, while Shirley is not to be blamed, many movies she starred in had her sitting in men’s laps constantly. So much so, that people began to suspect that these films suggested incestual relationships with male family members, including fathers. Other films were suspected of being filled with hidden sexual references. This was not a far off suspicion with movies such as War Babies (1932) where Shirley plays the role of a miniature prostitute.