It is not possible to talk about the Hollywood star system or film culture or really mass media in general as those things existed in the 1930s without talking about Shirley Temple. She defines her era in a way that very few movie performers have: she was the most popular movie star in the world for four consecutive years, 1935-'38, enough to make her among the most internationally-recognisable human women of the decade, reaching a level of fame and ubiquity that only a tiny handful of movie stars could ever conceive of. And she did all of it before celebrating her 11th birthday.

The reason for Temple's appeal is and was obvious (and has nothing to do with Graham Greene's insane postulations about a cult of middle-aged pedophiles): little kids are adorable, and little kids who can sing and dance and sell a joke doubly so. The actress's later crack attributing her fame to audiences in the Depression cheering themselves up with a dog, Rin Tin Tin, and a little girl, is obviously reductive, but obvious explanations don't have to be wrong explanations, and you'd have to be deliberately ignoring the whole history of pop culture to deny that in rough economic times, people generally prefer easy, escapist fare (consider the explosion in America of nihilistic crime dramas and biting, sarcastic comedy in the economic heyday of the '50s, contrasted with the rise in popularity of simplistic adventure movies in the late '70s, perfectly overlapping with the debilitating spike in gas prices. Or, hell, the plethora of superhero movies in our own current downturn, offering straightforward answers to bluntly delineated problems that resemble modern life not at all). Watching Temple mug and charm her way through a field of cooing adults is soothing, and the fact that all of her movies tended to espouse a hugely optimistic worldview (any problem can be solved by smiling at it, and maybe throwing a corny song its way) certainly couldn't have hurt audiences' enthusiasm. The calculated innocence on display is appealing because it requires very little energy to engage with it, in exchange for a pretty hefty payout of momentary pleasure.

The limitation of that line of thinking is also pretty obvious: like her contemporary Frank Capra, the idea that Temple was some kind of dispensary of simplistic sugary-sweet nonsense unendurable to sophisticated and/or contemporary tastes hold up only as long as you don't watch any of her films. It's the case, sure, that most of the films in that '35-'38 window are saccharine tosh, but Temple herself is always, eerily talented in everything she does. Even at the height of the studios system, you couldn't become a triple-A box office draw without any skills, and Temple was a better than solid dancer, singer, and comic performer, limited only by the material she was handed.

Which is why, all things considered, I generally prefer her work from 1934, the year she broke out of the novelty short ghetto, to all of her subsequent starring vehicles combined. In '34, the "Temple Formula" wasn't in place yet, and she could be called upon to provide things other than dewy-eyed charm to the movies she appeared in. Particularly in Little Miss Marker, for which Fox Film loaned her out to Paramount, Temple provides surprisingly able, surprisingly knowing (or just magnificently well-directed) in a register of acerbic sarcasm that's startling in any tiny girl, but especially one who is best known ethereal innocence.

All of which ultimately brings us to the subject at hand - for we've had a subject at hand all along, y'see - the Christmas release Bright Eyes, which looks now and was designed initially as the first "Shirley Temple film", instead of merely a film in which Shirley Temple appears. It was the first project expressly designed for her, and is the first to introduce one of the key elements of her later vehicles, the crabby old man who is turned into a bleeding-heart humanist by the kindness and preternatural wisdom of the innocent girlchild. At the same time, it avoids the godawful sentimentality that mars all but the absolute best of her later pictures, and still allows her to play a relatively normal little girl, with none of the over-written attempts to play to her persona. Neither the film nor Temple match Little Miss Marker, and William M. Conselman's script is unashamed to be bathetic; but it's easy enough to see what audiences responded to in '34. It is full of cute behavior by children, and everything works out well without it being too easy on the characters; that stuff sells, yesterday, today, and forever.

The meat of the story, anyway: little Shirley Blake (Temple) is the daughter of a maid, Mary (Lois Wilson), in the household of a wealthy pair of dreadful Californian snobs, the Smythes (Theodor von Eltz and Dorothy Christy). Shirley's father was an airman who died years ago - "cracked up", she says, in the assured tones of a child reciting by rote a concept she doesn't quite understand - and since then, she's been taken up as something between a mascot and a group adoptee by his buddies at the airfield, but especially "Loop" Merritt (James Dunn). All the pleasure she receives in life comes from visiting these friendly faces, the Smythe home is a depraved hole, with the snobby family having birthed an indescribably wretched daughter slightly older than Shirley, Joy (Jane Withers), and hosting at present the openly resentful Ned Smith (Charles Sellon), a wheelchair-bound uncle who despises the young folks who clearly only tolerate his crankiness in the hope of receiving a nice chunk of his estate when he dies, which they also clearly hope will happen really soon. Ned starts to be nice to Shirley, for no obvious reason other than because he knows it will piss Joy off; that's one ally on her side, which she'll need when her mother dies. On Christmas Day.

That's a lot of weepiness for a family comedy, but Bright Eyes doesn't really want to commit to any kind of glum emotion for too long: the point, after all, is to dramatise little Shirley's durability, not her trauma. So even after this jagged interruption in the film's "the dogged poor find ways to enjoy their lives, regardless" scheme, it pretty much immediately shifts into a second half that proposes the tragedy of too many people wanting to love and care for this little orphan: Loop (her godfather), Ned, and the Smythes' cousin, Adele Martin (Judith Allen), who was also Loop's fiancée long ago, before abruptly calling it off. This would be, arguably, the exact opposite of an intractable, unsolvable conundrum, especially given the Hollywood convention that you always still love the person you loved that one time, but the characters spend enough time not arriving at that solution until the story has hauled itself over the 80-minute mark.

I snark, but in truth, Bright Eyes goes down easy. Temple is an enormously appealing performer, for one thing, and in Withers she is wonderfully matched with a kind of negative-image of herself: a brunette with a foul attitude and a penchant for violent fantasies (sample playtime: emergency surgery to cut off a doll's legs). There's an unmistakable pre-WWII cant to Joy's characterisation, with its airy dismissal of psychiatry as so obviously bunk that we don't need to do more than name it to prove what idiot hippies her parents are; that and the unspoken notion that hangs over every one of the bad little girl's fetishistic descriptions of punishing her dolls that if only her parents would give her a good wallop, she'd turn out halfway decent. Still, Joy is a delightfully acerbic character, and Withers's performance is stellar; I don't quite know what to make with a movie whose two best performances are both given by child actors, but that's what we've got here. The brittle patter between the girls is easily the most engaging, funny part of the whole affair.

Outside of those two, it's stock filmmaking of an overly sensational narrative, one that the modestly-talented director David Butler (I can't entirely dismiss anybody whose later career included Road to Morocco) is content to present in fairly obvious broad strokes: the close-up of a cake for Shirley with a frosting airplane that has been shattered as the punchline to the scene where her mother dies is one of those moments where the filmmaker's terror of the audience not Getting It shades into outright contempt for our intelligence. And he's a little too free with close-ups of Temple doing nothing but grinning, but hell, that might have been a contract thing, or who knows. Mostly, the film provides a satisfactory neutral canvas for Temple to filigree with all her talents: the usual not-too-short takes that, in '30s cinema, signify a willingness to let us soak in the mere charisma of a star, with just enough sense to cut before things feel static. The only moment he really muffs is the film's sole musical number "On the Good Ship Lollipop", which somehow became Temple's signature tune despite being introduced in a bizarrely-staged, claustrophobic bit where she simply walks from one end of an airplane cabin to the other, as manly airmen hum along and occasionally spit out one or two words of the chorus when not waving around highly improbable candy props (a moment where one of the airmen takes an enormous powder puff to dabble some faux-powdered sugar on her face - in a really conspicuous cutaway shot, no less - is one of the most inscrutable things that I think I have seen in a '30s musical number).

Great cinema it's not, but great cinema it doesn't want to be. At heart, this is just one of the many star vehicles of the 1930s that all mostly resemble each other: basic staging of scenes that linger lovingly on the top-billed performer. In this case, that performer happens to be one of the most singular headlining individuals in Hollywood history. This early, more flexible Temple is, I'd say, a lot easy to handle than the increasingly ritualised one of later years, and Bright Eyes has enough glumness (including a well-staged storm scene) that it feels like it has some weight to it. Still, if you're looking for that one single Temple film to watch, I'd push for Little Miss Marker; Bright Eyes is charming as all fuck, but it's not really anything else.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1934
-Columbia's release of the Frank Capra-directed It Happened One Night crystallises the rules of the emerging screwball comedy genre
-At MGM, Director Ernst Lubitsch and stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald make the finest of all their various collaborations, The Merry Widow
-A year after their first onscreen pairing, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers debut as co-leads in RKO's The Gay Divorcee

Elsewehere in world cinema in 1934
-French director Jean Vigo makes the second and last narrative film of his bitterly short career, L'Atalante
-Wu Yonggang directs Ruan Lingyu in The Goddess, arguably the best-known Chinese silent film
-Basil Wright's The Song of Ceylon, from Britain, represents a new level of aesthetic sophistication (if not in overcoming cultural bias) in documentary filmmaking