Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 11
So far we’ve taken Shirley up to the middle of 1937. She’s been Hollywood’s top box-office star for two years, and she’ll go on to be for two years more. This is probably a good time to deal with one of Hollywood’s most persistent and tantalizing legends: Is it true that Shirley Temple was originally set to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz? The short answer is: No, but there may be a complicated grain of truth to the legend. In fact, given Shirley’s stature in the industry during the mid-to-late 1930s, it’s unlikely that there wouldn’t be something to it.
First of all, before we go any further, dismiss from your mind any images of Shirley chirping her way through “Over the Rainbow” or pumping her fists and pouting that she wants to go home. Frankly, I suspect those are scare-images conjured up by Judy Garland’s more jealous fans, in that unique way they have of seeking to tear down anyone they see as a threat (Deanna Durbin, for example) — as if Judy needs that kind of help. If Shirley had made The Wizard of Oz, there would certainly have been no “Over the Rainbow”, and possibly no songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg at all. The Wizard of Oz starring Shirley Temple would have been utterly and absolutely different — far more different, for example, than Gone With the Wind would have been if Paulette Goddard had played Scarlett rather than Vivien Leigh. Granted, it’s hard to imagine The Wizard of Oz being any better (though it’s not impossible: I do wish Buddy Ebsen had been able to stay on as the Tin Man). But that doesn’t mean it would have been any worse. Just different. In that alternate universe where Shirley played Dorothy, W.C. Fields played the Wizard, Buddy Ebsen played the Scarecrow and Edna May Oliver was the Wicked Witch of the West, it’s entirely possible that people there cherish their Wizard of Oz just as much as we do ours.
The most common form of the legend goes like this: In 1937, 20th Century Fox and MGM worked out a tentative star-swap. Fox would get the services of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow to star in a picture called Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow about the Chicago Fire of 1871; in return, MGM would get Shirley to play Dorothy in Oz and to co-star in another picture with Gable. But when Harlow died suddenly in June 1937 the whole deal was off; Fox made their picture, now called In Old Chicago, with Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, and MGM didn’t get Shirley.
The story is interesting, with an appealing for-the-want-of-a-nail quality to it. Henry King, the man who eventually directed In Old Chicago, told it once in print (I recall reading it, but have been unable to remember or track down where), and Shirley repeats it in Child Star. But the story doesn’t really fit the facts. At the time of Harlow’s death, the screen rights to The Wizard of Oz belonged not to MGM but to Samuel Goldwyn, who had purchased them in 1933 for $40,000.
Shirley gets another point wrong in Child Star when she talks about who might play “the role of fourteen-year-old Dorothy”; she actually more than doubles Dorothy’s probable age. In L. Frank Baum’s first Oz book Dorothy’s age isn’t mentioned, but W.W. Denslow’s illustrations show a girl of six or seven, and internal evidence in later Oz books suggests that that’s about right. In other words, Dorothy in The [original] Wizard of Oz is almost exactly the age of Shirley Temple at the height of her career at Fox. It may well be that around that time Darryl Zanuck tried to obtain the rights as a vehicle for his biggest star (wouldn’t you?), but aside from him there wouldn’t have been a lot of interest in the book. In any case the point was moot; Goldwyn wasn’t selling (what he though he was going to do with the property is anybody’s guess).
Then things changed on December 21, 1937 when Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. It was an immediate smash hit — and suddenly there was a renewed interest in making movies out of fairy tales. In The Making of The Wizard of Oz Aljean Harmetz quotes a New York Times story of February 19, 1938 telling how Goldwyn was suddenly besieged with offers to take Oz off his hands: “Twentieth Century-Fox [sic] is reported anxious to purchase the book for Shirley Temple, but all offers have been rejected.”
Then MGM made Goldwyn an offer he couldn’t refuse, and the deal was finalized on June 3, 1938: MGM bought the rights to The Wizard of Oz from Goldwyn for $75,000. Louis B. Mayer, Ms. Harmetz says, tried to borrow Shirley from Zanuck, but to no avail. (Shirley claims Zanuck made a counter-offer to buy the rights from Mayer, but I question her reliability on that point; she may have been reporting second- or third-hand studio gossip or wishful thinking. It seems to me that if Zanuck couldn’t offer Goldwyn enough to get the rights from him, he wasn’t likely to offer enough to MGM when the price was $35,000 higher.)
In later years Arthur Freed, who always inflated his role in producing The Wizard of Oz, insisted he intended all along for Judy Garland to play Dorothy — even saying he would have refused to make it with anybody else. We can dismiss that. Freed was only a songwriter in 1938 with no track record as a producer (and he got no screen credit on Oz). If Louis B. Mayer could bring Gene Kelly into his office in 1951 and tell him to make Singin’ in the Rain with Debbie Reynolds (a nobody), he’d have had no problem ordering Freed to make The Wizard of Oz with Shirley Temple whether he liked it or not. And Freed would have done as he was told; he got where he was by sucking up to L.B. (to be fair, he stayed where he was by producing one great and profitable musical after another for nearly 20 years).
So…sorting all this out, it strikes me that the bottom line is this: In the mid-1930s, if anybody ever gave a serious thought to remaking The Wizard of Oz (there had been two silent versions), the obvious and only possible choice to play Dorothy would have been Shirley Temple, and that very idea came up more than once. But for whatever reason, 20th Century Fox never got control of the property. Samuel Goldwyn, who owned it, seems never to have seriously considered filming it. Then in 1938, when MGM pried the rights loose from Goldwyn, they tried to borrow Shirley but couldn’t. As Aljean Harmetz correctly points out, if it had ever come to a serious showdown between Shirley and Judy Garland for the role, Judy would certainly have lost. Ergo, in this universe at least, it was never going to happen, Hollywood gossip and later tales notwithstanding. “Sometimes,” as Shirley said, “the gods know best.”
For the picture Shirley actually did make next, the question of rights was never an issue — the story had recently drifted into the public domain.
(released November 5, 1937)
To direct Heidi, Darryl Zanuck first approached Henry King, and he was an excellent choice. King’s directing career began in 1915 (and would stretch on to 1962), and he was one of that select group of directors who mastered moviemaking in the silent era, then adapted easily to the changing times when sound came in. By 1937, at Fox, he had already directed, among others, the first State Fair (’33) with Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor; Ramona (’36), Fox’s first Technicolor picture, from the Helen Hunt Jackson novel of old California; and Lloyds of London (also ’36), which made a star of Tyrone Power (who would work with King ten more times). Still to come were some of 20th Century Fox’s most important and successful pictures: Alexander’s Ragtime Band (’38), Jesse James (’39), The Song of Bernadette (’43), Wilson (’44), Twelve O’Clock High (’49), The Gunfighter (’50). King was the only director under contract to Fox who even approached the stature of John Ford (though King was a rather distant second at that), and if he had worked with Shirley it might have carried her farther along that fork in the road her career had taken with Wee Willie Winkie.
Alas, it was not to be. As King remembered it some 40 years later, he was on a busman’s holiday in Honolulu, doing prep work with the script for In Old Chicago, when he became stranded there by a steamship strike. Zanuck cabled him that In Old Chicago was being postponed and that he (Zanuck) wanted King to consider directing Heidi. “I immediately went to a bookstore in Honolulu, read it and didn’t think there was much of a movie in it. I don’t believe in fairies to begin with.”
Ferris and Josephson replaced all this pastoral cavorting with melodrama. Heidi doesn’t go home to her grandfather until the very end; before that the old man (Jean Hersholt) walks the 100 miles to Frankfurt in search of her, then stalks the city streets calling her name, sometimes missing her my mere seconds. Meanwhile, Fraulein Rottenmaier (Mary Nash) is upgraded (or downgraded) from a mere narrow-minded, stiff-necked stick-in-the-mud to a full-fledged villainess; she plots to keep Klara (Marcia Mae Jones) crippled and dependent in the hope that the girl’s father Herr Sesemann (Sidney Blackmer) will be moved to marry his “indispensable” housekeeper. When Heidi unwittingly thwarts Fraulein R. by teaching Klara to walk, the fraulein retaliates by — I am not making this up — trying to sell Heidi to a band of gypsies. Only the intervention of a cool-headed police captain clears the way for a happy ending back on Heidi’s mountain.
Heidi gets off to a promising start. The picture’s Lake Arrowhead
locations, combined with good special effects (probably the work
of Fred Sersen, Fox’s effects wizard) make a credible substitute for
Switzerland, and the early scenes of Heidi’s unquenchable good
cheer slowly charming her gruff, taciturn old grandfather — Shirley
once again winning over a crusty curmudgeon — are well-played
by Shirley and a nearly silent Hersholt. One particularly charming
touch is a lilting little melody that Heidi hums to herself as she
goes about her chores — and which the grandfather eventually
finds himself humming without even realizing it. So far the
movie has been absolutely faithful to the spirit — and
reasonably faithful to the letter — of Johanna Spyri’s
This lasts precisely 19 minutes and 37 seconds.
There’s nothing really “wrong”, exactly, with all this, except for one thing: It doesn’t belong here. It has nothing to do with the life of a little girl in provincial Switzerland in 1880, but it has plenty to do with being Shirley Temple in 1937. This silly little number, coming when it does, wrecks Heidi beyond fixing. After this, we no longer believe we’re in Switzerland or, later, Frankfurt; we can’t possibly be anywhere but Hollywood. (The melodramatic blandishments of the script — selling Heidi to gypsies?? — and Dwan’s directing every scene at a headlong, breakneck pace, as if he has to be somewhere across town 15 minutes after calling cut, certainly don’t help.)
Shirley tells us that the number was inserted in the picture halfway through shooting. Whose bright idea was it? I blame Darryl Zanuck; nothing happened at his studio or went into his pictures that he didn’t know about and approve. What ever happened to “We don’t want to depend on any of her tricks” or “She should not be doing things because she is Shirley Temple, but because the situations — sound and believable — call for them“? I can only think — and this is pure speculation on my part — that Zanuck’s edicts in that story conference on Wee Willie Winkie were said simply to placate John Ford, as if Ford had said, “All right, Darryl, I’ll direct your Shirley Temple picture, but don’t try to saddle me with any of those cute little song-and-dance scenes; I won’t have it.” Maybe if Henry King had agreed to direct Heidi, those edicts would have stood. King might well have insisted, but not a director like Dwan.
At the time, Shirley enjoyed the number, enjoyed wearing those Dutch braids and bangs, enjoyed being flown on that invisible wire. In retrospect, writing in Child Star, she saw it as the turning point in her career. She called the “Wooden Shoes” number “a traditional Temple musical filler”, adding that “it marked the collapse of any studio resolve to build on the purely dramatic momentum first evident in Wee Willie Winkie.” With the same hindsight we can see that Shirley was right.
That’s in hindsight, however; no such thing was apparent at the time. In 1937, the picture was a major hit. Along with Wee Willie Winkie, Shirley’s only other picture that year, it kept her the number-one box office star, and Heidi became one of Shirley’s signature roles. Maybe even the signature role; to this day, it’s often the first picture mentioned when Shirley’s name comes up. Reviews were positive — better, in fact, than for Wee Willie Winkie. Variety’s “Char” called it “good for average Temple draw or better” (which it was), and said it “follows the original [novel] rather faithfully” (which it didn’t). In the Times, Frank S. Nugent was, for him, almost rhapsodic: “All of it has been framed handsomely in the snows of a Hollywood Switzerland, with a soft sepia (and blue) tinting to accentuate its dreamworld quality” (unlike Wee Willie Winkie, Heidi has not survived in that form). Nugent closed by admitting, “Shirley has scored another ‘coo.'”
Welcome, Melissa! I couldn't decide which of your comments I found most gratifying, so I published them both! Thanks for dropping by, and for your kind comments on my long series on Shirley's career; I put a lot of time, work and love into it, so much appreciated!
As a self-proclaimed Shirley super fan for the better part of 40 years, I would like to thank you for this tribute. Your Shirley Temple Revisited posts are among the most accurate, thorough and revealing writings I've ever read – and I've read most of them! I plan on rereading them all again, with pleasure!
I'm a self-professed Shirley super fan and have been for the better part of 40 years. I even met her in 1988 on her book tour. Your posts in the Revisited series were some of the most honest and thorough and accurate accountings of Shirley I've ever read – and I've read most! Thank you for an outstanding tribute to an outstanding star.