Coauthored by William Stillman
This week we mourn the loss -- and celebrate the legacy -- of Shirley Temple Black, an international entertainment icon, and one of the very last surviving mega-stars of Hollywood's golden age. All of Ms. Temple Black's obituaries reference her connection to the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz, and told how she was the "first choice" to play Dorothy. Shirley Temple did in fact have an Oz connection, but one that requires clarification in lieu of urban mythology.
As a child star, Shirley Temple was an extraordinary prodigy with unaffected, charismatic charms, photographic memory for lines, lyrics and dance steps, and a radiant crown of golden curls that punctuated her on-screen jubilance or discord with a nod of her dimpled face. Public fascination with Shirley was borderline fanatical at the height of her mid-to-late 1930s popularity, and countless newspaper and magazine articles highlighted her off-camera activities.
Among Shirley's oft-cited literary favorites was the Wizard of Oz book series by L. Frank Baum and his posthumous successor, Ruth Plumly Thompson. In pictorial layouts of the Temple home, the Oz books were clearly visible on her bedroom shelf, and references were made to her interest in the adventures of Dorothy and her friends. In Child Star, her 1988 autobiography, Temple Black herself claimed that when her mother suggested she could play Dorothy in the movies, Shirley replied that she wanted to meet Dorothy, so absorbed was she in the Oz stories.
Shirley was under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox and its studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck was vigilant in scouting suitable story properties that could be developed for his most valuable player. Zanuck was aware of The Wizard of Oz as an ideal vehicle for Shirley as early as 1935 when rumors about Temple playing Dorothy began cropping up. One such notice informed readers that Shirley would star in a series of Oz movies -- not as wild as it sounds when one considers that Zanuck bought up the Muriel Dennison Susannah books after Shirley scored a hit with Susannah of the Mounties in 1939. Buzz about Shirley in The Wizard of Oz persisted into 1937.
In Child Star, Temple Black recalled that in 1937, while making the movie Heidi, she learned of a negotiation proposed between Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that involved loaning her to MGM for a Wizard of Oz production. In exchange, Metro would loan Fox its two biggest stars, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. According to legend, the deal fell through when Harlow died on June 7, 1937. At the time, MGM did not own the film rights to The Wizard of Oz, and the anecdote has often been dismissed as apocryphal. But in spring 1937 -- and before Harlow's death -- Oz appeared on a list of top books recommended for big-screen versions, many of which were made within the next five years. If ever there was a time for the old Hollywood chestnut about both studios engaging in discussion about a mutual star-swap, this would've been it.
Confusion about Shirley playing Dorothy has arisen because the alleged events of 1937 have become blurred with the events of MGM's developing Wizard of Oz production in 1938. Having secured the screen rights from movie mogul, Sam Goldwyn, in February 1938, Metro set about casting its big-budget opus. From the very start, Judy Garland (then fifteen-years-old) was approved to play Dorothy by producer-director, Mervyn LeRoy, and song lyricist and aspiring producer, Arthur Freed. After all, Metro's Wizard of Oz was going to be a musical, and Judy's brilliant singing prowess already had a public following. Though Judy was set for the part, Nicholas Schenck, head of Loew's Inc. (MGM's controlling parent company since the previous January), felt box-office security in the person of Shirley Temple was needed to ensure a financial return against Oz's big budget.
Roger Edens, MGM composer and Garland's mentor, dubiously made an appointment to hear Shirley Temple sing on the Twentieth Century-Fox lot. He returned to Metro to report that Temple lacked the robust vocal chops required for the extravaganza being prepared, and the part of Dorothy remained Judy Garland's, as intended. On the occasion of her April 23, 1938 birthday, the press noted that Shirley Temple's missing out on Dorothy was "the greatest disappointment of her brief and eminently griefless career..." In 1941, Temple's mother, Gertrude, remained bitter when she recounted that Zanuck had deceived her: He had assured her that Fox owned the Wizard of Oz film rights.
Zanuck cast Shirley in a series of classic children's stories adapted for the screen culminating in The Blue Bird in 1939 -- a Technicolor musical that, like The Wizard of Oz, opens in sepia-tones before converting to color for a lengthy fantasy sequence. Oz was a hit, but The Blue Bird was the first Shirley Temple picture to lose money. It marked the close of her magnificent career as the world's premier child actress -- a distinction that most critics would agree is still upheld today.
In the end, Shirley Temple Black proved to be a gracious and good sport. As she herself noted years later with regards to Judy Garland getting the role of Dorothy, "Sometimes the gods know best."
For more fun facts and fascinating trivia, check out the new book The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion.