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of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Shirley Temple Revisited, Part 1

Shirley Temple got her feet wet in the movie business -- and came to the attention of Fox Film Corp. -- in Jack Hays's "Baby Burlesks". These were a bizarre series of shorts that pretty much have to be seen to be disbelieved. The basic idea was to show toddlers in diapers either spoofing famous movies or engaging in various grown-up activities: war, politics, making movies (although the series called into question exactly how grown-up that particular activity was).  The first of these shorts -- though the "Baby Burlesks" name hadn't been adopted yet -- was Runt Page, a send-up of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page. And this shot right here was America's first look at three-year-old Shirley Jane Temple. She sits in her high chair listening as her screen parents and another couple chat about having seen The Front Page; then she flops over in sleep and dreams a ten-minute version of the story featuring her and her tiny playmates.
In her dream, Shirley is the fiancee of reporter Bilgy Yohnson, played by Georgie Smith, her "first leading man"; they are shown here with little Eugene Butler, who played Bilgy's editor Walter Scalds ("Bilgy Yohnson" and  "Walter Scalds" for The Front Page's Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns, get it? That's about the level of producer Jack Hays's writing). America may have seen her in Runt Page, but nobody heard her voice, or the voices of any of the other kids; they were all dubbed by adults. For that matter, it's an open question exactly how many people even saw her; in Child Star she writes that the one-reel short was a "dismal failure in the marketplace [and] its sale was abandoned". Besides, as this frame suggests, Shirley still had a few things to learn -- for instance, not to look at the camera.

But she proved to be a quick study, especially at home with Mother Gertrude, who coached her in how to "sparkle" for the camera. "When she said 'sparkle'," Shirley wrote, "it meant energy, an intellectual intensity which would naturally translate itself into vivid and convincing gesture and expression." (By the way, let me insert here that there can be no doubt that Shirley herself wrote Child Star; she writes like a diplomat. But not like a diplomat talking to her foreign counterparts -- no, like a diplomat reporting to her colleagues back at the State Department.)

Runt Page was produced and distributed by Universal; evidently Shirley's memory of it as a "dismal failure" was correct, because the studio bailed on making any other shorts with the "Baby Stars". Jack Hays and his troupe of toddlers wound up at Educational Pictures, a Poverty Row establishment that trawled around the fringes of Hollywood snagging talent either on their way up (Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Edward Everett Horton worked there early in their careers) or on their way down (Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton and Roscoe Arbuckle all fell to earth there when their own stars went into eclipse).

Like the other kids in the Baby Burlesks, Shirley was under exclusive contract to producer Jack Hays. To finance his share of the shorts (Educational supplied 75 percent of the funding, Hays 25 percent), Hays farmed the kids out for modeling gigs, promotional gimmicks, bit parts or walk-ons, anything that required a child, pocketing most of the money and passing a pittance along to the parents (in Shirley's case the few dollars supplemented her father George's income as a branch manager for California Bank). All that shuttling around L.A. on Hays's loan-outs, on top of her lessons at Mrs. Meglin's Dance Studio, gave Shirley a tidy fund of experience for one so young.

After Runt Page the dubbing by adult voices was abandoned, and for the rest of the Baby Burlesks' brief run the kids would all perform, for better or worse, with their own voices. In Shirley's case it was for the better, as it turned out she could sing and dance. Here, in her seventh Baby Burlesk, Glad Rags to Riches, she sings for the first time on screen, playing Nell (aka night club chanteuse La Belle Diaperene). The song is "She's Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage"; Shirley is four years and nine months old.

In September 1933 Jack Hays declared personal bankruptcy, and George Temple used his banking contacts to negotiate with Hays's court-appointed trustee to buy back Shirley's contract for $25. (Hays, one of Hollywood's true bottom-feeders, said nothing at the time. But later, after Shirley had hit it big, he tried suing for half a million dollars, claiming the sale had been illegal. His nuisance suit dragged on for years before he finally settled for $3,500.)

After two-and-a-half years, in which she made 15 shorts and appeared in five features, Shirley was unemployed. Then, as the saying goes, fate intervened. At the end of November 1933, at a sneak preview for What's to Do?, one of the Educational shorts Shirley had made on loan from Hays, she and her mother met songwriter Jay Gorney, recently hired by Fox Film Corp. This landed her an audition with Gorney and his partner Lew Brown, who was also serving as associate producer under Fox production chief Winfield Sheehan. Brown and Gorney cast her in a small part in a picture that was already well into production. For all intents and purposes, whatever her previous experience, Shirley Temple's screen career -- and certainly the Shirley Temple Phenomenon -- began with...

Stand Up and Cheer! (released April 19, 1934)

Stand Up and Cheer! was an "all-star" revue masquerading as a standard book musical (the original working title was Fox Follies). The premise of Ralph Spence's script, based on a "story idea suggested by" Will Rogers and Philip Klein, was that the U.S. President, in order to help people forget their troubles during the Depression, creates a new cabinet post, Secretary of Amusement, and appoints Broadway producer Lawrence Cromwell (Warner Baxter, essentially xeroxing his Julian Marsh from 42nd Street the year before) to oversee federally-funded public entertainment.

This provided the framework for a series of songs and specialty numbers by guest artists. Most of them were second- and third-string stars even at the time -- vaudevillian Sylvia Froos, dreamboat tenor John Boles, blackface red-hot-mama entertainer Tess "Aunt Jemima" Gardella, hillbilly singer "Skins" Miller, knockabout comics Mitchell & Durant -- and they're all now generally (even utterly) forgotten. In fact, the one who's best-remembered today is the one who wasn't a star at all -- yet: Shirley herself. In this poster she receives seventh billing, but on screen she's billed third, right after romantic ingenue Madge Evans. Clearly, Fox had some inkling of what they had on their hands.

In Child Star Shirley remembers her mother taking her on December 7, 1933 to audition for Jay Gorney and Lew Brown. She sang "Lazybones" sitting on Brown's piano, then slid down and stood by while the two songwriters discussed her as if she weren't there (none of them suspecting, no doubt, that she'd be writing about it half a century hence). Brown was dubious; Winfield Sheehan, he said, was "high on the other kid." Gorney demurred: "Unnatural, precocious. A revolting little monster." Brown agreed, and they offered Shirley the part. After all, they wrote the songs for Stand Up and Cheer!, plus Brown was the picture's associate producer. Shirley never knew how they brought Sheehan around, but Abel Green, in reviewing the picture for Variety, mentions approvingly that Brown had "held out...for that cute Shirley Temple."

Shirley's share of Stand Up and Cheer! consisted of two brief scenes, a curtain-call appearance in the movie's finale, and a song-and-dance duet with James Dunn to "Baby, Take a Bow". It may have helped them both that "Baby, Take a Bow" was the best song in the score. Or was it that it just seemed like the best because Dunn and Shirley performed it? That's a chicken-or-the-egg question, but the bottom line was beyond debate: "Baby, Take a Bow" was the highlight of the weird, unruly hodgepodge that was Stand Up and Cheer!

The picture was deep into shooting when Shirley was cast, and the cash-strapped studio couldn't afford to dawdle, so she had some serious catching up to do. To save rehearsal time, dance director Sammy Lee jettisoned the tap routine he'd taught to Dunn and had the actor learn the steps Shirley already knew from Mrs. Meglin's. Then, late on her first morning, it was off to the sound studio to pre-record the song. Dunn flubbed several takes, then finally got it right. When her turn came, Shirley stood on a stool (her mother had taught her the words to the song just minutes before) and sang -- then was mortified when, on the very last note, her voice slipped into an unintended falsetto ("Dad-dee, take a bow-oo!"). She thought she'd ruined the take and was terrified she'd be fired, but she needn't have worried; that little half-yodel at the tail end of her vocal provided the perfect "button" to the song and firmly cemented her Cute Quotient.

My apologies to any black-and-white purists in the house, but the best clip of "Baby, Take a Bow" available on YouTube really is this colorized version, so try to make allowances (anyhow, the colorizing is better than usual, without those spray-on-tan orange skin tones). It's worth posting here because it really is one of movie history's genuine A Star Is Born Moments. Besides, it's a fun number, well-stage by Lee in Busby-Berkeley-on-a-shoestring style. First comes Dunn singing the song to Patricia Lee, she silently beaming and sashaying in Toby Wing fashion. Then the customary parade of chorines, with Dunn endearingly hopping hither and yon to avoid stepping on their long trains. Shirley enters at about the two-thirds point -- first she poses, then she sings, then she dances, each stage of the number presented as if to say, "But wait, there's more!" As Shirley dances, swinging her arms in joyous abandon, it's easy to imagine that she knows this is the chance of a lifetime, and is carpe-ing this diem for all it's worth. That may be reading too much, though; after all, she's only five. It may simply be that she's having fun!

Stand Up and Cheer! ran 80 minutes, and Shirley was on screen for a mere 5 minutes, 5 seconds. (The picture survives only in a 69 min. version reissued after Fox had merged with Darryl Zanuck's 20th Century Pictures -- but considering that by that time Shirley was the main selling point, it's a cinch they didn't cut a frame of hers.) Fleeting as they were, those five minutes were all she needed, and there was no doubt who stopped the show. Variety's Green got right to the point. In his very first sentence, he wrote: "If nothing else, 'Stand Up and Cheer' should be very worthwhile for Fox because of that sure-fire, potential kidlet star in four-year-old Shirley Temple." (Shirley was five -- in fact, she turned six the day before Green's review appeared -- but never mind; Fox publicity had already shaved a year off her age.)

Meanwhile, over on the other coast, the New York Times's Mordaunt Hall was borderline obtuse. He absurdly compared Stand Up and Cheer! to Gilbert and Sullivan and spent long inches recounting the picture's plot -- not its most prominent virtue -- and praising an excruciating scene between Stepin Fetchit (so popular in the '30s, so cringe-making today) and a penguin in a coat and hat claiming to be Jimmy Durante (the voice impersonated by Lew Brown). But even Hall paused to mention "a delightful child named Shirley Temple."

Even before the public verdict was in, Winfield Sheehan knew what he had, and he wasted no time locking Shirley down. Two weeks after Shirley's audition for Brown and Gorney, he tore up the old one-picture, two-week contract and offered a new one for a year, with an option to renew for seven. The money was a lot better, but Shirley and her parents were still dealing in a buyer's market, and Fox got a sweet deal.

That was the easy part. Now the question was: How could Fox -- bleeding cash, defaulting on loans and teetering on bankruptcy -- exploit their most promising new star when she was only five -- oops! make that [wink] four -- years old? While they mulled that over, Fox decided to make a little mad money by loaning her out. And so it was that Shirley Temple's first above-the-title credit, and the role that confirmed her as a bona fide star, came to her from another studio. 

To be continued...


Page said...

Hi, Jim!
You wrote:
"Baby Burlesks". These were a bizarre series of shorts that pretty much have to be seen to be disbelieved. The basic idea was to show toddlers in diapers either spoofing famous movies or engaging in various grown-up activities: war, politics, making movies "
WHAT IN THE WORLD? Bizarre indeed!

Fascinated with your series on Shirley so far. She certainly had a strange start but didn't most during that early period of Hollywood? I can't say that I've seen these shorts you've mentioned although I've seen the 'diaper photos' giving them the side eye.

You know I'm a big fan of Shirley although I can't say the same about certain people like Uhum, Ivan!

You've certainly done your research and I'll be waiting patiently for Part 2.
Have a great week!

JB said...

Wow! Thank you for bringing us this background material on Shirley. Having watched her dancing, though, I'd say that what you're seeing is mere youthful enthusiasm to get her routine - and this IS the routine that she has been working on so hard, remember - absolutely perfect when it matters most!

Unknown said...

If anyone has the full Stand Up and Cheer, please speak up.

Unknown said...

If anyone has the full version of Stand Up and Cheer with the song, "She's Way Up Thar" that would be great.

Anonymous said...

SHE'S WAY UP THAR has been found:

Jim Lane said...

Well, Richard Robbins, ask and you shall receive! Thanks, Anon, for sharing the URL to the YouTube clip of this lost number from Stand Up and Cheer! It's a real hoot, and underlines my appraisal of the picture as a "weird, unruly hodgepodge". Readers, cut and paste the URL, and behold!

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