Saturday, September 18, 2010
Screen Gem Saturdays: Collecting Child Stars
MGM Studio Head Louis B. Mayer was proud of the tagline for his studio, “More stars than there are in the heavens.” He also liked to promote Americana and family values by releasing wholesome movies such as the Andy Hardy series and The Our Gang (aka “The Little Rascals”) comedies. He definitely had a thing for child stars; Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret O’Brien, and Virginia Weidler were all part of the MGM stable. “The Wizard of Oz” came THIS close to having Shirley Temple play Dorothy, but her home studio (20th Century Fox) refused to release her to MGM for the film.
When Shirley and her family bought up the rest of her contract at Fox (feeling that Darryl F. Zanuck had lost interest in her career), Shirley was finally ripe for the picking. Louis B. Mayer wasted little time in signing her up, anxious to add the most famous child star of all time to his roster.
The publicity machine churned out photos of Shirley signing her contract with LB; pictures were also released of Shirley getting a tour of the studio by Judy & Mickey. Shirley was made to feel welcome and a slew of projects were announced that she’d be PERFECT for!
The caption for the next photo, featuring Clark Gable, goes as follows:
HOLLYWOOD, FEB. 19, 1941: SHIRLEY VISITS NEW STUDIO, AND MEETS GABLE. With Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland acting as guides, Shirley Temple yesterday was given a cook’s tour of M-G-M Studios, where she shortly will resume her film career, and firstoff ran headlong into Clark Gable, whom she had never met. After introductions, the tour was resumed and the 12-year-old actress visited sets and met directors and actors with whom she will work.
Unfortunately, Mayer got the same resistance from Shirley’s mother that Zanuck did. Mayer was big on “grooming”; each star had to pay their dues, go through the publicity, beauty, drama, and musical machines so that they could become part of the perfect MGM brand. At age 13, Shirley Temple just didn’t fit that brand. Her autobiography tells the sad tale of how her hair defied the beauty gurus, her lack of high-caliber dancing expertise frustrated the dance instructors, her vocal immaturity was especially evident, and her mother’s meddling insistence that her first MGM role not be a supporting one exasperated Mayer so much that he finally stuck her in a “B” movie (originally meant for Kathryn Grayson) called “Kathleen.” Once released, Mayer dropped Temple from the roster and she finished the rest of her career working for David O. Selznick, doing loan-outs to various studios.
For any other studio, “Kathleen” would have been considered lavish; for MGM, it was strictly cut-rate. Shirley garnered good reviews, but it was not a blockbuster hit. Shirley is limited to one musical number (a dream sequence) where she doesn’t even do her own vocal work (she is dubbed by Kathryn Grayson) and only performs the simplest of dance steps.
One could ponder what would have happened to Shirley’s career if her mother had allowed her to “work her way up” the MGM food chain with supporting roles to the other more seasoned stars. Coulda’ shoulda’ woulda’...
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