Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Once an Ozma, Never a Dorothy

This morning, we awoke to the news that Shirley Temple Black had died at the age of 85.

Shirley Temple is best known as a child star, featuring in many films for 20th Century Fox. She began training at Meglin's Dance School in 1931 at the age of three. (Meglin also worked with Judy Garland, and the Meglin Kiddies Troupe starred in the rare 1932 film The Land of Oz. Members of the troupe were in MGM's The Wizard of Oz as Munchkins.) Within a year, she was already featuring in a series of short films and was soon doing bit parts in feature films. In 1934, she was promoted to star for Fox Films, turning out four to three films a years until 1939, when she only turned out two. She released two more films with Fox in 1940—The Blue Bird and Young People—which both flopped, terminating her contract.

After a brief stint at MGM, a film with United Artists, and a few years working for David O. Selznik, Temple retired from films in 1950. She had already married in 1945, divorced in 1949, and was married again at the end of the year.

Temple went to TV in 1958 with Shirley Temple's Storybook, a TV show retelling fairy tales with live action. The show was relaunched in 1960 in color as The Shirley Temple Show, offering a wider variety of shows.

Temple became active in politics, losing some local elections in 1967 and 1969, and then became the U.S. Representative to the U.N. for the last quarter of 1969. She became one of the first major voices for breast cancer in 1973, revealing that she had had a tumor removed the previous year. Temple was appointed United States Ambassador to Ghana by President Gerald R. Ford, serving through December, 1974 to July, 1976. From July 1976 to January, 1977, she was the first female Chief of Protocol of the United States tending to Jimmy Carter's inauguration. Finally, she served as the United States Ambassador to Czechoslovakia from August, 1989 to July, 1992.

What was Temple's connection to Oz, though? Aside from her Meglin connection, like many children of the early 20th century, Temple enjoyed the Oz books. A promotional picture of the young star at her desk revealed all the titles up to The Giant Horse of Oz on her shelf.

Many people believed Temple would be a fine choice to play Dorothy in an Oz film, and it's not hard to see why her childish charm and blonde curls made people think of her as a match to the girl suddenly transported to a fairyland. Oz scribe Ruth Plumly Thompson even thought Temple would be a good choice, saying that if Shirley was cast in an Oz film, photos of her with the Oz books could help promote the series.

But it was not to be. When MGM finally got the rights to Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, producer Mervyn LeRoy decided that the role of Dorothy should be a star-making role for Judy Garland. Listening to popular demand, he briefly thought of seeing if Shirley could be loaned to MGM, but he soon decided that Shirley was not the Dorothy they wanted for their film. (It has become urban legend that Judy was second choice to Shirley Temple, but that's ridiculous when you consider how different their ages were.) Temple was popular for depicting wholesome childish innocence, MGM's Dorothy has her moments of running away from home and defying Miss Gulch, and if the Flying Monkeys carrying Judy away frightened children, imagine how much moreso it would be to see a much younger girl in their grip!

Temple did work with some of the cast of the MGM film: Terry the terrier played Rags in Shirley's first big movie, Bright Eyes. Jack Haley's character pretends that Shirley Temple is his daughter in The Poor Little Rich Girl. Frank Morgan played her grandfather in Dimples. Finally, Buddy Ebsen, MGM's first Tin Man, appeared in Captain January (a film that made me think that perhaps Shirley should actually have played Trot).

In many ways, Fox's The Blue Bird was their response to Oz. The property was a famous stage show featuring a quest with child protagonists, strange settings and characters, and a message that happiness can be found at home. It had been previously adapted for silent film twice (in my opinion, the existing film from 1918 is unsurpassed by any subsequent film version) and would now become a Technicolor fantasy spectacular with a black and white opening.

Temple played Mytyl, who became a discontented little girl living with her poor parents and brother Tytyl. One night, Mytyl and Tytyl are tasked by the Fairy Berylune to find the Blue Bird of Happiness, and led by the spirit of Light and accompanied by their Dog and Cat (who take human form, the villainous cat being played by MGM's almost Wicked Witch Gale Sondergaard), they travel through many lands before realizing the Blue Bird was at home all along. The Oz similarities in the treatment of Mytyl's character and the plot are quite blatant.

During her brief stint at MGM, the idea of a sequel to The Wizard of Oz was thrown around, and Noel Langely even wrote a treatment for The Marvelous Land of Oz that would make Oz a delirium again, but this time for a girl named Tippie who had run away from an orphanage. It was suggested that Shirley take the lead role, but the film never happened.

Among the stories in one of the books released to tie in with Shirley Temple's TV show was an excerpt from The Scarecrow of Oz. But the TV show soon produced another Oz connection with its first color episode: an adaptation of The Marvelous Land of Oz, in which Shirley played Princess Ozma.

The adaptation, though loose and low-budget, was quite well-done, setting up Oz lore in a manner that didn't require viewers to be familiar with the Oz books. The transformation of Ozma to Tip was shown at the beginning, depicting Ozma already on the throne. Jinjur was replaced with Lord Nikidik, and it's not hard to imagine Jonathan Winter's portrayal (and in fact, the entire production) being reinterpreted in color artwork by Dick Martin. You can see the episode for free on Hulu.

Thus, join me in remembering one of our screen Ozmas as she crosses the Shifting Sands.

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