Thursday, August 03, 2017

Ozbusters! Shirley Temple and MGM's Wizard of Oz

One regular piece of trivia about MGM's film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz is that Shirley Temple was considered for the role of Dorothy. It's been reported many ways, some saying that Judy Garland was who the studio went with because they couldn't get Shirley Temple. Yet, there are people out there who say the story is entirely false and that the role was always intended for Judy Garland.

What is the answer? Did MGM want Shirley Temple? Or was Judy Garland the first choice?

I believe the answer is more likely both.

What we're missing here is context of who we're talking about when we say "MGM." There are many, many people involved in making a movie and running a movie studio.

The Wizard of Oz was the dream project of producer Mervyn LeRoy, who was the driving force behind the movie. And it seems that he was the one who envisioned it to launch Judy Garland to stardom.

However, MGM was owned by a big theater chain called Loews' (this is part of how Hollywood worked back then), and noting the estimated big cost of the movie, they asked LeRoy to look into loaning Shirley Temple from 20th Century Fox.

The general public loved Shirley Temple, who had starred in a long series of films from Fox. Pint sized and her face framed in little golden curls, Shirley had talent in singing little songs, dancing, remembering her lines and generally looking cute. Even then-Oz historian Ruth Plumly Thompson had expressed interest in Temple playing Dorothy, saying that if such a project happened, promoting the books with Temple would be easy.

As it turned out, Temple was a fan of the books, and photos of Temple in her home revealed the Oz books on her shelf. She claimed in her autobiography Child Star that when her mother said that she should play Dorothy, Temple said she'd rather meet Dorothy. (I feel the same, Shirley.)

However, LeRoy had a specific version of Oz in mind. Previous versions of The Wizard of Oz on stage and film had reduced Dorothy from a lead character to a side character, giving more presence to the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. It would be easy to see Shirley Temple fitting the bill of a sweet little girl from Kansas who is whisked away to a magical world where she joins with a number of unusual friends played by comedy heavies who would basically take over the movie.

But that was not LeRoy's vision. His Oz would return Dorothy to a focal character. Yes, there would still be big talent as Dorothy's friends, but they wouldn't crowd Dorothy out of the focus of the film. For that, he'd need his Dorothy to be a strong actress who would wow the audience with her talent. And this was not what Shirley Temple would offer. Imagine Shirley Temple singing "Over the Rainbow." It'd be cute, but not the strong ballad the movie would need to open with.

Roger Edens, who worked with Judy on her singing during her MGM years, went to 20th Century Fox to hear Shirley Temple sing in person. He reported back that Temple didn't have the range they wanted for their musical Wizard of Oz, and so MGM kept Judy in the role, Loew's seemingly content that LeRoy and his crew knew what they were doing.

Fox would report that Shirley had lost the role of Dorothy, while Temple's mother was angry that a Fox producer claimed they had the Oz rights when MGM had purchased them from Samuel Goldwyn.

There's some interesting after notes here. Getting Shirley Temple would have involved Fox loaning her to MGM. While they didn't loan her, they did loan Jack Haley to MGM, who took over as the Tin Man when Buddy Ebsen was hospitalized.

As a response to The Wizard of Oz, Fox had Shirley Temple lead a film version of Maurice Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird, a play that opened on Broadway in 1910 and like Oz also had silent film adaptations. (Personal recommendation: the 1918 film.) Featuring a cast of unusual characters and children in lead roles, the play had two children seek the Blue Bird of Happiness through a series of strange lands before realizing the Blue Bird was at home all along. The moral was very reminiscent of that of MGM's Wizard of Oz.

Fox's Blue Bird was a flop, and so was Shirley Temple's next film Young People. Her parents bought out her contract, and she was signed on at MGM, where they intended for her to star in projects with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, but it didn't work out and she only did one film with the studio. It seems Oz screenwriter Noel Langley worked out a treatment for an Oz sequel and it was floated that they'd have Temple as the lead, but it never got further than that.

Temple would do a series of unimpressive films with other studios before leaving film. She eventually began the Shirley Temple's Storybook television show in 1958, with the show turning into The Shirley Temple Show with regular color shows (the first season had color and black and white episodes), the premiere episode being The Land of Oz, featuring Temple herself as Princess Ozma and Tip.

Well, in Shirley's own words, “Sometimes the gods know best.”

2 comments:

Sam Milazzo said...

I may not know much about Shirley Temple's acting (I haven't even seen her films except for a couple), but I like to think that with the right direction she would have had a more serious or sincere approach to her acting, instead of cute and adorable.

AMWise said...

I think it's possible that Shirley Temple would have made an enjoyable Dorothy, but I think Jay's point is that the kind of Dorothy she would have made would not have fit into the kind of film Mervin Le Roy and (perhaps more importantly) Arthur Freed were interested in making at MGM. For most of her career at Fox, Temple played an adorable four-year-old who overcame adversity by being cute, and I can imagine a Fox Wizard of Oz culminating with a scene of Shirley climbing on the lap of an unmasked Wizard played, inevitably, by Lionel Barrymore and convincing him to send her back to Kansas. By the time of Oz, Temple was approaching her teens and she couldn't play cute much longer. Not only would the Oz creative team have to deal with her limited vocal ability, they would have to have found a way to re-engineer Temple's onscreen persona. Judy Garland, by contrast, didn't have nearly the same amount of audience perception baggage--she was "the little girl with the big voice" after all--and a big movie centered on her would create her persona for the audience rather than, as with Temple, somehow refashion it from a familiar but unsuitable persona into new one.