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Published on Sep 28, 2009
Okay- it seems that every time I check out an Oz clip on Youtube, somebody posts that Shirley Temple was "supposed" to be Dorothy and the only thing that held her back was Jean Harlow's untimely death which caused the contract negotiation of a swap to fall through, and MGM was forced to fall back on Judy Garland as a second choice. Since this is the 70th anniversary of the film, there is renewed interest in it and this comment is being made all over the internet.
First, Shirley was considered for the role initially, and BRIEFLY, at the insistence of some studio executives, as she had been the top box office draw for the past four years. The story says that Shirley was to be traded for Jean Harlow and Clark Gable to go and work and MGM. The problem is that MGM never bought the Oz property until January of 1938. Problem? Jean Harlow died more than half a year before, in June of 1937. Way too early to EVER have been part of an Oz negotiation.
While it seems that the property was definitely bought with Judy in mind, (she had already made several films, radio appearances and records) MGM Musical Director Roger Edens informally auditioned Shirley by going over to Fox to hear her sing soon after the property was bought. Edens was Judy's champion and musical coach from the start. He immediately deemed the demands of the role to be beyond Shirley's musical range and that was pretty much the end of that. To further add to the legend, Shirley's own autobiography, and the Disney Movie "Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story" seem to state the Jean Harlow story as true, and further, at least the film, seems to imply that was the ONLY reason the deal fell through. Sources have said that this is what Shirley was told at the time to protect her feelings (she was only 9 in early 1938, after all, so you can't blame those who wanted to protect her, and she was probably justifiably disappointed to begin with.) And being nine, she believed what she was told. There were probably other talks of negotiations, for sure, as Fox execs wouldn't have bothered having Roger Edens audition her, but it had nothing to do with Jean Harlow. And Shirley's not getting the role had nothing to do with a trade falling through, but rather her vocal limitations. Love Shirley - she was spectacular....but this role would have been too much, perhaps for any 10 year old.
This clip is from the 2001 Biopic Me and My Shadows. :)