Sybil Jason: Child actor who became Warner Bros' riposte to the phenomenal success of Shirley Temple

Singer, dancer, actress and mimic, Sybil Jason was a multi-talented child star who was given a contract by Warner Bros.

in the mid-Thirties in the hope that she might appeal to the audiences who were flocking to the films of Shirley Temple, who had proved a phenomenal success for the Fox studio, becoming Hollywood's top box-office attraction.

Jason did not become a major star, but acquired a following with her performances in such films as Little Big Shot (1935) and the Al Jolson vehicle, The Singing Kid (1936). Ironically, she ended her film career with two films at Fox supporting Temple, notably The Little Princess (1939), her best remembered role in which she played the Cockney scullery maid who shares with the beleaguered Temple the riches of food and furnishings that mysteriously appear in the squalid attic to which Temple has been banished by the wicked seminary head. (Jason learned Cockney speech by repeatedly watching Wendy Hiller's performance in the film Pygmalion.)

The second Temple film, The Blue Bird (1940), featured Jason as a cripple, but she later said that Temple's mother made the studio cut most of the scene in which she recovers her ability to walk because she felt it overshadowed the star. Temple and Jason got along very well, however, and became lifelong friends.

The youngest of four children ("I believe I was an 'oops' baby," she confessed, "since my two sisters and brother were 15, 13 and 11."), she was born Sybil Jacobson in Cape Town, South Africa in 1927 and, due to her mother's weak health, she was virtually raised by her eldest sister, Anita. When 18 months old, she was able to pick out tunes on the piano after hearing them on the radio. Lessons in singing and dancing revealed a flair for both, to which she added a gift for mimicry, soon becoming famous for her lampoons of Mae West, Greta Garbo and her show-stopper, Maurice Chevalier.

Although she successfully toured in South Africa, and was featured on the cover of Outspan magazine, her parents thought she would have greater success in England, where her uncle Harry Jacobson was a pianist in the Savoy's Mayfair Orchestra and accompanist to star singers. She was living with her grandparents in the UK when Jacobson brought home two of his friends, Gracie Fields and Frances Day, to see his little niece perform. They shared his enthusiasm, and recommended Jason to impresario André Charlot, who was about to stage a star-laden benefit at the London Palladium. He gave Jason a spot in the show, and her success led to a tour of the top music halls.

She made her screen debut when Fields's actor husband, Archie Pitt, told his wife that the film he was shooting, Barnacle Bill (1935), needed a girl for one day's work. Fields recommended Jason, who was so impressive playing Pitt's daughter that extra scenes were written for her. She then appeared in her first musical, Marcel Varnel's Dance Band (1935), in which she performed a number while walking through a train entertaining members of a band – a very similar staging to that for Shirley Temple's rendition of "On the Good Ship Lollipop" as she strolled down an aeroplane aisle in the previous year's Bright Eyes.

The earlier concert for Charlot in which Jason appeared had been filmed by Warner's London studio, and when production chief Irwin Asher saw it, he sent a copy to Jack Warner in Hollywood. Warner's cabled reply stated simply, "Sign her" and, recalled Jason, "With those words I became Warner Bros.' first child star under a long-term contract."

She sailed to the US on the Île de France with her sister and uncle, now her legal guardians, to an experience she described as "like walking into a fairytale book and becoming one of its characters." She was immediately given the starring role in Little Big Shot (1935) as a moppet with whom two con-men are stuck after her father dies. Though blatantly similar to Temple's Little Miss Marker, it had Michael Curtiz as director and a sterling cast and crew. It was a fine showcase for Jason and both audiences and critics responded positively.

Jason next played the daughter of Kay Francis in the hit melodrama I Found Stella Parrish (1935), prior to playing her finest role at Warners, as the niece of Al Jolson's sweetheart in The Singing Kid (1936), in which she duetted with Jolson on the Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg song, "You're the Cure for What Ails Me", and received splendid reviews.

The same year, she made an album for Decca of six children's songs with Victor Young and His Orchestra, and starred in a lavish colour short, The Changing of the Guard, which featured dream sequences and a visit to Buckingham Palace. It was the first of four Vitaphone shorts she made in Technicolor. The studio probably damaged her career, though, by adhering too slavishly to the Temple pattern, notably after Temple made Captain January (1936) with Guy Kibbee, and Warners immediately cast Jason in The Captain's Kid (1936), also co-starring Kibbee. She was Humphrey Bogart's lame daughter in The Great O'Malley (1937), and played Kay Francis's daughter a second time in Comet Over Broadway (1938). On the film's completion, the contracts of Francis and Jason were both terminated.

After making Woman Doctor (1939) for Republic, Jason was signed by Fox and made her two films with Temple. She was on a publicity tour in South Africa when the Second World War broke out, and she remained there to entertain troops and tour with the USO. She later performed on stage in the US, but after marrying the writer Anthony Drake in 1947 and having a daughter she retired from show business, though she later wrote two musicals, Garden Party and Garage Sale. Her marriage lasted 58 years, until Drake's death in 2006.

Sybil Jason, child actor: born Cape Town, South Africa 23 November 1927; married 1947 Anthony Drake (died 2006, one daughter); died Northridge, California 23 August 2011.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
All British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Arts and Entertainment
One of the installations in the Reiner Ruthenbeck exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery
artCritics defend Reiner Ruthenbeck's 'Overturned Furniture'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game