ANNE SHIRLEY was a Hollywood veteran at the age of five, and a star 10 years later. In between she attended Mrs Lawlor's School for Professional Children, where her fellow-pupils included Gloria de Haven, Bonita Granville, Marjorie Belcher (who became Marge Champion), Mickey McGuire (Mickey Rooney) and Frances Gumm (Judy Garland). She crested the two great ages of Hollywood child stars, the Twenties and the Thirties.
After the maudlin success of Jackie Coogan in Chaplin's The Kid, thousands of American parents saw their children as potential stars. Anne Shirley's parents changed her given name - Dawn Evelyeen Paris - to Dawn O'Day and obtained a role for her at the age of three in Moonshine Valley (1922). She worked regularly throughout the next decade, not attaining stardom, but she was a useful ploy in plots about cowboys protecting orphans (Riders of the Purple Sage, 1925) or someone's little sister (City Girl, 1930). There were plots and plots in those days - sagas - and Dawn O'Day was just one of a vast army of children able to step in to play the protagonist when young for the first few reels. She was the barker's daughter in Liliom (1930), which later became the musical Carousel, and one of the Imperial children in Rasputin and the Empress (1933), memorable then for reuniting the famed but ghastly Barrymores, Ethel, John and Lionel.
Dawn O'Day was useful, liked and known, but RKO decided to change all that when casting her in the first Talkie version (1934) of LM Montgomery's popular novel, Anne of Green Gables. Her leading man, Tom Brown, had just been rechristened after appearing in Tom Brown of Culver, and RKO decided that there was publicity value in Dawn O'Day in assuming the name of Montgomery's heroine, Anne Shirley, the precocious, direct and imaginative orphan who decides that Tom is the guy to take her on the hay-ride.
As the film was released Shirley Temple was becoming a star. At 16, Anne Shirley became just another ingenue. A few years later Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin both gave a new meaning to adolescence in movies - indeed Durbin once said, amusingly, that before she got into movies Anne Shirley was her idol. For Shirley, pretty, delicate and charming though she was, never possessed the attributes needed for real stardom.
RKO's plum roles went to Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn and Irene Dunne; Shirley got the leftovers, making an average of three movies a year. Her best chances came with loan-outs, to Fox for John Ford's Steamboat 'Round the Bend (1935), as the swamp girl loved by Will Rogers's nephew, and to Goldwyn for King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937), as Barbara Stanwyck's daughter, whom Stanwyck thinks is ashamed of her. Shirley's performance was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress.
It is the only film of Shirley's much seen today, except for the last one, Murder, My Sweet (1944). This was Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely retitled, because the singer Dick Powell was starting a new career as a straight actor and RKO didn't want anyone to think it was a musical. According to its director, Edward Dmytryk, RKO was about to go into receivership - and had sought to prevent that by making a Dick Powell musical. When Powell told them that what he really wanted was to play a tough guy, RKO agreed. The company cast him instead as Chandler's private eye, Philip Marlowe, since it owned the rights to this particular novel, having filmed it two years earlier as one of its 'Falcon' series, The Falcon Takes Over. The film was a big success for Powell, for Claire Trevor, who played the enigmatic Mrs Grayle, and for Shirley, who played her stepdaughter. It was as much of a new departure for her as it was for Powell. RKO had tended to cast her as a nice girl in nice circumstances, but here she walked unfazed through what was then the murky new world of film noir.
But Shirley, at the age of 27, decided to retire; not long after the film was finished she married an RKO producer, Adrian Scott. She had earlier been married to the actor John Payne and not long after her divorce from Scott she married the screenwriter Charles Lederer.