Paper dolls today are appealing to adults. But originally they were playthings for sweet little girls. No wonder the subjects of celebrity paper dolls were usually chosen for their appeal to adolescents. Although a number of stars were considered by the public as “sweetheart,” three stand out to me.
Mary Pickford was “America’s Sweetheart.” Shirley Temple was the “Little Sweetheart.” And Jeanette MacDonald (with her partner, Nelson Eddy) were the “Singing Sweethearts.”
Mary Pickford was the silver screen’s early personification of the sugary sweet, yet feisty heroine. She was famous for her golden curls and portrayed innocent young creatures in silent fims. In fact, even when she was an adult, “Little Mary” continued to portray a child on the screen. In real life, she was an ambitious, astute businesswomean married to the top male star of the day, Douglas Fairbanks. Their mansion, “Pickfair,” was the center of Hollywood society. With Charlie Chaplin, Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, she formed United Artists Studio. Mary’s popularity was such that when the average family income was $2,000 annually, the star raked in $150,000!
Gladys Smith, a Canadian actress born into a dysfunctional family in 1892, became Mary Pickford when Broadway producer David Belasco changed her name. But that name was not known to audiences when she began to make silent films bcause Biograph movie stars were not credited. She moved to another studio where her name became famous as she rose to international stardom of a level that rivals the big stars of today.
The most successful films of Mary Pickford’s career cast her in roles that capitalized on her tiny stature, her sweet face and a riot of cuts and ringlets. She portrayed “Pollyanna,” “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “Poor Little Rich Girl,” The Little Princess” and “Little Annie Rooney” long after she was no longer a little girl. Her most astonishing role was in “Fauntleroy” in which she played a little boy and his mother!
Meanwhile, Mary wed three times. Her second marriage to Douglas Fairbanks mad them the Jennifer Aniston/Brad Pitt of their day. It was not a happy marriage even though fans idolized them both.
Mary Pickford’s career was capped with an Academy Award in 1929 for “Coquette” but her popular appeal was over. Long before her death at age 87 she was almost forgotten. She retired in 1933 beause the public no longer bought the image of a woman masquerading as a sweetheart of a child. They wanted the real thing.
Shirley Temple was the sweetheart destined to succeed Mary Pickford. By the time she was eight years old, Shirley Temple was the number one international box-office star. She was singing, dancing, pouting and shaking her famous ringlets in movies long before that. In 1934, when she was just six, the cute moppet was awarded a Special Academy Award for “brining more happiness to millions of children and millions of grown-ups than another other child of her years in the history of the world.” You don’t get much sweeter than that!
No surprisingly, Shirley Temple inspired more dolls and paper dolls than any other star “in the history of the world.” Collectors may have the almost life-size PD published in 1936 by Saalfield or the 1986 Dover reprint. Most recently Tom Tierney included Shirley in his “Famous Child Stars” Dover book. At last year’s PD Convention Tom shared the information that trying to get Shirley’s approval today for a new book of PDs was next to impossible.
Dimpled little Shirley’s career was short. She first appeared in “Baby Burlesks,” a series of satirical shorts in which toddlers mimicked grown-up stars. Her Mae West impersonation shows the kid had real talent. “Baby, Take a Bow” was the first of several big hit songs. Who can ever forget her adorable rendition of “On the Good Ship Lollipop?” Her movies are classics and include “The Little Colonel,” “The Littlest Rebel,” “Poor Little Rich Girl,” “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “Little Miss Broadway” and “The Little Princess.” Yes, she really was little, unlike Mary Pickford whose films were often remade for Shirley.
When she grew bigger, her star waned. As a teen-ager, and even as an adult, she still acted too much like a little girl. But that didn’t stop the publication of a rare PD book picturing her as an adolescent. Carol Burnett’s killing imitation of Shirley captures the little star’s cloying cuteness.
Although she retired from film in 1950, Shirley Temple was rediscovered by television and appeared in a popular series, “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” from 1957 to 1959. Surprisingly, Shirley entered the political arena and although she lost her bid for Congress in 1967, she was appointed U.S. ambassador to Ghana in 1974 and served as Gerald Ford’s chief of protocol at the White House.
Jeanette MacDonald’s place in Hollywood history is as half of a dutet. As America’s “Singing Sweethearts,” Jeanette and Nelson Eddy thrilled audiences with a series of musical movies in the ‘30s that were perfect escapist fare during the Depression and the darkening warclouds. Their operetta musicals were cinematic Valentines. ‘Maytime,” “Naughty Marietta,” “Rose Marie,” “Bittersweet” and all seem to melt together as one frothy musical meringue. In a typical storyline, there is a romantic misunderstanding of some sort that is straightened out in time for some high-note romantic duets. “Sweethearts”
Jeanette always looked breathtaking in costumes by Adrian who did not hold back on the frou-frou when dressing the flame-haired star who was not conventionally beautiful, but extraordinary looking. She could also be very funny and her earlier films are often sexy, too. In fact she was famous for appearing in lingerie long before Adrian decked her out in costumes that sometimes look like she’s wearing a wedding cake. Al those ruffles, ribbons and froth made Jeanette a perfect paper doll subject.
There is a paper doll to color with costumes in the 1941 Merrill coloring book, “Jeanette MacDonald Costume Parade.” The same year, Merrill published a beautiful PD book, “Jeanette MacDonald, Glorious singing Star, Dolls and Costumes from her Screen Plays.” Fourteen of Adrian’s confections are included. Tom Tierney immortalized the Singing Sweethearts with a Dover book published in 1992. It features many of their memorable costumes.
While still in her teens, Jeanette’s career began on Broadway as a chorus girl, working her way up to musical comedy stardom in the 1920s. A screen test in 1928 sent her to Hollywood where she appeared in a string of films. “Love Me Tonight,” a delightful Franz Lubitsch comedy has recently been released on DVD. Probably Jeanette’s best pre-Nelson flick is “The Merry Widow” with Maurice Chevalier. “San Francisco” later co-starred her with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.
World War II changed the world’s taste and Jeanette’s “Sweetheart” image was too sugary to compete with sexy pin-up girls. Her last movie with Nelson, `1942’s “I Married and Angel” was not a hit. But seen today, it is a frothy, stylish affair full of sophisticated wit and very chic costumes. Although her movie career fizzled, Jeanette went on singing and even made her debut in grand opera in 1943. Ironically, the Singing Sweetheart’s heart failed her. She died in 1965 after open-heart surgery.
Who, we might ask, are the “Sweethearts” of today? In our world of in-you-face media coverage of celebrities, the mystique is lost.
Thankfully paper doll collectors can still enjoy Mary Pickford, Shirley Temple and Jeanette MacDonald...three real sweethearts.