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In one of her best vehicles, Shirley Temple stars as the title character in the 1937 children's classic Heidi. Based on the beloved 1880 novel by Swiss author Johanna Spyri, Heidi is a young orphan who is sent to live with her curmudgeonly grandfather (Jean Hersholt) at his secluded cabin in the Swiss Alps. The grandfather initially wants nothing to do with Heidi, preferring instead to wallow in bitterness. Slowly, however, the two form a special bond as Heidi's sunny disposition helps melt the ice surrounding her grandfather's heart. When Heidi is suddenly taken away from him by an opportunistic relative (Mady Christians), Grandfather sets out to find her and bring her back home.
Heidi came at the height of Shirley Temple's popularity, with the curly-topped child actress enjoying her third year in a row as America's top box office star. Heidi director Allan Dwan, however, saw Temple as someone whose career had already peaked at age 8 and was not keen on working with her at first. "In a kind of left-handed way, [Darryl] Zanuck gave me Heidi," said Dwan as quoted in Shirley Temple's 1988 autobiography Child Star. "'See what you can do with it,' [Zanuck] said. I liked to avoid children, especially those that were 'over.' [Shirley] had hit her peak and was sliding fast when I started working with her. It was sad that the spark lasted only to a certain age. Zanuck would have liked to make a trade, but nobody was interested."
In reality, Shirley Temple's star was far from fading at that point. Louis B. Mayer, head of rival studio MGM, was at that very moment trying to negotiate a deal with Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, that would allow Temple to be loaned out to star in MGM's big-budget production of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Fox told Temple that they had every intention of nurturing her career as she transitioned into adulthood. The first step was guiding her away from the cutesy singing and dancing vehicles that had made her famous and steering her towards more dramatic roles, beginning with Wee Willie Winkie (1937). Heidi would mark Temple's second "serious" role.
Many of the exterior scenes in Heidi were filmed on location high in the mountains of Lake Arrowhead, California, which doubled for the Swiss Alps. It was a pleasant shoot, according to Temple. Director Allan Dwan, who had taken on the project begrudgingly, eventually came to enjoy himself. "...during the making of Heidi," said Temple in her autobiography, "I had a director who was skeptical if not annoyed at the prospect of working with me. As Heidi progressed, however, Dwan's initial attitude of resignation warmed perceptibly."
The biggest challenge that Shirley Temple faced while making Heidi was working with goats. "Time came when I was to be butted by a trained billy goat named Old Turk," said Temple. "Padding was stuffed into my pants and I was told to bend over. I shut my eyes for good measure. Old Turk needed no rehearsal. With a short quick rush, head lowered on target, he sent me up and forward, sprawling facedown in the dust...Actually the butt was painless, and the sensation of flying pure fun...Several butts later Mother told Dwan a double must be found. Repetitive abuse like that could damage a girl. A boy my size was found, padded, dressed, and hatted in my clothes. Assuming my bent-over position with his face averted from the camera, he stole all my remaining fun."
A scene in which Temple was required to milk one of the goats also brought laughs. "No matter how I squeezed or tugged, the bucket remained stone dry. Not one drop...Others had instructed me how to milk," said Temple, "but nobody told the goat what to do. I desperately wanted to get that goat to produce." With Temple unable to successfully milk the goat, Allan Dwan decided to take matters into his own hands - without telling her. "Dwan sent for milk, the old-fashioned kind with cream floating on top," said Temple. "Invisible to both the camera and me, a thin piece of flexible tubing was glued to the far side of the goat's udder. It snaked its way unobtrusively offstage and into the bucket of milk. With little to show for our rehearsal except tender teats, the goat was now automated. Retrieving me from arithmetic lessons, Dwan said nothing about his scheme, dispensed with further rehearsal, and placed me on the familiar three-legged stool. The goat turned its head once to regard me with indifference as I approached that udder with renewed determination. As cameras rolled I squeezed and tugged. Not a drop. I really had no idea why. In frustration I tipped up one teat to peer into its end. At that instant, back with the hidden milk bucket, a propman squeezed his rubber bulb, sending a stream of milk smack into my eye. 'Look!' I shouted, wiping my face with my sleeve. 'I got some!'"
Halfway through production on Heidi, a musical fantasy sequence was hastily written into the screenplay. As Grandfather reads her a story, Heidi imagines herself as one of the characters and performs a number called "In My Little Wooden Shoes." Many sources later suggested that it was Temple's idea to add the musical number, but according to her, the studio was behind it. It was true, she admitted, that she enjoyed performing the song, which allowed her the thrill of flying through the air on aerial wires as well as a rare opportunity to trade her trademark curls for braids as she turned into a Dutch girl. However, Temple didn't see the big picture: that the studio was trying to milk every bit of her "Shirley Temple-ness" before puberty took its inevitable hold. "The studio blamed [my] Mother," said Temple, "saying the idea of returning to the tried-and-true past was hers. Quite the reverse. Several times recently and unsuccessfully she had petitioned Zanuck for roles which would require me to abandon my standard headful of curls...Her innate sense of timing told her it was time for a broad change."
When Heidi was released in the Fall of 1937, it was a hit, keeping Shirley Temple America's top box office draw for the third year in a row. Temple herself loved the film, which instantly became a family classic. "When Heidi did premier officially I attested to its quality in my own way," said Temple. "On the screen, Heidi is being refused permission to return home to her grandfather. Although desperately anxious to go, the girl remains completely dry-eyed. Not so me, seated in the darkened audience. That girl on the screen was in a fix worthy of genuine sympathy. I cried copiously."
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Allan Dwan
Screenplay: Walter Ferris, Julien Josephson (writers); Johanna Spyri (novel)
Cinematography: Arthur Miller
Art Direction: Hans Peters
Music: David Buttolph, Charles Maxwell, Ernst Toch (all uncredited)
Film Editing: Allen McNeil
Cast: Shirley Temple (Heidi Kramer), Jean Hersholt (Adolph Kramer), Arthur Treacher (Andrews), Helen Westley (Blind Anna), Thomas Beck (Pastor Schultz), Mary Nash (Fraulein Rottenmeier), Sidney Blackmer (Herr Sesemann), Pauline Moore (Fraulein Elsa), Mady Christians (Dete), Marcia Mae Jones (Klara Sesemann).
by Andrea Passafiume