Did Fox Try to “Trade” Shirley Temple for Jean Harlow and Clark Gable So That Temple Could Star in The Wizard of Oz?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: 20th Century Fox tried to work out a “trade” of Jean Harlow and Clark Gable so that Shirley Temple could star in MGM’s Wizard of Oz.

On the IMDB trivia page for the Wizard of Oz, it states:

Shirley Temple was the original choice to play Dorothy. However, she was under contract to 20th Century Fox at the time. A deal was put in place to loan her to MGM Studios in exchange for Clark Gable and Jean Harlow going to 20th Century Fox for a film. However, after Jean Harlow’s untimely death the deal was revoked.

First off, I don’t mean to pick on IMDB’s trivia page at all, they’re usually great. I only cite this to show that it IS a common belief that this was the situation.

In any event, for years, the whole “Shirley Temple was going to be Dorothy!” story has been circulating, and really, there probably is some truth to it all.

Shirley Temple WAS the most famous child actress in the film at the time the Wizard of Oz began filming.

And I believe there certainly IS something to be said for the fact that studio executives at MGM would have liked for her to star in the Wizard of Oz, to give it some more box office cache. But….

Judy Garland seems pretty clearly to be the first choice for the film. She was announced as being the lead when MGM announced they were doing the film, and as an MGM contract player who was getting a bit of a buzz at the time, it would have made perfect sense for MGM to have Judy Garland given a chance to have a starring role in a major film.

Now, that isn’t to say that once Garland got the role that executives didn’t reconsider, which they almost certainly DID do.

Mervyn LeRoy (producer of the film) has always said that he never wanted anyone but Garland, but it’s likely fair to say that he was pushed for a bigger name. There is some evidence to suggest that Temple may have at least had an informal audition for the role (and news reels from the time seem to support this, as Temple would make jokes about the Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home,” etc.).

However, at the heart of the legend is the assertion that Jean Harlow and Clark Gable were going to be “traded” from MGM to Fox for a film in exchange for Fox letting Temple do the Wizard of Oz.

The problem here is that while the above piece notes Harlow’s death, it doesn’t mention WHEN she died, exactly.

Harlow died in June of 1937.

MGM did not even BUY the rights to the Wizard of Oz until January of 1938!

So no, there was no deal involving Harlow and Gable for Temple (even though Temple asserted so in her auto-biography).

However, this does not mean that that there was no some OTHER possible deal that fell through. The fact that Temple thought that there was is a pretty good indication for me that, at the very least, she was being told that there were negotiations for such a deal. She might have simply gotten the names wrong.

Still, if the story is “Harlow and Gable for Temple,” then it is false.

The legend is…

STATUS: False, with a Lot of Truthiness Mixed in

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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