Wide-Faced Shirley Temper

Wide-Faced Shirley Temper, rickzimmerman 2010
Wide-Faced Shirley Temper, rickzimmerman 2010

I guess poor wide-faced Shirley Temper never had a chance.

She entered silent filmmaking in 1915 at the age of 3, appearing as a toddling crowd extra in D. W. Griffith’s masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation. But in silent movies, where actors were required to overemphasize facial expressions to carry the message of the story forward. Little Shirley could never even get her expressions noticed, lost as her features were in that broad mug.

Being a comely ingénue of 15 when the ‘talkies’ broke big in 1927, led by The Jazz Singer, Shirley thought her breakthrough moment had at last come. Unfortunately, however, Shirley had a voice only marginally sweeter than Walter Brennan’s. By the time she finally completed corrective voice coaching lessons several years later, all the other female leads of her day — Gish, Garbo, Shearer, Colbert, Crawford, Davis, Hepburn, Lombard — had stolen the spotlight.

Shirley also suffered for her face. Its proportions were such that, in the inevitable eventual romantic close-up, there was never room enough for a guy to crowd his way into the edge of the frame. Ms. Temper was thus offered only roles in panoramic pastoral films. (Her most substantial roles of the 1930s and 1940s were in decidedly third-class movies: How Broad is My Valley, North Forty, Showdown on The Golden Gate, Grand Canyon Country, and Across the Endless Pacific.)

But as Ms. Temper hit middle age, a film revolution began! Cinemascope arrived in 1953, and it heralded wide-screen action in extreme close-up and intimate detail; perhaps now Shirley (and her wide face) could finally share the screen with a love interest or two!

Alas! — no one wanted to see a sprawling cinematic canvas of 41-year-old skin pores projected up to gargantuan size in a crowded theater of skittish patrons!

The poor girl never did get over it.

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