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Shirley Temple was desperate to play an adult role in 1947, when WarnerBros. came calling with That Hagen Girl, the tale of an adopted girl tormented by smalltown gossips. The reason for their malicious chatter? A man rumored to be her birth fatherreturns to town and falls in love with her.
Although she would always call That Hagen Girl her favorite adult picture, the film was a box office disaster. Later generations have come to value the film for its camp qualities, claiming it's so bad it's good, but at the time it sank Temple's chances of moving into adult parts.
Ever since her marriage to Marine John Agar in 1945, Temple had beenconsumed by two drives: to have a baby and to move into more mature roles. Theformer goal had escaped her for two years. The latter was put on hold asindependent producer David O. Selznick, who had signed her to a long-termcontract, loaned her to studios wishing to capitalize on her former careeras the screen's most popular child actress. She had scored a big hit atRKO playing opposite Cary Grant in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947),which may have inspired producer Alex Gottlieb to ask for her as star ofThat Hagen Girl. Studio head Jack Warner was enthusiastic about theidea. He even agreed to pay Selznick's hefty fee for borrowing Temple(most of the fee went to Selznick, not her) and sign another Selznickcontract player, Rory Calhoun, to play her boyfriend. When Temple arrivedat Warners for the film, the studio head also discussed casting her in alongtime dream project of his, a film biography of Ziegfeld Folliesstar Marilyn Miller.
Less enthusiastic was Ronald Reagan, who was assigned to play the older manwho comes to Temple's rescue. He was beginning to resent his treatment atWarner Bros., where he had been forced to give up a starring role in JohnHuston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) to star in the less prestigious The Voice of the Turtle (1947). But Warner argued that he hadalready invested in five adaptations of Edith Roberts' rather soapy noveland needed Reagan in the role to sell tickets. When he promised not tohold the film against Reagan if it failed at the box office, the starfinally gave in. He could hardly have afforded to turn it down and risksuspension; his wife, Jane Wyman, was pregnant at the time. Nonetheless,he tried to convince director Peter Godfrey to order one more rewrite, inwhich Temple would be reunited with her boyfriend at the end. "People sortof frown on men marrying girls young enough to be their daughters," heargued, only to learn that Godfrey was himself married to a much youngerwoman.
One of the first scenes filmed was Temple's suicide attempt, in whichReagan fishes her out of an icy pond during a driving rainstorm. Thestudio shot the scene in a heated pool, but repeated retakes exhaustedReagan, who called in sick the next day. He ended up being off the filmfor three weeks, laid up with viral pneumonia. While he was hospitalizedand barely conscious, Wyman went into premature labor. The child died aday later, but he was too ill to help her through the ordeal. Theirmarriage never recovered. When he finally returned to work, under doctorsorders to end each day at three, he had to shoot retakes of the suicidescene.
During Reagan's illness, Temple got news about her own medical condition.She was shooting a scene in which she leaps off a stool to take a phonecall from her boyfriend. During a break, she got a call from her doctor,who informed her that she was finally pregnant. When she returned to theset, she demurely climbed off the stool, then explained to the directorthat she would have to take things easier from then on. When she andReagan re-shot the scene in which he pulls her out of the pond, shewhispered in his ear, "Just think, you've just saved twopeople."
Pregnancy brought other problems for Temple. As soon the news broke,Selznick sent her a film contract for the unborn child, while the Ideal ToyCompany, which had manufactured the profitable Shirley Temple dolls of the'30s, suggested marketing a baby doll modeled on her firstborn. She saidno to both. Pregnancy also brought about a surprising self-consciousness.She began to have trouble learning lines, and found that acting, which shehad been doing since she was three, suddenly seemed impossible. Godfreysent her to a coach, but his advice that she "make love to the carpet" withher feet and find the character in "your diaphragm of souls" made her workeven more difficult.
Reagan's misgivings about the script were borne out when the film had itsfirst preview screening. After he rescues Temple from her suicide attempt,he admits that he loves her. But when he said the words on screen, thepreview audience screamed "Oh no!" almost in unison. The studio re-cut thefilm to play down their romantic relationship, but that just left a muddledmess. As he would write in his memoirs, when the two left their horridsmall town together "You are left to guess as to whether we are married,just traveling together, or did I adopt her." That Hagen Girlbecame a legendary flop, derided by critics for its tasteless script,miscasting and laughable performances. Some even felt that the attack on small townhypocrisy was "un-American," ironic given the future political careers ofits stars. Despite Warner's promises, the studio would use the picture'sfailure as an excuse to pass over Reagan for better roles. His careerwould go into a long tailspin only ended by his transition to politics inthe '60s. Although Temple would follow That Hagen Girl with a hitJohn Ford Western, Fort Apache (1948), the earlier film's failure kept herfrom landing better adult roles. Warner ended up filming the MarilynMiller story as Look for the Silver Lining, with June Haver, in1949, the same year Temple would retire from the screen.
Producer: Alex Gottlieb
Director: Peter Godfrey
Screenplay: Charles Hoffman.
Based on the Novel by Edith Roberts
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Music: Franz Waxman
Principal Cast: Ronald Reagan (Tom Bates), Shirley Temple (Mary Hagen),Rory Calhoun (Ken Freneau), Lois Maxwell (Julia Kane), Conrad Janis (DeweyCoons), Jean Porter (Sharon Bailey).
by Frank Miller