That Hagen Girl
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 been consumed by two drives: to have a baby and to move into more mature roles. The former goal had escaped her for two years. The latter was put on hold as independent producer David O. Selznick, who had signed her to a long-term contract, loaned her to studios wishing to capitalize on her former career as the screen's most popular child actress. She had scored a big hit at RKO 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 of That Hagen Girl. Studio head Jack Warner was enthusiastic about the idea. He even agreed to pay Selznick's hefty fee for borrowing Temple (most of the fee went to Selznick, not her) and sign another Selznick contract player, Rory Calhoun, to play her boyfriend. When Temple arrived at Warners for the film, the studio head also discussed casting her in a longtime dream project of his, a film biography of Ziegfeld Follies star Marilyn Miller.
Less enthusiastic was Ronald Reagan, who was assigned to play the older man who comes to Temple's rescue. He was beginning to resent his treatment at Warner Bros., where he had been forced to give up a starring role in John Huston'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 had already invested in five adaptations of Edith Roberts' rather soapy novel and needed Reagan in the role to sell tickets. When he promised not to hold the film against Reagan if it failed at the box office, the star finally gave in. He could hardly have afforded to turn it down and risk suspension; his wife, Jane Wyman, was pregnant at the time. Nonetheless, he tried to convince director Peter Godfrey to order one more rewrite, in which Temple would be reunited with her boyfriend at the end. "People sort of frown on men marrying girls young enough to be their daughters," he argued, only to learn that Godfrey was himself married to a much younger woman.
One of the first scenes filmed was Temple's suicide attempt, in which Reagan fishes her out of an icy pond during a driving rainstorm. The studio shot the scene in a heated pool, but repeated retakes exhausted Reagan, who called in sick the next day. He ended up being off the film for three weeks, laid up with viral pneumonia. While he was hospitalized and barely conscious, Wyman went into premature labor. The child died a day later, but he was too ill to help her through the ordeal. Their marriage never recovered. When he finally returned to work, under doctors orders to end each day at three, he had to shoot retakes of the suicide scene.
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 phone call 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 the set, she demurely climbed off the stool, then explained to the director that she would have to take things easier from then on. When she and Reagan re-shot the scene in which he pulls her out of the pond, she whispered in his ear, "Just think, you've just saved two people."
Pregnancy brought other problems for Temple. As soon the news broke, Selznick sent her a film contract for the unborn child, while the Ideal Toy Company, which had manufactured the profitable Shirley Temple dolls of the '30s, suggested marketing a baby doll modeled on her firstborn. She said no to both. Pregnancy also brought about a surprising self-consciousness. She began to have trouble learning lines, and found that acting, which she had been doing since she was three, suddenly seemed impossible. Godfrey sent her to a coach, but his advice that she "make love to the carpet" with her feet and find the character in "your diaphragm of souls" made her work even more difficult.
Reagan's misgivings about the script were borne out when the film had its first preview screening. After he rescues Temple from her suicide attempt, he admits that he loves her. But when he said the words on screen, the preview audience screamed "Oh no!" almost in unison. The studio re-cut the film to play down their romantic relationship, but that just left a muddled mess. As he would write in his memoirs, when the two left their horrid small town together "You are left to guess as to whether we are married, just traveling together, or did I adopt her." That Hagen Girl became a legendary flop, derided by critics for its tasteless script, miscasting and laughable performances. Some even felt that the attack on small town hypocrisy was "un-American," ironic given the future political careers of its stars. Despite Warner's promises, the studio would use the picture's failure as an excuse to pass over Reagan for better roles. His career would go into a long tailspin only ended by his transition to politics in the '60s. Although Temple would follow That Hagen Girl with a hit John Ford Western, Fort Apache (1948), the earlier film's failure kept her from landing better adult roles. Warner ended up filming the Marilyn Miller story as Look for the Silver Lining, with June Haver, in 1949, 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 (Dewey Coons), Jean Porter (Sharon Bailey).
by Frank Miller