Family & Companions
Already performing as a toddler barely out of diapers, Anne Shirley toiled in the entertainment world for approximately 25 years. That in itself was not so unusual, but few actors or actresses with that sort of longevity could say that they retired before their 27th birthday. After years of minor appearances in largely unremarkable projects, Shirley had her big break when cast as Lucy Maud Montgomery's beloved "Anne of Green Gables" (1934). While not all of her subsequent movies were memorable, Shirley was sometimes able to play more involved and interesting characters in fare like the classic "Stella Dallas" (1937), where her turn as star Barbara Stanwyck's daughter earned Shirley an Oscar nomination. In spite of that notoriety, RKO seemed content to mostly use the New York City native as sweet, uncomplicated nice girls in equally basic pictures, but the actress was able to revisit her most famous part in "Anne of Windy Poplars" (1940), "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (1941) and the film noir thriller "Murder, My Sweet" (1944) also proved to be well above average. Tired of the industry and everything it entailed, she eventually decided to leave and remained mostly unheard from until her passing in 1993. Although she never really stretched herself much as an actress, Shirley was very good at pulling off the assignments for which she gained notice and her interpretation of Anne of Green Gables was able to stand the test of time.
Anne Shirley was born Dawn Evelyeen Paris in New York City on April 17, 1918. Her mother believed that Shirley was destined to have a career in show business and soon had her working as a baby clothes model. Under the memorably lyrical name Dawn O'Day, Shirley made her first film appearances in the silent productions "The Hidden Woman" (1922) and "Moonshine Valley" (1922). Shirley and her mother then relocated to the West Coast in hopes of pursuing additional movie roles for the child. Other parts followed, but so did periods of unemployment that left the pair just barely able to scrape by. However, determination paid off and Shirley had no trouble adjusting when sound became the norm. Her feature credits from that time included the renowned dramas "City Girl" (1930) and "Liliom" (1930), and Shirley was also utilized for a time in short subjects produced by the Vitaphone Company. After a few more lackluster features, she earned her most famous role in the first sound adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery's "Anne of Green Gables" (1934). As the spunky, redheaded heroine, Shirley enjoyed a part for which her wholesome appeal was ideal and it was via this character that she adopted her best known professional moniker.
While some child performers lost much of their charm as they matured, Shirley maintained her appeal and enjoyed a steady stream of parts in such films as "Chasing Yesterday" (1934) and "Steamboat Round the Bend" (1935). Now a contract player at RKO, she was used mostly in unchallenging roles that Shirley nonetheless made work and projects like "Chatterbox" (1936) put her center stage. The qualities she had displayed in so many films to that point resulted in her being sought out by producer Samuel Goldwyn for "Stella Dallas" (1937), in which she played the daughter for whom Barbara Stanwyck was willing to sacrifice all. The highly successful movie earned Shirley much attention and a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination. That year, she wed her first husband, up-and-coming actor John Payne, and the couple would later have a child together.
Despite the acclaim of "Stella Dallas" and the resulting Oscar publicity, Shirley's prospects did not improve noticeably and her filmography of that time was littered with minor titles like "Mother Carey's Chickens" (1938), "Boy Slaves" (1939) and "Sorority House" (1939). There were also brighter exceptions, like the effective nursing drama starring Carole Lombard, "Vigil in the Night" (1940), and Shirley also returned to her most famous role for the follow-up "Anne of Windy Poplars" (1940). Although it failed at the time of its original release, "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (1941) was later regarded as one of the finest fantasies of the 1940s and the musical "The Powers Girl" (1943) offered Shirley a change of pace and a somewhat sexier image. However, that experience was soured for her when she saw the final version of the film. Shirley's part as a hosiery model included an instance where she displayed her legs and the producers instead inserted a shot of a double that the actress felt was a less than flattering substitution. She subsequently sued the production company to the tune of $100,000, though the outcome of the case was unknown.
After a few more forgettable outings, Shirley was granted the second female lead in the detective thriller "Murder, My Sweet" (1944). What was initially deemed to be a minor project from an increasingly cash-strapped RKO turned out to be a film noir classic that also established a whole new brand of role for song and dance veteran Dick Powell. While her spirited "good girl" character did not provide the sort of performing opportunities that Claire Trevor enjoyed as her duplicitous stepmother, Shirley more than fulfilled the demands of the part and the result was one of her most fondly remembered pictures.
Despite having just appeared in what some would argue was her best film, Shirley decided that she had had enough of the motion picture game. By that point, her marriage to Payne had ended in divorce on grounds of cruelty. In 1945, she wed screenwriter Adrian Scott, who had also served as producer of "Murder, My Sweet." Their union was over by the fall of 1948, due in part to the problems Scott's liberal leanings had created (he was subsequently jailed as one of the so-called "Hollywood 10" for defying the House Un-American Activities Committee). Shirley's third trip down the aisle in 1949 proved to be the one that lasted. Writer-director Charles Lederer stayed by Shirley's side until his passing in the spring of 1976 and that union produced a second child. She had remained out of the limelight during all of those years and Lederer's death reportedly caused her to develop a problem with alcohol. She eventually got back on track with her life and lived a quiet existence until expiring from the effects of lung cancer on July 4, 1993.
By John Charles
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Make-Up (Feature Film)
Began acting career at the age of 3, using the name Dawn O'Day (date approximate)
Played the real-life Anastasia, heir to the throne, in "Rasputin and the Empress", a fictional film based on the lives of the mad monk and the declining Russian aristocracy
Changed her name to Anne Shirley when she played a role by that name in the popular RKO adaptation of the children's classic, "Anne of Green Gables"
Received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her best-remembered film, "Stella Dallas"
Last film, "Murder, My Sweet"; retired
(Pressbook images courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)