SOUTH AFRICAN CLASSIC FILM STAR SYBIL JASON by Deborah Painter

Movie myth and legend maintains that Cape Town native Sybil Jason would have been as popular a child star as Shirley Temple but she had no chance to shine because Temple kept getting the best films.

The real story is that she was a star for Warner Brothers long before appearing in any Twentieth Century Fox films with Shirley Temple.  She acted with some of the best talent in Hollywood and held her own too, not easy to do when you are acting opposite Edward Everett Horton!

It is true that Gertrude Temple, Shirley’s mother, watched Sybil very closely when she was working in one of the two pictures she did with Shirley and if she felt the child was showing too much talent she would complain to the director and the studio boss. The two children became friends and stayed friends for life, although once Temple did become annoyed over the attention Sybil was receiving while making The Little Princess.

Sybil Jason (born Sybil Jacobson) was born on November 23, 1927.  She, like the phenomenal star, could dance, sing and act as well as any talented adult, and her celebrity status even inspired a Sybil Jason doll for children.   At the age of two years she could hear a song on the radio, go over to the piano and begin to pick out the melody.  Although she successfully toured in South Africa, and was featured on a magazine cover, her parents thought she would do even better work in Great Britain, where her uncle Harry Jacobson was a pianist in the Savoy’s Mayfair Orchestra. She made a tour of the largest music halls. Sybil’s film debut was in a British film, Barnacle Bill (1935).  One of her concerts was filmed by Warner Brothers’ London studio. Jack Warner in Hollywood saw it and Sybil became the first child actor to receive a long term contract from an American studio.  Her parents could not travel overseas due to their fragile health, so little Sybil was taken by her uncle Harry and her oldest sister Anita, now her legal guardians, to Hollywood, California. Sybil describes the experience in one of her autobiographies as “like walking into a fairytale book and becoming one of its characters”.  She was the star of Little Big Shot with Robert Armstrong and I Found Stella Parrish (1935) with Kay Francis as her actress mother.  In The Singing Kid, she was Sybil Haines, clever sister of a young woman (Beverly Roberts) who inspires a man who lost his fortune and fame to return to a successful singing career.  She made an album for Decca of six children’s songs with the famed Victor Young And His Orchestra.   As Humphrey Bogart’s disabled daughter in The Great O’Malley (1937) Sybil won more fans with her realistic emotions. She played Kay Francis’s daughter again in Comet over Broadway.  Her Warner contract and that of Francis were terminated after the picture and Sybil was signed with Republic for one feature, Woman Doctor.

Twentieth Century Fox signed her to be in two films with Temple, the first being The Little Princess. Shirley is Sara Crewe, the daughter of a British Army officer who enrolls her in a private boarding school and then is called to serve in the Boer War. In the middle of a birthday party for little Sara her father’s solicitor comes to announce to the schoolmistress that Captain Crewe has been killed and somehow had all his assets confiscated.  Sara is forced to return her gifts and has to share servant duties with little Becky (Sybil Jason) to work off her father’s debt to the school.  The two usually have to go to sleep hungry until a kind manservant Ram Das (Cesar Romero) arranges with his employer to secretly bring them wonderful meals.  Sara goes to veteran’s hospitals during infrequent work breaks to search for her father, convinced he is alive.

Sybil recalled that her sister Anita accompanied her every work day.  One day producer Darryl F. Zanuck approached them and said he needed a Cockney accent for the little servant Sybil would be portraying.  He assumed that since she was from South Africa and spent time in England she would know a Cockney accent.  She had no idea … but they did not tell this to Zanuck.  Anita arranged for her to see the film Pygmalion and the child’s imitative skills made it possible for her to assume a real sounding Cockney accent within a day.

In The Blue Bird Sybil played a wealthy disabled girl named Angela Berlingot.  Upon seeing Shirley’s character Mytyl walk by her window with a bird she and her little brother had caught, she asks nicely for it and is harshly rebuffed by Mytyl in what could easily be deemed Shirley’s first realistic “kid” role wherein she had flaws.  Many critics consider The Little Princess to be Shirley Temple’s best film and The Blue Bird her first failure. The Blue Bird is nevertheless an entertaining musical fantasy and well worth viewing, and not only for Sybil Jason’s scenes.  It was nominated for several Academy Awards.

Sybil returned to South Africa to attend school after the film premiered.  She remained there to entertain troops and tour with the USO when World War II began.  She married radio writer Anthony Drake in 1947 and taught drama.   Sybil Jason has two musicals, Garden Party and Garage Sale, to her credit. She also wrote three autobiographies.   Her marriage lasted 58 years, ending with the death of her husband in 2006.   She passed away in August of 2011 in Los Angeles.

Sybil’s screen mother Stella is a much loved stage actress with something to hide in I Found Stella Parrish. Credits: Warner Brothers

Sybil Jason plants one on the cheek of a surprised looking Robert Armstrong in Little Big Shot. Credits: Warner Brothers

Little Big Shot had Sybil Jason test her acting skills with acting heavyweights like Glenda Farrell, Edward Everett Horton and Robert Armstrong. Credits: Warner Brothers