Friday, February 13, 2009

Where have all the tomboys gone?

“Uncle” Samuel Wilson at Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema reports that child star Shirley Jean Rickert, who appeared in both the Our Gang shorts and the Mickey McGuire two-reelers (better known as “the poor man’s Our Gang”) passed away last week at the age of 82. To quote Sam:

In more mundane work as a hardware salesperson, she found that showing photos from her Our Gang days was a great way to get in the door. There probably aren't more than ten Our Gang performers left alive now, Jackie Cooper probably most famously and Mickey "Robert Blake" Gubitosi perhaps most infamously. But to counter the stereotype of urban legend, Rickert was another one who lived a long life, and apparently one no more troubled than ordinary folks'.

For those of you who have trouble placing her, she was the little blond moppet with the spit curls who was best showcased in Bargain Day (1931) as the girl to which Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins try to sell a doorknob. According to the IMDb, Rickert appeared in some of silent Mickey McGuires before her Our Gang appearances…but I don’t think that’s right, because it doesn’t jibe with the events as related in Leonard Maltin and Dick Bann’s Our Gang: The Life and Times of The Little Rascals in which Rickert became a part of the McGuire shorts—as “Tomboy Taylor”—after leaving the Hal Roach Studios. (Rickert’s mother, according to the authors, did a double take when she took Shirley to the audition and saw famed little person Billy Barty dressed in baby clothes and doing handsprings; flustered, she made for the exits screaming: “My child can’t do anything like that!”)

Later in her career, Rickert became renowned for her dancing skills—and applied them to movie musicals like Best Foot Forward (1943), Good News (1947), Royal Wedding (1951) and that one with Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor that I always have trouble remembering. When the film work dried up, she embarked on a third career as a strip-tease artist…billed as “Gilda and Her Crowning Glory.” (Put the blame on Mame, boys.)

As a child, I vaguely remember our local television station showcasing the Mickey McGuire shorts but I’ll bet it’s been nearly forty years since I’ve had the opportunity to sit through one. I have seen Rickert’s Our Gang work, however, and though I’m not usually enthusiastic about child stars anyone who can advance from that to an act with a crowning glory is okay in my book. Rickert once e-mailed a Detroit fan, saying: "Detroit was one of the towns where I would appear on a kiddie TV show on Saturday morning as Shirley Jean of the Our Gang/Little Rascals and disrobe on stage at night for the little kiddies' parents."

R.I.P., Shirley Jean—you will be missed.

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