We’re tardy by a day, but it’s still worth noting that actress Anne Shirley was born Dawn Evelyeen Paris 98 years ago yesterday in Manhattan. Her father died while she was an infant, and her mother, struggling to provide for her family, turned to her photogenic child, then 16 months, to help pay the bills, making young Dawn available as a photographer’s model.
From there, it was on to motion pictures. Dawn made her feature debut at the age of four and was soon showing enough promise in her film work that she and her mother made the move from New York to Hollywood, where she eventually played female stars of the pictures as young girls, among them Janet Gaynor in 4 Devils (1928), Frances Dee in Rich Man’s Folly (1931) and Barbara Stanwyck in So Big! (1932). She also appeared in a series of short subjects for Vitaphone.
As the years passed, she grew into a lovely young teenager and her roles grew in size and importance. Eventually, she emerged from hundreds who were tested to play the role of Anne Shirley in the 1934 film adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables. In the years prior, Dawn had worked primarily under the name of Dawn O’Day, but she now adopted the name of the character that had made her a star, Anne Shirley. (We can think of just one other example of an actor adopting the name of a character he or she played: Byron Barr had been acting for some years under his own name when he was cast in the 1942 film The Gay Sisters as a character named Gig Young; he was known professionally by that name for the rest of his life.)
Anne Shirley kept busy throughout her adolescence, but wasn’t given another truly standout role until, at age 19, she was cast as Barbara Stanwyck’s daughter in Stella Dallas (1937). Both Shirley and Stanwyck were nominated for Oscars for their work in that picture (Best Supporting Actress and Best Leading Actress, respectively), though neither would go on to win.
Shirley was now more in demand than ever, though her career has now entered a “one step forward, one step back” phase, with her films—and the roles she played in them—being of uneven quality. Her heart had never really been in her career—she had stuck with it largely to please her mother—and after appearing opposite Dick Powell in the classic film noir Murder, My Sweet (1944), she retired at age 26, never to return to the screen.
Anne Shirley remained in Hollywood for the rest of her life. She was married three times and had two children. She died on July 4, 1993, at 75.
Happy birthday, Ms. Shirley, wherever you may be!