1930s child actress Sibyl Jason dies at 83

Sibyl Jason (left) plays the role of Becky the scullery maid opposite Shirley Temple in the 1939 film "The Little Princess." Jason, a child actress of the 1930s for both Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox studios, died last week at 83. Twentieth Century Fox archive

Sibyl Jason, a South African-born child actress who was the Warner Bros. film studio's answer to Shirley Temple, the dominant American child star of the 1930s, has died.

Jason, who died Tuesday at 83, was a button-nosed, bright-eyed scene stealer who had a following on the British vaudeville circuit with her comic impressions of Greta Garbo and Maurice Chevalier before drawing Warner's interest in 1935.

At the time, Warner Bros. hoped to tap into the gold mine Temple had created at rival Twentieth Century Fox studios. Depression-era movie audiences were forking over money to see Temple's dimpled adorableness.

Jason became one of the first major child stars at Warner Bros., a studio that had long specialized in gritty gangster dramas and had scant practice developing young actors. The studio cast Jason in films whose plots bore suspicious resemblance to Temple's movies.

Jason crooned with Al Jolson in "The Singing Kid" (1936), summoned a tsunami of tears in "Little Big Shot" (1935) with Robert Armstrong and befriended a spinner of tall tales in "The Captain's Kid" (1936) with Guy Kibbee. She also rode Seabiscuit in the movie short "A Day at Santa Anita," set at the racetrack.

Some critics found Jason a welcome distraction from Temple-mania, but ultimately she could not dent Temple's popularity. When Warner Bros. let her go, Jason signed with Twentieth Century Fox and supported Temple in two Technicolor productions: Jason played the cockney scullery maid Becky at a boarding school in the drama "The Little Princess" (1939) and the crippled Angela in the fantasy drama "The Blue Bird" (1940).

In later interviews, Jason said Temple's mother demanded that the studio cut the most dramatic footage of Angela tossing aside her crutches and attempting to walk unsupported. Jason said Temple's mother thought parts of the scene would overshadow her daughter's role.

Jason said she and Temple remained close over the decades, watching each other's old movies together and dining out.

Born Sybil Jacobson on Nov. 23, 1927, in Cape Town, South Africa, she showed an early aptitude for singing, dancing and impressions.

An uncle in London, pianist Harry Jacobson, was a musical accompanist to prominent entertainers such as Gracie Fields. He arranged for Sybil to appear at the London Palladium music hall, leading to a walk-on role in the 1935 film "Barnacle Bill." This led to her work at Warner Bros., where her other films included "The Great O'Malley (1937), with Pat O'Brien and Humphrey Bogart, and "I Found Stella Parish" (1935), with Kay Francis.

In contrast to many child actors, Jason spoke warmly about her Hollywood experiences.

"It was like walking into a fairytale book and becoming one of its characters," she wrote of the Warner Bros. lot in her memoir, "My Fifteen Minutes."

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