SHIRLEY JEAN RICKERT
Shirley Jean Rickert, the blonde child star of numerous shorts in the early ‘30s was born March 25, 1926, in Seattle, WA. She was barely past the age of one when she started her show business career. “I won a baby contest, back when the contests were for babies and not miniature hookers, when I was about a year and a half. Mom always wanted to be in show business, and she decided she had a child star, me, so she told my father we were going to Hollywood to visit friends. This was a lie—she got me into Central Casting and got my father a job at Quality Typesetting—and she bodily moved us to California. (Laughs)”
It wasn’t long before Shirley Jean landed her first part in “a short called ‘How’s My Baby’ (‘30) with Monte Collins. Right after that, I went on an interview to Hal Roach and became a member of Our Gang.”
There was another change in store for the actress when the girl playing Tomboy Tailor in the Mickey McGuire shorts outgrew her role. “She was taller than Mickey, so I left The Gang and joined the McGuires, which also featured midget Billy Barty.”
Shirley’s first western was “‘Neath the Arizona Skies” (‘34) with John Wayne. The role of Nina seemed to require a tomboy to play the part. “I was not a tomboy in real life. I was, however, anything a director wanted me to be, but I wasn’t allowed to play with other kids between pictures. I might get hurt and not be able to bring home a paycheck.”
Shirley Jean was now of school age. “I was seven, and oh yes, the child labor laws were very strict and a teacher traveled with us at all times. Even up to Kernville. As a matter of fact, he is the one who waded out into that very cold river, bundled me up and carried me to shore!”
As far as recollections regarding John Wayne, who was not a big star at the time, Shirley Jean reveals The Duke was “A Truly nice and caring man. He impressed the heck out of Mom as he turned his back on the camera so I could have a close-up. The stars of even B-westerns hated working with kids and would grab every camera shot they could—but not John Wayne.”
Shirley Jean later worked with Wayne after he became a huge star. “I worked with him in ‘In Old Oklahoma’ aka ‘War of the Wildcats’ (‘43), but I was a dancer and he was a big star, so I didn’t bug him about it. That was the time I saw Shelley Winters’ mouth embarrass even the old time cowboys who were working on the set. She used words the cowboys only used when they were alone on the range—so to speak! (Laughs)”
The director of “‘Neath the Arizona Skies” was Harry Fraser. Besides the wig, Fraser did all he could to make her an Indian girl. “There was the dark greasepaint, this was before Pancake came on the market. The stuff was really uncomfortable. Between a greasy face and an itching head from the wig, it was not the most comfortable part I ever had. But, I was a trouper and knew better than to complain. My mother would have had a fit if I had. There is nothing much in the way of memories—I just followed directions.”
As for that wild ride hanging onto John Wayne, she definitely states, “It sure was me! As a matter of fact, by that time, I was in training as a rodeo trick rider. Not too long after the film, I was the ring bearer at the wedding on horseback of Montie Montana. I haven’t the faintest idea whether mom was frightened or not, as she would never have let me know. I wasn’t the least bit frightened—don’t forget, I was learning trick riding and had already been on the under-side of a moving horse.” Was she tied on during the ride, or just holding on for dear life? “Nope, no tie down. I just hung on to Wayne as if my life depended on it. I knew what happened to a human body that went off a horse. I’d fallen off more than one, but never at that wild a gallop!”
As to whether or not Yakima Canutt doubled John Wayne on any of that wild ride over the desert and through the river, she recalls, “To My knowledge, Wayne did all of his own riding, except for the dive off the cliff. That must have been Yakima. I didn’t go off the cliff—they used a different dummy for that. (Laughs)” Depending on the time of year, the Kernville river can be cold and Shirley Jean got soaking wet in the river in the final scenes. “Oh yeah! It was colder than a well digger’s ass in the Klondike. If you’ll notice in the shot of me standing in the water, I look really, really cold and—I assure you—I was really, really cold!”
About Gabby Hayes. “Isn’t it amazing, Gabby Hayes looked old even then. His beard must have tickled his mother silly! (Laughs)”
Following this western, Shirley Jean appeared in films for another 20 years, often as a dancer. One of her last pictures was “Singin’ in the Rain” (‘52). Shirley soon turned her terpsichorean talents in other directions—becoming an exotic dancer named Gilda and appeared on a television documentary, “The ABCs of Love” as a result.
Shirley Jean died at 82 on February 6, 2009, in Saratoga Springs, NY.
Shirley Jean’s Western Filmography
MOVIES: ‘Neath the Arizona Skies (‘34)—John Wayne; In Old Oklahoma (‘43)—John Wayne.