Sybil Jason, the child actor who Warner Brothers had hoped would become a box office rival of Shirley Temple, died on August 23 at her home in Northridge, Calif., of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She was 83.
Born Sybil Jacobson in Cape Town, South Africa in 1927, Jason hot her start as an entertainer on stage playing the paino and doing imprssions of Maurice Chevalier and Great Garbo through her uncle, Harry Jacobson, a then-popular London orchestra leader and pianist. By 1935, she had landed a supporting role in the British film draman Barnacle Bill. Her work caught the eye of Warner Brothers’ London studio chief Irving Asher, who offered her a screen test. At the time, studio chief Jack Warner was looking for a child actress who could replicate the box office success that rival studio Twentieth Century Fox was having with Shirley Temple and when he saw the results of Jason’s test signed her to a contract.
Jason would star in a handful of films for the studio, often opposite some of the biggest and best known talent. Her American studio debut was in Little Big Shot (1935) with King Kong‘s Robert Armstrong and directed by Michael Curtiz. She also starred in The Singing Kid (1936) opposite Al Jolson, The Captain’s Kid (1936) with Guy Kibbee and The Great O’Malley (1937) with Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart. She also made two film with Kay Francis – I Found Stella Parish (1935) and Comet Over Broadway (1938). But despite a big publicity push from the studio, Jason’s films never matched the business that Temple was able to generate.
Ironically, after Jason left Warners, Fox would sign her to a contract and had her appear in supporting roles in two of Temple’s films – The Little Princess (1939) and The Blue Bird (1940). According to her 2005 autobiography My Fifteen Minutes: An Autobiography of a Child Star of the Golden Era of Hollywood, Jason stated that although she and Temple would become life-long friends, Temple’s mother Gertrude worked behind the scenes to ensure that her daughter’s one-time rival would never work in film again.
The Blue Bird would prove to be her last film. Soon after she had arrived in her native South Africa on a publicity tour for Fox, the United States entered World War Two. Jason stayed in the country and entertained Allied troops. In 1947, she married and retired from show business.