Monday, February 27

Child Actors

Child actors first got my attention when I was a child myself.  A little 6-year old kid looking up at that big screen is going to focus on a kid just as he would in real life when another child is present.  It may be, however, that as we grow into maturity, we pay less attention to children in a movie and focus on the adults and their adult actions and problems.  I guess I cut that class.  To this day I am so impressed with child actors, particularly ones in starring or featured roles.  As I said in my posting on favorite films, I am gripped by films that put children in peril.  I always find myself wondering what the kid really understands about the process he is going through.

How do kids (who have the greatest aversion to boredom) make it through the oh-so-slooow film-making routine?  How do they leave the classroom on the set and fly into a scene with such apparent ease?  How do they function sanely with the teachers and the mothers and the agents and the scary studio heads and hair and makeup and wardrobe? 

I am not dealing here with the downside of being a child actor.  Ugh.  It's all been well-documented.  I am also not choosing child actors who, for the most part, have gone on to successful careers as adult actors, such as Jodie Foster, Dean Stockwell, Patty Duke or Brandon deWilde.  They all became wonderful actors.  I want to talk about ones who made it at some level but, more or less, did not go on to a successful adult career or one at all.  Maybe they just made one important film but I think that film and that child performance was so astonishing that they need inclusion here.  In another case two young actors were role models for me.  I can't say that these are necessarily my favorite kid actors ever, but they are the ones who sprung immediately to mind when I thought of this category. 

Shirley Temple is undeniably the most famous of all American child stars and it grieves me to think that teenagers and young adults of today, who aren't as knowledgeable on history as they might be, don't know who she is.  What a shame to not know this little dynamo with more talent in her little finger than many who have come after her, regardless of age.  Hopefully today's young people catch the occasional black and white movie on a rainy Sunday afternoon.  Shirley stopped making movies shortly after I was born, so those Sunday afternoons is how I got my first glimpses on our Motorola console.

I just loved her looks... a beautiful, cherubic little face and a mop of curls that were a world sensation.  They fudged her age a bit.  She was so pint-sized and yet adult-like.  She could sing like a nightingale, she danced with the best, she could speak adorably, she smiled with the angels, she cried achingly and she was often in peril. 

It has been said that while she stood on the set waiting to be cued, when the time came for her to turn it on, she would look at her mother standing off stage.  Mom would say just one word... sparkle.  And that she surely did.

She saved a studio from ruin and was the biggest star for much of the 1930s.  She was about the only thing worth smiling about in the Great Depression.  She was the biggest star in her films.  She made so many charming films I don't think I could even single one out as the best.  She started at three and was 21 when her last film was released.

It is true that her later films were never as popular as those little moppet films but two later ones that were my favorites were the screwball comedy The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy and Since You Went Away, a WWII story of the home front with Claudette Colbert and Jennifer Jones.

Like all of the child stars outlined here, she is still alive.  In April, little, adorable Shirley Temple will be 84 years old.

Claude Jarman Jr. was 12 years old when The Yearling was released.  The 1946 film featured Claude as the winsome and ernest Florida country boy who adopts a young fawn much to his family's consternation.  This was already a famous Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and MGM put on a national search to find the young protagonist.

The role of Jody Baxter would require a wide-ranging display of emotions and Jarman was exquisite.  He was acknowledged with a juvenile Academy Award.  This performance, in my opinion, is one of the best of any child actor ever.

He didn't have any acting aspirations and in fact only made 11 theatrical films.  Other Jarman performances that I greatly admired were in 1947's Intruder in the Dust, 1949's Roughshod and 1950's Rio Grande.

Stollery (l), Considine

David Stollery and Tim Considine are two for the price of one.  Who knows who they are?  They were the title stars of the Mickey Mouse Club's serial Spin and Marty from 1955 to 1957.  Hey, isn't this blog about movies, you ask quite accurately?  Well, ok, I am cheating a little to include a television show but the boys also made movies.  I have to include them because they were actually the very first child stars to capture my attention.  Shirley Temple and Claude Jarman Jr. may have been famous earlier, but I didn't learn of them until after Spin and Marty.

Spin and Marty met at the Triple R Ranch where young lads got to practice being cowboys.  Cowboys!!!  I was a cowboy, y'know.  I aspired to be Spin, as played by Considine, who was athletic and popular.  But I was really more like Marty, spoiled (ok), rich (not) and not really good at much of anything (bingo).  But unlike Marty, I could ride horses.  

I had seen Tim Considine in the Red Skelton movie, 1953's The Clown, and he would go on to be one of television's My Three Sons.  Stollery was terrific in the 1955 Storm Fear but that film has virtually disappeared as has he.

Anyway, thanks guys, you were my first role models.

Richard Eyer had one of the best smiles in the business and was a regular staple in 1950s movies.  He had the quintessential American kid look.  He worked twice for the esteemed director William Wyler, first in 1955 as the feisty youngest member of a family being held captive in their own home in Desperate Hours, working alongside acting legends Fredric March and Humphrey Bogart.  The following year he made the film he is most known for, again a feisty youngest son (of Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire) in Friendly Persuasion.  He was touching and funny as the Quaker kid who is stalked by the family's pet goose. 

He was also most effective in a charming little western with Ann Sheridan and Steve Cochran called Come Next Spring (1956).  He would be known to science fiction fans (and you know who you are) in 1957s The Invisible Boy.  I believe it was his only starring role.

He had a younger brother, Robert Eyer, who made very few films, but two of them were among my favorites, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) and Back Street (1961).

Richard stopped making movies in 1960 and he did television until 1967 at which time he left the business. 

Hayley Mills was to my generation what Shirley Temple was to a prior generation.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, talked about Hayley Mills.  And it's amazing they did.  She had a few things not in her favor for becoming an American teen idol in the early 1960's... she was British, from a pedigreed acting family and she was wholesome and quite proper.  How did she ever catch on in the wild and wooly colonies?  But catch on she did.

That proper thing caught the eye of Walt Disney and for six years she toiled in his lightweight kiddie fare with astonishing results.  Her films were immensely popular with the young crowd and the older crowd was glad that they were. 

Her career soared at the outset as a turn-of-the-century orphan who comes to live with her stern aunt (Jane Wyman) in 1960's Pollyanna (for which she was honored with a juvenile Academy Award) and as twins out to reunite divorced parents (Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith) in 1961's The Parent Trap.  She also exhibited her teenage pluck in In Search of the Castaways (1962), Summer Magic (1963), The Moon-spinners (1964) and That Darn Cat (1965).  She also made films away from Disney and 1964's The Chalk Garden is arguably the best. 

She was a great little scene stealer, equally capable of comedy and drama and could sing and dance as well.

Mills is the only one of this bunch that went on to an acting career as an adult.  I have quite enjoyed her later work but in no way has it captured the magic of those childhood films.

Phillip Alford and Mary Badham bring up the rear and they played the children of Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird.  Not only is it one of the finest American films ever made, but it is in no small part due to the electrifying performances of these two young actors.  I think they, too, should have received juvenile Academy Awards for this most impressive work, although Badham was nominated for best supporting actress (and lost to another kid actor, Tatum O'Neal) and that puts her in a class by herself in this group.

What is perhaps most impressive about this duo is that Mockingbird was their film debuts and apparently they weren't especially close during the filming, not a trace of which is evident in these magnificent performances as Jem, a loving, protective, older brother, and Scout, the savvy and sassy younger sister put in harm's way as a result of one of their lawyer-father's court cases.

Neither of them did much more movie work.  Alford was James Stewart's youngest son in 1965's Shenandoah and Badham was Natalie Wood's sister in 1966's This Property Is Condemned.  In her adult years Badham has been seen in tributes to the film or to Gregory Peck.

NEXT POST:  Ewan McGregor

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