Friday, February 12

Poor Bobby Driscoll

It is March 30, 1968.  Two boys come across a dead body in an abandoned tenement on New York City's lower east side.  Beer bottles and religious pamphlets are nearby.  He is white, 30-35, no identification and needle marks on his arms.  An autopsy is done and it is determined that he died of a heart attack.  He is buried in a pauper's grave.

Thirty-one years earlier to the month an adorable boy named Robert but always called Bobby was born to a salesman and a former schoolteacher in bucolic Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  He would be their only child and his mother would go on to say that he always knew that he was loved.  In 1943 they moved to sunny Southern California due to the father's pulmonary health issues.

Shortly thereafter the kid was getting his hair cut and the barber found him to be so cute, intelligent and totally engaging, not at all like other six-year olds, and he told Bobby's mother that he should be in the movies.  When she commented that she thought so, too, the barber said that he knew someone (who probably knew someone) and soon the precocious one was at an MGM audition securing a bit part in the Margaret O'Brien movie, Lost Angel (1943).  

The following year he traveled across town to 20th Century Fox and joined Anne Baxter in two decent war-related films, The Sullivans and Sunday Dinner for a Soldier.  Paramount took notice of the adorable little actor and signed him to star opposite Veronica Lake in Miss Susie Slagle and Alan Ladd in OSS, both 1946.

His parents could hardly believe how things had worked out.  The boy was steadily working and loving it.  They determined to tuck all his money away until he turned 18.  During his youngest years, he received an allowance of 25 cents a week and he still had to do chores around the house.  Mama was determined to keep him as normal as possible.  He was loved but he was not the little movie star around the house.  Even when fan mail came pouring in, he was not allowed to see it for fear of acquiring a big head.  She kept it for him until he got older.  They continued going to church every Sunday.

It's probably a good thing she felt that way because at the studios, no matter which one it was, they were raving about the kid they called the wonder child.  He had the most amazing ability to memorize lines.  After doing so, and as is often the case, some lines were changed but no matter, Bobby was on top of it.  And in large part, he seemed to understand the meaning behind many things he had to say.  He could do take after take and be as fresh on the last one as he was on the first.  With little effort he could conjure up feelings of anger or glee or laugh with abandon or cry on cue.  And through all of it, he was a little gentleman, well-mannered, polite, respectful.

Also in 1946 he played Percy Maxim, the son of Myrna Loy and Don Ameche in So Goes My Love.  It is because of this delightful film, which I'd never heard of and just saw for the first time last weekend, that I am writing this piece.  A turn-of-the-century story of a young boy and his extraordinary parents, I was once again simply captivated by what a bright young actor this kid was.  Every time he was on the screen, which was considerable, I could hardly look at the adults.  As Loy said... he has so much charm, if Don Ameche and I aren't on our toes all the time, the audience will be looking at the youngster and ignoring us.  Ameche added ... he's got a great talent.  I've worked with a lot of child actors in my time but none of them bore the promise that seems inherent in young Driscoll.

Uncle Remus spreading his tales


Later still in 1946 Walt Disney took notice of Bobby Driscoll.  Uncle Walt liked to say he discovered him, forgetting the youngster had already been pretty impressive in 10 films.  Disney put him under contract and the kid became the first flesh and blood performer to be contracted by the studio.  Song of the South would become the film for which Bobby would be most remembered.  (Or maybe it's in a tie with one other.)  It is both live-action and animation in which a kindly Uncle Remus (James Baskett) spins tales for two young children.  It was a major hit which has taken a blow over the years by the African-American community for its depiction of blacks in the post-Civil War era.

The tearjerker So Dear to My Heart (1948) was Disney's attempt to ride on the wave of Song of the South.  It was a worthy attempt although not quite up to the standards of the former.  Featuring Burl Ives, Beulah Bondi and Luana Patten, Bobby's Song costar, it was pure Disney... kids and an animal, a formula that would work for decades.  Bobby and a black lamb were beyond precious.

Then came The Window (1949), containing, I believe, Bobby's shiniest moment... certainly his most dramatic.  Even though he is the centerpiece of the film, this is in no way a film for children.  I have said before that the kid-in-peril theme is one that has excited me since I was a kid myself.  The gist of the story is that a kid living in a tenement on New York City's lower east side (that seems rather sad now that I am thinking of it) witnesses a murder in a neighboring apartment as he sits out on a fire escape.   To make matters worse, he is not believed by anyone he seeks out because he is given to spinning tall tales.  Two who do believe him are the killers.

Terrified in The Window

It's not a perfect film... I thought the parent roles played by Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale were poorly written... but it's a good film.  Ruth Roman and Paul Stewart as the killers are rock solid but no one outshines this magnificent child actor.

In 1950 he was given a special Oscar as the most outstanding juvenile actor of 1949 (only ever given when the Academy thought there was a child so deserving) for his work in The Window and So Dear to My Heart

By 1950 he was a little older (12) and able to take on Disney's Treasure Island.  Of course he was Jim Hawkins while wily old Robert Newton was Long John Silver.  Both actors were splendid and the film a big hit.  Aaargh.

Bobby started doing some television work but did manage to star in two very different and forgotten films, one a well-done, tearful drama and the other a charming comedy.  The first was When I Grow Up (1951), playing a son (of Robert Preston and Martha Scott) who feels neglected and plans to run away when he comes across a diary of his grandfather who once had the same feelings.
The second film, The Happy Time (1952), featured Bobby as a French child living in 1920s Ottawa who is dazzled by the new maid.  Charles Boyer and Louis Jourdan were along as his randy grandfather and uncle. 

In 1953 Bobby's voice was used as Peter Pan in a popular animated version.  How prophetic that this work had among its characters the lost boys, because that seems to be what Bobby became and he would never again be found.

The darkness descended, it seems, because he developed a severe case of acne.  The problem with that, of course, is that it rendered him unsuitable for the cameras... or at least so claimed Disney.  Bobby's young world was rocked.  He did, however, manage some small TV parts.  Now 16 years old and not able to work in films made him surly and disagreeable. 

How he looked when the trouble began

He had long been going to Hollywood Professional School (for child movie actors) but his parents put him in a public high school, University High, which I later attended.  It was probably a bad move.  He said he tried to fit in, but the kids wouldn't let him.  He was bullied, teased and made fun of.  Ridiculed to the point of drawing into himself, he was too quickly moving away from the sweet kid he'd always been.  He would later claim that he was always afraid during these years.  Perhaps it was inevitable that he would turn to drugs.  He smoked grass and may have popped some pills but his drug of choice was heroin.

Then the arrests started... possession of pot, disturbing the peace, assault with a deadly weapon (he pistol-whipped some hecklers), among them.  Some were dismissed, some not.  The news, of course, spread all through Hollywood and the work dried up.  He ran off to Mexico in 1956 and married.  By 1960 they would have three children and he would leave them by simply walking out the door and not returning.

He did score a couple of TV roles and took some menial jobs.  In 1958 he somehow managed a terrible part in a terrible movie, The Party Crashers.  It also costarred the even more troubled Frances Farmer in her last film.

In 1959 he did some jail time when officers, who had pulled him over, discovered needle marks and then paraphernalia.  A year later he was arrested again for robbing an animal clinic.  He was also wanted for passing some bad checks.  He was sentenced to time at the Narcotics Rehabilitation Center of the Chino (California) State Penitentiary.   

After being released he headed for New York.  The west coast wasn't working... maybe the east coast would be.  He headed to Andy Warhol's The Factory, always ready to take in the disenfranchised and misbegotten, especially if there was some artistic talent.  While doing some painting and sculpting, Bobby appeared in his final film, Dirt (1965), an experimental short done by one of those at The Factory.

At the end

He would leave The Factory in late 1967 and never be heard from again.  He had not contacted his parents or children in several years.  Though he was found dead in 1968, no one knew it was him.  His mother had been frantically trying to locate him for some time, even asking the Disney corporation to help her out.  Nothing came of it. 

Two weeks after Bobby's father died in late 1969 and one day before her birthday, Mrs. Driscoll received a phone call saying her son had died some 18 months earlier.  Fingerprints had finally matched up somehow and he was identified as Bobby Driscoll, the brilliant one-time Academy Award-winning child star.  How sad is that?

His death and the ensuing story broke my heart.  I didn't know the man but I loved that kid.

Next posting:
Good 40s Film


  1. Slipped through the cracks into nothing. Very sad.