Friday, March 5, 2010
DO SCREEN CHILDREN MAKE GOOD WHEN THEY GROW UP?
Several Juvenile Stars of Yesterday Are Ruling Favorites in the Land of Make-Believe Today, While Other Prodigies of a Few Years Ago Have Dropped Out of the Picture Entirely
By Alice L. Tildesley
April 17, 1932
What becomes of child actors when they leave Little-Boy-and-Girl-Land behind?
What chances are there for them to succeed at the same profession when they grow up?
Sam Goldwyn once said that he seldom bothered with actors who had worked as children because the “something essential” was likely to have been burned out or used up before it had matured.
Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich knew nothing of footlights or cameras when they were little girls; Ronald Colman, Clark Gable and Warner Baxter grew up as other boys of their classes, unconnected with things theatrical, the “something essential” slumbering.
Yet Mary Pickford was a child actress.
One of the best bets in Hollywood today, according to the critics who have reviewed pictures in which she has appeared, is Madge Evans, former child star, now determined to prove that nothing essential was ever burned out of her.
Madge is an unbelievably beautiful girl with natural blond hair, blue eyes and a face that can be photographed from any angle.
As a baby, she posed for artists, her best-known effort being an original soap baby. Her parents were not actors and had no connection with the stage; the baby’s posing was a matter of necessity.
When Madge was 4, she used to play with the small daughter of a motion-picture director who lived in the same apartment house. One day a child was needed for a scene. The director persuaded Madge’s mother to bring her over for the day to do the part. It seemed easier than posing, so Madge was taken over to the studio frequently after that.
“I used to run into rooms crying ‘Daddy!’ or ‘Mamma!’ or be put to bed or dressed or washed,” related Madge, “until one day there was a bigger and better part in a picture for me. William A. Brady, then head of World Films, saw the result and thought it would be a good idea to make some child pictures featuring me.
“The Lee children were playing at another studio, making child comedies, but he thought it would be more interesting to make real stories, not concerned with the problems of children, but with a child taking a prominent role. My mother or father would be in trouble, and the solution involved me.
“The woman who wrote the stories used to tell them to me before they decided on them, and I used to feel very important, thinking I was being consulted, but all the time her idea was to get my reaction and find out if a child really would do such things or think such thoughts. If I was confused, or couldn’t understand, she changed the tale until it was clear.
“Baby Marie Osborn was also making child pictures at the time, though we never met.
“When I was 11 I got too big for the pictures and was sent to school. About that time I suppose child pictures slumped, for they stopped making them. If there had been a good market for them, they would probably have found another child.
“Mr. Brady always took an interest in me and I kept in touch with him while I was in school. I was entirely cut off from pictures then and began to be fascinated by the stage. I went to plays instead of pictures, and when I left school I told Mr. Brady I wanted to try the stage.
“He gave me letters to every one who was casting and called up every one he knew who might have a part for me. ‘Daisy Mayme’ was being cast and he made them consider me in the part of the girl. I loved it.
“I went from one part to another. George Kelly wrote a part for me in ‘Philip Goes Forth,’ and I was playing that when M-G-M decided they needed me. I couldn’t let Mr. Kelly down so I stayed to finish the run, while they went on with the picture in Hollywood, saving my scenes to the end.”
The luck that seems to have attended Madge from babyhood was with her then, for Hollywood was full of lovely young girls who might have played the leading lady to Ramon Novarro in this picture. Many had been tested, but the test submitted from New York appealed so strongly that even delay seemed worthwhile.
Madge was met at the train and rushed out to the studio the same evening to make her first scene, dinnerless.
“I’ve been working ever since,” she observed, “although not without food. I’m on my seventh picture.
“I don’t see why child actresses shouldn’t succeed. I hope I can prove the exception, if there’s any rule about it.”
The Lee children – Jane and Katherine – who made child comedies when Madge was starring, are now in vaudeville. Baby Marie Osborne seems to have dropped from sight.
Virginia Lee Corbin, who must have been working in pictures in Hollywood when Madge and her contemporaries were doing the same in the east, was never a star, although she often did leading parts. She returned to the screen when she was 13 to do ingénue roles, played in a number of pictures without ever getting anything very big to do and has now married and left the screen.
Going farther back into screen history, we have Dolores and Helene Costello, who used to do child roles when their father, Maurice, was the idol of film fans.
Dolores was usually cast as a boy, enacting her father as a child because of the resemblance between them, but she hated the work and begged off whenever possible.
Dolores grew up to be a star of great promise, but her marriage to John Barrymore seems to have quenched the flame and her single picture since that event made no great impression.
Helene, on the other hand, who was considered much the better actress when the two were children, failed to register on the screen in later years.
Mary Miles Minter belonged to the early days, too. She came from the stage, where she had had tremendous success as “The Littlest Rebel” with Dustin Farnum. At first she had child parts in pictures. Then, when Mary Pickford demanded more money than her producers felt like bestowing, she was rushed into starring roles.
Lillian and Dorothy Gish, at 12 and 14, portrayed wives. The Talmadge girls in their early teens played everything from boys to mothers. Mary Pickford was too young to buy a ticket for her own picture when she tried to see herself as a young woman on the screen.
Jackie Coogan, perhaps the best known of all child stars, whose performance 12 years ago in “The Kid” was sensational, is again in pictures such as “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn,” but other children in these films steal the honors.
No less an authority than David Belasco once declared after Jackie, aged 10, had read Hamlet’s soliloquy for him, that here was one of America’s greatest actors. But perhaps it is too soon to tell. Jackie’s parents agree that no great actor can afford to be without an education, so the boy spends most of his time at school now, the talkie roles being undertaken during vacations.
Other boy actors, once in the lime-light as potential stars, are Wesley Barry, Ben Alexander, Jack Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Wesley Barry tried vaudeville for a while, but without sensational success; established his maturity by getting married and is now said to be bucking the business world.
Ben Alexander, after an interval at school, came back to the screen in an important part in “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
Jack Pickford was on the stage from babyhood. Lillian Gish once told me how greatly he rebelled against it, how it took the united efforts of his mother and sisters and her mother and herself to get him into a girl’s part. He did “Huck Finn” roles in the early screen days, displaying considerable talent, but never made a success after he grew up.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. made only one picture as a child. His father had just married Mary Pickford, and after the release of the picture arranged that the boy should go abroad to be educated.
At the time young Doug complained bitterly that his father was trying to ruin his career, that he didn’t want two of the same name to compete, that he was jealous of youth; but later that young man decided that the advantage of foreign education outweighed the advantage of experience on the screen.
Gretchen Young, who used to do round-faced lassies, grew up into Loretta Young, now playing leading roles and not yet fulfilling the promise of her first film days.
Lucille Ricksen, once considered the most talented child on the screen, died under distressing circumstances half a dozen years ago.
Peaches Jackson, well known in Mack Sennett comedies, and a player of juvenile roles in bigger pictures, ran away and got married not long ago, only to have her marriage annulled.
Baby Peggy, child star when Jackie Coogan was at his height, dropped out of sight eight years ago.
Helen Mack, who was the child in “Zaza,” is coming back with a splash as Fox’s favored baby star, sustaining dramatic roles.
Anita Louise, a beautiful blond child, daughter of Alsatian parents, used to appear often in silent pictures; now at 16 she is blossoming into leading parts.
Seven years ago a number of talented children supported Betty Bronson in “Peter Pan.”
Mary Brian, then barely 15, grew up into Hollywood’s sweetest ingénue and is now getting stage training in vaudeville.
Philippe de Lacy, the beautiful youngest boy, was found as a baby on a battlefield in France and brought here by an American nurse who adopted him; his unusual talent still puts him on constant call at studios, though he has entered his teens. The Murphy boys, John and Maurice, are just back from a world tour. One of them has written a book, the other is interested in engineering. The screen knows them no more.
Some years ago Hal Roach was interviewed by a determined mother who had brought her dressed-up infant along. Both infant and parent were affected and tiresome. The producer dismissed them impatiently.
“I hate movie kids!” he snorted to his secretary, and strode to the window. Outside, in the fresh mud left by an April storm, a gang of neighborhood youngsters were playing. As he watched their antics he laughed. Then, being a man of business, he wondered what if what amused him might not amuse others.
“I’ll organize a gang of my own and see if people think them funny,” he decided.
He began that day.
There was little Mary Kornman, Mickey Daniels, the freckled boy; Jackie Condon, Joe Cobb, the fat boy; Johnny Downs, the All-American boys, recruits from average families who had no acting training.
“But we need a little Negro baby to make it complete,” ruminated Mr. Roach. He approached his cook. “Where can I go to get a colored child to work in pictures?”
“Colored chile, honey?” Why, don’t you go no place but here, honey. I got one for you.” And she produced the small boy known as Sunshine Sammy.
A little bit later Farina was added to the gang, it being desirable that Sammy have a sister. Farina was a boy and had to be disguised as a girl for his first picture, much to his disgust.
The “Our Gang” comedies made such a hit that they were continued, new members being added as the older ones grow up.
Sunshine Sammy went into vaudeville and is today one of our best dancers, seldom out of an engagement. Farina, just past the “cute” age, has followed in Sammy’s footsteps and is trying the three-a-day.
Mary Kornman and Mickey Daniels have graduated into Boy Friend comedies, a series at the same studio, featuring the problems of adolescence.
Joe Cobb has gone back to Dallas, Tex., to finish his education, and most of the rest are accepting engagements in vaudeville whenever offered.
As has happened with older players who had their first experience on comedy lots, some of the best Hollywood talent has come from “Our Gang.”
Mary Kornman shows signs of being an accomplished actress before she is 18.
Jackie Cooper, considered by many as the finest child actor of all time and already a star in his own right, competing this year for the highest prize for acting in the award of the community, began at Hal Roach studios.
Eugene Jackson, the young Negro boy who appeared in “Cimarron” and whose intelligent work was noted by critics everywhere, got his first training there.