Throughout early film history, children were central to some movies, such as the title characters in Jack and the Beanstalk (Edwin S. Porter, 1902) and The Adventures of Dollie (D.W. Griffith, 1908), and in such parables as The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912). Yet as the Hollywood star system developed in the 1910s, many children's roles were filled by established adult actors like Mary Pickford (1892–1979), who played the title role of a ten-year-old in The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) at the age of twenty-four. In 1919, Lillian Gish (1893–1993) played the role of a childlike waif in Broken Blossoms (1919) at twenty-three, and her adult co-star in that film, Richard Barthelmess (1895–1963), played the role of a boy in Tol'able David (1921) at twenty-six. This convention, which may have been due to Hollywood's grueling work schedule in those days and would have been prohibitive for real children, made the emergence of authentic child stars seem unlikely.
Yet in 1921, an adult performer, Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977), introduced the first actor to become famous in films as a child—Jackie Coogan (1914–1984). Chaplin cast Coogan as a seven-year-old in The Kid (1921), a tender story in which Chaplin's popular tramp character adopts an orphaned boy. Coogan's performance was remarkably emotional and assured, quickly earning him further roles in films like Oliver Twist (1922), Daddy (1923), and A Boy of Flanders (1924). His success soon made him the youngest person in history to earn a million dollars, most of which his parents squandered over the course of his youth. Such exploitation of child actors led to the California legislature passing the Coogan Act in 1939, which was intended to protect acting children's assets.
Following Coogan's lead, many child stars emerged in the 1920s, and like Coogan, few of them retained their stardom beyond the decade. One of the youngest and most popular was an actress billed as Baby Peggy (b. 1918), who started making short comedies at only twenty months old. Peggy thrived in features like Captain January (1923) and The Darling of New York (1924), but she gave up film acting, and her screen name, in 1926. When she returned for a few movie roles as a teenager in the 1930s, she went by her real name, Peggy Montgomery, and retired from the business altogether in 1938.
Less remembered child stars of the time included Ben Alexander (1911–1969), a popular juvenile performer of the 1910s and 1920s, who hit the high point of his career with a prominent role in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), when he was nineteen; his career went into sharp decline thereafter. Anne Shirley (1918–1993) also had an initially prolific career, having started acting in 1922 at the age of five, and later making such classics as Anne of Green Gables (1934) and Stella Dallas (1937), for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar ® . Yet she too left show biz not long thereafter, retiring at the age of twenty-six.
Perhaps the most surprising decline befell Jackie Cooper (b. 1922), who got his start in the late 1920s as a member of the enduring Our Gang series and achieved widespread fame by the age of nine in Skippy (1931), for which he was the first child ever nominated for a Best Actor Oscar ® . His next film, The Champ (1931), showed his tear-jerking skills to even greater effect, but by the time he made The Devil Is a Sissy (1936) as an adolescent, his notability was waning. Even though he began an auspicious series of films about teenager Henry Aldrich with What a Life (1939) and Life with Henry (1941), the series continued without him in 1942, when Cooper left to fight in World War II. When he returned, he was greeted with indifference, never regaining the fame he had as a child.
The most popular child star of the 1930s, and perhaps the most popular ever, was Shirley Temple (b. 1928). Temple's success obviously motivated Hollywood to promote child stars even more. Unlike Temple, some managed to hang onto their fame, or at least their careers, as adults. For example, Frankie Darro (1917–1976) started in child roles in the 1920s and gained greater visibility as an adolescent performer in such films as Wild Boys of the Road (1933). While he never became a major star, he did make many films as an adult, his small frame and boyish looks allowing him to continue playing teenage roles in films like Junior Prom (1946), when he was almost thirty. In fact, teenage movie characters slowly became more common than their younger counterparts during the 1930s, with performers like Deanna Durbin (b. 1921), Judy Garland (1922–1969), and Mickey Rooney (b. 1920) making a significant impact.
While not as popular as Temple, Jane Withers (b. 1926) was another eminent child star in the pre-World War II era, and actually had her breakthrough role starring opposite Temple in Bright Eyes (1934). Withers showcased a wit and range that made her stand out from her peers, yet she too had difficulty moving beyond youthful roles and was rarely seen in movies after her teens. And as if the lessons of Baby Peggy had not been learned, the studios introduced two more characters with similar nicknames in the 1930s: Baby LeRoy (1932–2001) and Baby Sandy (b. 1938). LeRoy really was a baby, starring with W. C. Fields in many films starting at the age of one, and retiring from the screen at the uniquely young age of three. Sandy was highlighted in films as an infant just before World War II, but took the cue from her predecessor and retired in 1942, at four.