Children's Films


As Kathy Merlock Jackson pointed out in her pioneering study of children in film, movies have tended to present two divergent images of children: the wild ones who need to be tamed, and the innocents who need to be protected. In Hollywood movies before World War II, and especially before the 1930s, the prevalent image of children tended toward the innocents. However, child actors did not receive star billing before Jackie Coogan appeared in The Kid in 1921, and thus films were rarely centered around child characters, except those featuring adults in children's roles. With the rise of Coogan's career, a few other child stars emerged, and the studios began making films that gave a more persistent image of children: they were precious and precocious, eager to fix problems in the small world around them, and wise beyond their years. Such qualities were on display in the films of Baby Peggy ( The Darling of New York , 1923; Captain January , 1924), Virginia Grey (1917–2004) ( Uncle Tom's Cabin , 1927; Heart to Heart , 1928), and Jackie Cooper (b. 1922) ( Skippy , 1931; The Champ , 1931). Cooper became the first child nominated for an Academy Award ® for his performance in Skippy , and thus lent further legitimacy to films built around a central child character.

America in the 1930s was of course reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, so initially the films that focused on children tended to celebrate their plucky nature in dealing with poverty and adversity—hence the disproportionately high number of films about orphans and kidnapping victims. Depression-era movies like Let's Sing Again (1936), One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), and Babes in Arms (1939) suggested to audiences that children, by being more focused on their families and simple pursuits of happiness, were an antidote to the darker troubles typical of films about adults at the time. Nowhere was this aspect more evident than in the films of Shirley Temple (b. 1928), who burst onto the Hollywood scene with cherubic energy in 1934 at the age of six. After a big scene in Stand Up and Cheer! (1934), Temple was cast as the title character in Little Miss Marker (1934) and then achieved greater recognition in Bright Eyes (1934), further solidifying her role as a taskmaster and problem solver within a family crisis. As Jackson points out, however, for all of their resilience and capabilities in 1930s movies, children remained innocents deeply in need of the love and affection of adults around them. In that way, Hollywood preserved the dominant notion of the nuclear family, and gave children the clear message that they could not make it in the world on their own.

Temple continued fixing things in movies designed for her throughout the 1930s, and the studios had begun making more movies based on prominent children's characters. A contemporary of Temple's in this regard was Jane Withers (b. 1926), who acted alongside Temple in Bright Eyes and became a star in her own right with films like Ginger (1935) and Pepper (1936), showcasing her energetic persona. Films about children became increasingly popular, resulting in a ludicrous but brief run of films built around actual infant stars such as Baby LeRoy (1932–2001), who was made to upstage his adult costars in films during 1933, and Baby Sandy (b. 1938), whose phenomenon lasted from 1939 to 1941.

By the end of the 1930s, the most prominent roles of young characters, like child actors themselves, had aged toward adolescence, and Mickey Rooney's (b. 1920) teenage characters replaced Shirley Temple's little girls in terms of screen visibility. One of Rooney's recurring costars, Judy Garland (1922–1969), brought further visibility to roles about young people and as a teenager played the much younger lead character in one of the most popular children's films of the era, The Wizard of Oz (1939). Still, adolescent performances by Rooney, Garland, Deanna Durbin (b. 1921), and the ensemble known as the Dead End Kids constituted the primary representations of youth in Hollywood throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, and thereafter films built around stories about children would be only occasionally noticed. To be sure, movies like Journey for Margaret (1942), National Velvet (1944), and Miracle on 34th Street (1947) were popular, but they did not offer a sustained or consistent representation of children during this era. With the rise of the even more dominant genre of teen films in the 1950s, American films presented only sporadic and inconsistent images of children.

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