The nickelodeons of the early movie industry showcased films that appealed to all ages and populations rather than specifically to children. Moral guardians of the early 1900s were concerned about children attending movies on their own because it could be an inducement to skip school or become familiar with unruly characters, both onscreen and in theaters. Although children did appear in many films of the early film era, their roles were almost exclusively as accessories to adult activities, such as the little girl who frees her father in The Great Train Robbery (1903) or the numerous children depicted as victims of kidnappings in films like The Adventures of Dollie (D. W. Griffith, 1908).
Yet, as Richard deCordova's research has shown, Hollywood had indeed become concerned with the child movie audience by the 1910s. Children's matinees became common in many movie houses by 1913, and groups like the National Board of Review's Committee on Films for Young People not only promoted matinees at the national level but encouraged studios to make more films suitable for children, despite the fact that children still often preferred films aimed at adults. Then in 1925 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association under Will Hays (1879–1954) began an effort to identify films suitable for children. By the fall of 1925, the MPPDA had arranged fifty-two matinee programs, with many films reedited and retitled for youngsters. These programs were shipped as a special block to theaters, and exhibitors were contracted to show only the selected program films during Saturday matinees. The MPPDA used this approach to promote the studios' sense of responsibility and at the same time to encourage children to be loyal movie customers.
But no sooner had the MPPDA established this successful program than they abandoned it the next year, letting the task of staging children's matinees fall back into the hands of exhibitors. This brief foray into cultivating a child audience did not induce the Hollywood studios, which wanted to keep their audience as wide as possible, to produce a new genre of films aimed at children. Hollywood even cast established adult actors in children's roles, a practice that may seem preposterous by present standards but at the time fostered a diverse family audience. Stars such as Lillian Gish (1893–1993), Richard Barthelmess (1895–1963), and especially Mary Pickford (1893–1979) were exploited for their youthful looks in popular stories like Pollyanna (1920) and Little Annie Rooney (1925). Actual child actors of the 1920s who gained fame on their own, such as Jackie Coogan (1914–1984) and Baby Peggy (b. 1918), were cast alongside adult stars to further ensure that their movies were not exclusively focused on a childhood perspective.
Two genres of film were particularly appealing to children during this period, even though they did not gain the respect of features: short subjects (or serials) and cartoons, which were shown at the beginning of programs. Studios and exhibitors likely thought that children's attention spans were better suited to shorter fare, and that placing the shorter films early in a program would help ensure children's interest in the longer films that followed. One of the most famous short subject series that was clearly geared to children (although also appealing to adults) was Our Gang , which the producer Hal Roach (1892–1992) started in 1922. This series used actual child actors to play children who tended to be of the working class, curious, and funny. The series of over two hundred short films was quite successful, running into the 1940s. Other short-subject series, such as the slapstick antics of the Three Stooges, though not featuring children were nonetheless of enormous appeal to them.
Cartoons were quite a different market. Animation, though effective in telling fantastic stories of unusual, often nonhuman, characters, was slow to start in early cinema. By the 1920s a handful of animators had made short films, with the most popular series being Felix the Cat, and by the end of the decade an ambitious artist, Walt Disney (1901–1966), introduced a character who grew into the sound era: Mickey Mouse. Disney's success paved the way for a generation of new cartoon characters, and by the 1930s all of the major and minor Hollywood studios had developed their own cartoon series to appeal to entire families. When Disney made the first American animated feature in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs , a new approach to making films for children began.