Ever since the popularization of the motion picture around 1900, child actors have achieved extraordinary success on the screen. From "America's Sweetheart," Mary Pickford, the nation's most popular actress in the 1910s to the Our Gang series of the 1920s to SHIRLEY TEMPLE and Judy Garland in the 1930s and 1940s, young actors have risen to levels of wealth and popularity rivaling those of their adult counterparts. As many a child star has discovered, however, success is often short-lived. Many young actors have fallen out of public favor upon reaching adolescence. Their fleeting fame is a testament to not only the fragility of stardom but America's ongoing obsession with youth.
Although the motion picture was the medium most responsible for the child star phenomenon, the first child stars appeared on the stage. In the mid-nineteenth-century United States, a girl named Lotta Crabtree, who had been pushed by her mother to become an actress as a means of supporting the family, became a national sensation and sparked a craze for young theatrical performers. The vogue launched the careers of two sisters, Elsie and Jenny Janis, who became the highest paid vaudeville headliners in the world, and also a child named Mary Pickford, who earned public acclaim when she appeared in the play The Warrens of Virginia in New York in 1906. In 1908, due to a slack season on Broadway, Pickford sought work in the fledgling film industry and became the first of many child stage performers to appear on the screen. After starring in several short films produced by director D.W. Griffith, by 1915 she had become not only the world's most popular actress but the highest-paid female in America. By 1927, Pickford, known for her trademark ringlet curls, had starred in over two hundred films in which she portrayed children or teens.
Pickford's phenomenal success sent a message to the film industry: young characters on the screen, whether portrayed by juveniles or adult actors, had genuine box office appeal. During the 1920s American filmmakers began producing a series of films with all-child casts; the most popular was the Our Gang comedy series, created by director Hal Roach. Between 1922 and 1929, Roach produced eighty-eight Our Gang films, which featured a troupe of rambunctious boys who became known throughout the country by their screen nicknames: "Wheezer," "Stymie," "Farina," and "Alfalfa," a character who sported a famous middle-part haircut with a long strand of hair sticking up at the back. Child performers also began starring alongside well-established actors, and in 1921 a six year old named Jackie Coogan earned worldwide fame when he appeared with Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin's silent melodrama The Kid. Coogan dolls, statuettes, and memorabilia were immediately produced by enterprising manufacturers, and they flew from store shelves. As Hollywood learned, children on the screen not only lured audiences but helped the film industry gain legitimacy. The aura of innocence conveyed by young stars helped the industry combat criticism from religious and social reform groups, which accused Hollywood of glorifying sex and violence and pressured the government to enact federal film censorship.
During the 1930s, the Great Depression years, America's obsession with young actors reached unprecedented heights. The craze began in 1934 with the appearance of a six-yearold singer, dancer, and actress named Shirley Temple in the musical Stand Up and Cheer. Charmed by Temple's angelic demeanor, perky on-screen antics, and remarkable talents, audiences catapulted her to stardom. Throughout the decade, Temple was celebrated by a legion of fans that included President Franklin Roosevelt, who credited "Little Miss Miracle" with raising the nation's spirits during the economic crisis. Between 1935 and 1938, Temple, who appeared in over a dozen films for the Fox studio, including Poor Little Rich Girl (1935), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), and The Little Princess (1939), was voted America's most popular star.
Not surprisingly, Temple's success spawned a host of imitators, who descended on Hollywood "like a flock of hungry locusts," in the words of movie gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Across America, "Beautiful Baby" contests, with a screen test as the prize, were run in major cities by photographers and theater owners, and during the 1930s approximately one hundred child actors arrived in Hollywood each day. Hal Roach recalled that he tested over 140,000 children when casting for the Our Gang series. Though most dreams ended in failure–according to one estimate, less than one in fifteen thousand earned enough from one year of movie work to pay for a week's expenses–from the army of hopefuls a few genuine stars were born. Elizabeth Taylor, Freddie Bartholomew, Deanna Durbin, Mickey Rooney, and Judy Garland, who starred in the Wizard of Oz (1939), became bona fide celebrities during the 1930s and 1940s; in 1939, Rooney and Durbin were given special Academy Awards for their "significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth."
The popularization of TELEVISION in the immediate postwar period created a further demand for child actors, who became a staple of the domestic drama/sitcom genre. During the 1950s several young television actors, including Jerry Mathers, star of Leave it To Beaver, and Ricky Nelson, on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, rose to prominence. In the late 1950s, when Nelson began recording rock music, he initiated the phenomenon of the "crossover" youth celebrity, who starred simultaneously in two entertainment media. Like Elvis Presley, another young pop icon, Nelson sold thousands of records to his teenaged fans, capitalizing on the increased purchasing power of American youth in the affluent 1950s.
Like adult entertainment celebrities, child actors spurred an entire fan culture. Admirers of all ages organized fan clubs in honor of their favorite child actors, sent gifts and fan letters by the thousands, and purchased products bearing their idols' names and images. During the 1920s, actors in the Our Gang series initiated the phenomenon of child celebrity endorsement when they appeared in ads for Kellogg's Cereal; Temple, Garland, Rooney and Durbin similarly sold clothing, toys, and cosmetics for major corporations. Fans also read the many magazines and tabloids that reported the details of child stars' private lives and by the early 1930s could choose from over a dozen different fan magazine titles. Indeed, by World War II, the story of young stars' off-screen exploits had become as captivating to many Americans as their on-screen accomplishments. In a society obsessed with "rags to riches" stories, the phenomenal rise of stars like Rooney and Garland from impoverished backgrounds to celebrity status became an object of national fascination.
Almost as intriguing as the rise of child stars were the stories of their seemingly inevitable declines. During the 1940s the public was riveted by the story of Shirley Temple's fall from public favor–her career ended when she reached adolescence–and read about the troubles of Jackie Coogan, who as an adult became embroiled in a bitter lawsuit against his parents over control of his childhood earnings. Coogan's trials eventually led to the passage of the Coogan Act, a bill which required the parents of child actors to put aside at least half of their earnings. Jackie Cooper, star of The Champ (1931), battled alcoholism in his adulthood; Garland died from a drug overdose, and Rooney declared bankruptcy after seven failed marriages. It seemed that stardom, for many young actors, was more a curse than a blessing.
By the 1970s, child stars had become almost as famous for their misdeeds as their accomplishments. A series of well-publicized scandals and tragedies involving juvenile actors proved to an increasingly cynical public that young stardom was not as glamorous as it seemed. The three young stars of
the popular 1980s sitcom Diff'rent Strokes made national news when, following the termination of the show, they fell into crime and drug addiction. The alcoholism of Drew Barrymore, star of the 1982 film E.T., and the custody battles of Macaulay Culkin, star of the film Home Alone (1990) whose popularity sparked comparisons with Shirley Temple, also made headlines. Young celebrities had become an object lesson in the dangers of growing up on the screen–too famous, too rich, too soon.
The 1996 murder of six-year-old Jon Benét Ramsey brought the potential perils of child stardom most poignantly to light. When images of Ramsey were shown in the national media–the winner of several child beauty contests, she was frequently photographed wearing lipstick and rouge–Americans were stunned. The issue of the sexualization of child performers was also raised around the adolescent singer BRITNEY SPEARS, who rose to fame in the late 1990s with her sexy costumes and dance routines. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Spears and young actresses Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played sexually charged roles in films, were frequently imitated by teenage girls, sparking concern from parents. As the media and advertising industries became more aggressive in their marketing of child performers, as more and more children found role models in young entertainers, and as American youth continued to pursue their own dreams of stardom, the child star phenomenon seemed destined to become an enduring part of American popular culture.
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