“How much do you love me?” The Child’s Obligations to the Adult in 1930s Hollywood

  • Noel Brown
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History book series (PSTPH)


The Hollywood child-star film of the 1930s remains one of the most historically visible sites of cultural tension between the social conception of the child as priceless object, and, conversely, as exploitable entity. Child performers had become enormously popular attractions on the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century stage, but commercial cinema, with its global reach and sophisticated production methods, offered the possibility of the most powerfully appealing and highly determined representations of childhood ever devised. With particular reference to such performers as Shirley Temple, Freddie Bartholomew, Deanna Durbin, Jane Withers, and Jackie Cooper, this chapter explores the representation of children on screen in Hollywood movies of the 1930s, and their placement within the social and economic contexts through which childhood operated. Although critics have rightly suggested that the Romantic archetypes associated with childhood—namely innocence and moral virtue—freely circulate in this cycle of child-star films,1 this chapter argues that Hollywood’s treatment of child performers was far more ambiguous. Many such films reflect a broader ambivalence regarding the social status of children by alternately upholding a Romantic ideal of childhood while actively emphasizing the child’s obligation to the adult. The most prevalent examples of this obligation—and the ones which this chapter specifically addresses, in turn—are (i) a blatant and multifaceted fetishization of the screen child; (ii) the casting of the child as emotional laborer; and (iii) the behind-the-scenes financial exploitation of the child performer. But first, the 1930s child-star film must be placed within its cultural and cinematic contexts.


Child Labor Child Actor Emotional Laborer Christmas Tree Hollywood Movie 
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© Gillian Arrighi and Victor Emeljanow 2014

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  • Noel Brown

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