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

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

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Child Labor Child Actor Emotional Laborer Christmas Tree Hollywood Movie 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    See, for instance Karen Lury, The Child in Film: Tears, Fears and Fairytales (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2010), 65–73;Google Scholar
  2. Ian Wojcik-Andrews, Children’s Films: History, Ideology, Pedagogy, Theory (London: Garland, 2000),72–73;Google Scholar
  3. Jane O’Connor, The Cultural Significance of the Child Star (London and New York: Routledge, 2008).Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    See Alice Miller Mitchell, Children and Movies (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1929), 36–37.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    See Noel Brown, “ ‘A New Movie-Going Public’: 1930s Hollywood and the Emergence of the ‘Family’ Film,” The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 33:1 (2013): 1–23, for an in-depth examination of Hollywood’s relationship with the “child” audience during the early 1930s; also see Douglas Hodges, “Remember Youth or Lose B. O. of Tomorrow, Declares Barker,” Exhibitors Herald-World, November 8, 1930, 44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 5.
    Noel Brown, The Hollywood Family Film: A History, from Shirley Temple to Harry Potter (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2012), 29–36; 44–51.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    On the cultural need for such films during the Depression years, see Charles Eckert, “Shirley Temple and the House of Rockefeller,” in Stardom: Industry of Desire, ed. Christine Gledhill (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), 60–73;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. and John F. Kasson, “Behind Shirley Temple’s Smile: Children, Emotional Labour, and the Great Depression,” in The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present, and Future, eds. James W. Cook, Lawrence B. Glickman, and Michael O’Malley (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 185–216.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Viviana A. Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 65.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Norman J. Zierold, The Child Stars (London: Macdonald, 1965), 77.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Graham Greene, “Wee Willie Winkie; The Life of Emile Zola,” in The Graham Greene Film Reader: Mornings in the Dark, ed. David Parkinson (Manchester: Carcanet, 1993), 233–34.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    See Kasson, “Behind Shirley Temple’s Smile”; Georganne Scheiner, “The Deanna Durbin Devotees: Fan Clubs and Spectatorship,” in Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America, eds. Joe Austin and Michael Nevin Willard (New York and London: New York University Press, 1998), 81–94.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    Cary Bazalgette and Terry Staples, “Unshrinking the Kids: Children’s Cinema and the Family Film,” in In Front of the Children: Screen Entertainment and Young Audiences, eds. Cary Bazalgette and David Buckingham (London: British Film Institute, 1995), 92–108, at 95.Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    Rudy Behlmer, ed., Memo from David Selznick (New York: Viking Press, 1973), 124–25.Google Scholar
  15. 25.
    Diana Serra Cary, “Foreword” to Tom Goldrup and Jim Goldrup, eds., Growing up on the Set: Interviews with 39 Former Child Stars of Classic Film and Television (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002), 1–2.Google Scholar
  16. 40.
    Leo Verswijver, “Jane Withers,” Movies Were Always Magical: Interviews with 19 Actors, Directors, and Producers from the Hollywood of the 1930s through the 1950s (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003), 202–16.Google Scholar
  17. 41.
    See particularly Diana Serra Cary, Hollywood’s Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era (Texas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1997)Google Scholar
  18. and Diana Serra Cary, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy? The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star (Albany, NY: BearManor Media, 2009).Google Scholar
  19. 45.
    Leo Handel, Hollywood Looks at its Audience: A Report of Film Audience Research (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1950), 124.Google Scholar
  20. 48.
    For a contemporary discussion of the tastes of young movie-goers during the period, see Richard Ford, Children in the Cinema (London: Allen and Unwin, 1939).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Gillian Arrighi and Victor Emeljanow 2014

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  • Noel Brown

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