This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club. These three classic movie mavens have organized a month-long salute to the Academy Awards around five themes: THE ACTORS! (February 6), OSCAR SNUBS! (February 13), THE CRAFTS! (February 20), and THE MOTION PICTURES and THE DIRECTORS! (February 27). The 88th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, hosted by Chris Rock, will take place on Sunday, February 28, 2016.
For 26 years, between 1934 and 1960, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed out 12 Juvenile Academy Awards to recognize the outstanding contributions of young people on the screen. The trophy was a miniature replica of an Oscar that stood seven inches tall.
The first child ever to be nominated for an Oscar was Jackie Cooper. The popular actor was just nine years old when he was received a Best Actor nod in 1931 for the film Skippy. Cooper lost to Lionel Barrymore that year but the nomination made some Academy members uncomfortable. They couldn’t handle the idea of young children competing for the prestigious honor alongside tried-and-true veterans of the screen.
The 1934 Oscar nomination process for Best Actress was nearly as contentious as this year’s have been, although it had nothing to do with diversity. As Shirley Temple Black wrote in her 1988 autobiography Child Star:
During the 1934 nominations for best actress, a vicious cat fight had erupted. My name was on the nomination list and odds-makers had me an almost certainty to win. Myrna Loy (The Thin Man) and Bette Davis (Of Human Bondage) had both been ignored in the nominations and write-in campaigns had been threatened. This quarrelsome affair had forced Academy officials to rescind both my nomination and the Academy rules against write-ins and devise a compromise. I would be excluded from the best actress category altogether. A diminutive Oscar would be awarded me in a “special-award” category.
Though only six years old, Shirley was not exactly overjoyed when she was presented with the mini-Oscar:
If mine was really a commendable job done, why not a big Oscar like everyone else’s? I immediately concluded that the award was somehow not genuine.
Temple said she held the Oscar in about as high esteem as the pile of bread crumbs she had made on her table during the “boring” banquet.
Now that they had established the Juvenile Academy Award to avoid a Shirley Temple win, the Academy gave its Board of Governors the power to dole out the honor to whomever it pleased. Surprisingly, even though it was the heyday of child actors in Hollywood, four years would pass before the organization would hand out another award, this time honoring two young actors at once. In 1938, 18-year-old Mickey Rooney and 17-year-old Deanna Durbin were presented with Juvenile Oscars. The following year, Rooney presented 17-year-old Judy Garland with the prize for her work in The Wizard of Oz. Another five-year gap followed with 8-year-old Margaret O’Brien getting the next mini-Oscar in 1944 for Meet Me in St. Louis. The following year it was 14-year-old Peggy Ann Garner’s turn for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the year after that 12-year-old Claude Jarman, Jr., for The Yearling. Not every honoree is as well known today as the ones I’ve mentioned. While most movie lovers are familiar with the final honoree, 14-year-old Hayley Mills, who was awarded a Juvenile Oscar in 1960 for Pollyanna, I’d be willing to wager big money that most of you have never heard of 1948’s winner, 12-year-old Ivan Jandl whose performance in Fred Zinemmann’s The Search was honored, or 10-year-old Jon Whiteley and 7-year-old Vincent Winter who both won in 1954 for their work on Philip Leacock’s British film The Little Kidnappers. After 1960, the Board of Governors decided to let the chips fall where they may and allow child actors to compete with the grown-ups. To date, while more than a dozen children have been nominated for a full-sized Oscar, the only winners have been 16-year-old Patty Duke in 1962, 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal in 1973, and 11-year-old Anna Paquin in 1993, all in the Best Supporting Actress category. Of the dozen winners of the Juvenile Academy Award, I’ve only left out one: 13-year-old Bobby Driscoll, who was presented with the honorary Oscar in 1949.
At the age of nine, young Bobby Driscoll had become the first person ever to be placed under personal contract by Walt Disney. Walt was looking to combine live action actors with animation in the now controversial 1946 film Song of the South and he hired Driscoll to play the lead role of Johnny, the boy who encounters Uncle Remus at his grandparents’ Georgia plantation just after the Civil War and becomes fascinated by his tales of Br’er Rabbit and friends. This film, though a great technical achievement that introduced the Oscar-winning song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” was riddled with racial stereotypes. Civil rights groups tried to organize a nationwide boycott of the film but were unsuccessful. James Baskett, the actor who played the kindly Uncle Remus, was unable to attend the film’s premiere in Atlanta because no hotel would give him a room. Today, the depiction of former slaves in Song of the South is considered so incendiary that the film is not available in any format in the United States.
Bobby Driscoll, buoyed by his good reviews for Song of the South, went on to make So Dear to My Heart for Disney as well as Treasure Island. In 1949, Walt had loaned him out to RKO to make the film noir classic The Window, the story of a nine-year-old boy who witnesses a murder but can’t get anyone to believe him. Howard Hughes, the head of RKO at the time, had forced the art department to scrap the original poster for the film that focused on Driscoll’s character. After the film’s release, Hughes realized his mistake and the original poster was sent out to the theatres. Driscoll was so great in this role that he was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award by Donald O’Connor on March 23, 1950. Shortly after he won the Oscar, Bobby was cast by Walt Disney to be the voice of Peter Pan in the animated version of J.M. Barrie’s classic tale that was the studio’s next big project.
Disney had been trying to make an animated version of Peter Pan for decades. Pre-production began in the early 1940s but World War II forced the studio to put the project on hold. Disney’s version was the first time an actual boy would play the title role. From the time of J. M. Barrie’s first stage production of Peter Pan in 1904, the part had always been played by a woman. Actress Maud Adams was the original Peter but she was followed by a long succession of flying actresses including Gladys Cooper, Eva Le Gallienne, Elsa Lanchester, Jean Arthur, Mary Martin, and, in more recent times, Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby. On film, a 1924 silent starring Betty Bronson as the boy who wouldn’t grow up, had been a huge hit.
In those days, the Disney animators would have the voice actors play scenes from the film so that the artists could capture all of their body movements. The animated versions of Peter and Wendy bore a lot of similarities to their real-life counterparts. Disney’s Wendy was voiced by Kathryn Beaumont who also starred in the Disney classic Alice in Wonderland. Under contract to the studio, Kathryn was asked to wear her Alice dress for years at public events. Here’s a photo from a “date” that the studio orchestrated between the young actress and her co-star Bobby Driscoll. Kneeling at Al Jolson’s footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Bobby is singing Jolson’s hit “Mammy” to Kathryn. You gotta love that kid!
Though he’s largely forgotten today, I think Driscoll was one of the most talented child stars in the industry. “Bobby Driscoll is a brilliant actor,” wrote Bosley Crowther in the New York Times following the release of The Window. Writer Michael Kanin (Garson’s brother) worked with Bobby in the early 1950s and said that the boy had “a sort of genius for acting. He was a very perceptive boy who had the intelligence to go into something like writing or directing.” Bobby’s performance in Peter Pan was perfect. With a much-coveted Oscar and all that critical acclaim, Driscoll’s future in Hollywood seemed pretty secure, no? Not exactly.
When puberty hits a child actor, it’s rarely good news. Only a handful of popular child stars have ridden that wave and emerged on the other side. Puberty hit Bobby Driscoll especially hard, accompanied by a severe case of acne, a nightmare for any actor. Following Peter Pan, Driscoll was unable to find work in the movies. He received good reviews for some TV roles he had through the 1950s, but he could never get another break in films. “I was carried on a silver platter,” Bobby said of his early career, “and then dumped into the garbage can.” Following an unsuccessful attempt at a comeback in a 1958 Connie Stevens film (that was also the final vehicle for another tragic figure in Hollywood, Frances Farmer), Driscoll began getting into serious trouble with the law. “I tried desperately to be one of the gang,” he told a reporter. “When they rejected me, I fought back, became belligerent and cocky, and was afraid all the time.”
At 17, Bobby Driscoll started using heroin and by the age of 24, he had a police record that included burglary, assault, and narcotics arrests. In 1961, Bobby entered the California Institute for Men at Chino and finally managed to get off drugs. Following his release, he got married, had kids, and repeatedly tried to get back in the movies but with no luck. By 1964, he was divorced, depressed, and fed up with Hollywood. He moved to the east coast and disappeared off the map.
The end of Bobby Driscoll’s story is a sad one. His last film appearance was in Andy Warhol’s 1965 underground short, Dirt. In New York, Driscoll drifted from flophouse to flophouse. On March 30, 1968, two boys playing in a deserted East Village tenement found a dead body in one of the apartments. With no ID, the body was buried in a potter’s field. Meanwhile, Driscoll’s family had been trying to find him and they eventually turned to the FBI and to Driscoll’s old bosses at Disney for help. Nearly a year later, a fingerprint match proved that the body thrown in the pauper’s grave had been Bobby Driscoll’s, dead at the age of 31.
I always wondered how Driscoll’s tragic fate might have compared to that of the character he is best known for. Could Peter Pan have followed a similar path with his inability to grow up and face the responsibilities of life?
I won’t grow up, I won’t grow up
I don’t want to wear a tie.
And a serious expression
In the middle of July.
And if it means I must prepare
To shoulder burdens with a worried air
I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up !
‘Cause growing up is awfuller
Than all the awful things that ever were
I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up
No sir. Not I. Not me. So there!