Marilyn Knowlden’s name might not be on the tip of your tongue when you think of the classic stars of Hollywood, but it should be. In the 1930s and 40s, when she was a little girl, Marilyn co-starred in some of the most acclaimed films ever made, working with the best directors and acting alongside a spectacular range of stars including Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Norma Shearer, Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Tyrone Power, Irene Dunne, James Cagney, Shirley Temple, and so many others. I recently had the pleasure to spend the day with the 92-year-old former child star, who left Hollywood behind in the 1940s to live a very full life, raising a family and becoming an accomplished musician, songwriter, and playwright.
In 2011, Marilyn wrote a delightful autobiography called Little Girl in Big Pictures that details her experiences in Hollywood and later in life. I visited Marilyn Knowlden at the lovely retirement community where she lives in southern California. I had such fun chatting with her over lunch about her incredible career and then being treated to a well-attended matinee viewing of her 1936 film Rainbow on the River co-starring May Robson, Louise Beavers, and fellow child star Bobby Breen. Unlike many of the child stars of her day, Marilyn did not appear very often in films aimed at young audiences — instead she played in many of the A-list films of her day including the Clara Bow-Gilbert Roland pre-Code drama Call Her Savage (1932), George Cukor’s Little Women (1932) with Katharine Hepburn as Jo, the original Imitation of Life (1934) where she played Claudette Colbert’s daughter, the David O. Selznick all-star version of Dickens’ David Copperfield (1935) with Freddie Bartholomew, W. C. Fields, and Lionel Barrymore, as young Cosette in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1935) starring Fredric March, the first film version of Jerome Kerns’ musical Show Boat (1936) starring Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, and Paul Robeson, and playing Ann Sheridan as a child in the Warner Bros. classic Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.
Danny Miller: Marilyn, it’s so great to talk with you. I have to tell you that I just watched Marie Antoinette last night on TCM and loved seeing you as Norma Shearer’s daughter, Princess Thérèse. That must have been such a fun set to be on, the costumes, sets, and art direction are just off the charts.
Marilyn Knowlden: It was a lot of fun, but did you know that movie was supposed to be in color? It almost breaks my heart to watch it now, remembering how everything was designed so perfectly for color down to the tiniest detail.
What? I never knew that! Then why didn’t they make it in color if it was planned that way?
From what I understand, it was wildly over budget. People said that Adrian, the costume designer, ran up the costs so much that they couldn’t afford to do it in Technicolor!
Whoa! I’m surprised Norma Shearer didn’t have the pull to make them ignore the budget!
All I know is that Adrian had gone to such great lengths to get each color perfect, those costumes were really amazing to see. I would actually be all for colorizing it now, I think they could do it very nicely.
And the technique of colorizing has gotten so much better. Did you like working with Queen of the Lot Norma Shearer?
Oh, yes, she was always very nice to me. She signed my autograph book, “To Marilyn — to remind you of the good old days at Versailles!”
One of the things that amazes me about your career is that you were freelance — you never were under contract at any of the studios. And yet you got cast in all these very big films.
Well, my father was very much in control of my career and he didn’t want me to be under contract. I think one of the reasons is that if you’re a child under contract, you have to go to the studio school and there’s goes your normal life. I think he was very happy to have things the way they were.
I’m sure you had a better childhood because of it but I’m still surprised that, for example, MGM would go outside of its stable of stars for a part in a prestigious film like Marie Antoinette.
Oh, I did three big movies at MGM, they used outside people all the time. And maybe there weren’t any girls there who looked enough like Norma Shearer! (Laughs.) I did one movie after another in those days. I think someone would see me in one film and then think of me for something else. It was a lot of word of mouth.
Did you have any idea back then of how many children longed to be in your position? How many thousands of people came to Los Angeles trying to get their kids in the movies?
No, certainly not then. I had a screen test the first week we were in Hollywood and a couple of days later was making a movie! It was kind of crazy. I went on very few cattle calls. Usually I would just go on interviews where they were already seriously considering me for a part.
And, as you said, sometimes it was because they were looking for someone to play a certain star as a child in the flashback scenes or to play the daughter of that person so the physical resemblance was very important.
Right. With Imitation of Life, they were desperate to find youngsters that looked like Claudette Colbert and also girls who could conceivably be Louise Beavers’ daughter. And they needed kids to play those parts at three different ages.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen photos of Juanita Quigley who played the younger version of your part in that film and the caption says it’s you — and vice versa.
Oh, I know, I’ve seen that, too! But we did look alike! The funny thing is that they were so thrilled with Juanita, who they called Baby Jane on that picture, because she was this three-year-old who could learn lines and everything, so they put her under contract and featured her in all the publicity. The rest of us weren’t even mentioned! (Laughs.)
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get that first movie role?
Well, my father was an attorney in Oakland, and he had to take a business trip to Hollywood so my mother and I came along. On the second day there, just for fun, my father decided to call some of the studios. I had been doing some little acting things in Oakland, and my teacher there had told my father that she thought I should be in the movies, so he thought he’d give it a try. Well, my father was a very good talker — he had to be as a lawyer! So when he called Paramount he somehow managed to get through to Fred Datig, the head casting director for the whole studio. What are the chances of that? He got me an interview that very day!
Whoa, that’s crazy, with just a cold call! Do you remember that meeting?
Yes. I met Mr. Datig and I guess he liked me because he said, “Too bad she’s not older, we have a movie we’re about to start with a large part for a child but she needs to be eight years old.” My father said, “So what’s wrong with a four year old?” And he said, “Oh, it’s a very big part, she couldn’t possibly do it, she’d never be able to memorize all those lines.” And my father said, “But my little girl is very good at memorizing.” Well, Mr. Datig wouldn’t budge so we left and he wished us luck. But the next day we got a call from Paramount asking my father if he could bring me back to the studio for a screen test.
What happened to change his mind?
Well, it turns out he had talked to Eleanor Boardman, the leading lady, who much preferred the idea of a four year old in the part since she didn’t want people to think she was old enough to have an eight year old!
Do you remember that screen test?
Yes, I do! My mother taught me my lines. The scene was in a bed so I went to take off my shoes and they said, “Oh, don’t bother taking them off.” I remember, as a four year old, thinking how strange it was to get in bed with my shoes on! But they liked what I did and I got the part. We had to quickly go to some office to get a work permit since I was so young. And then it was on the way back to the studio that we got into a very bad car crash, as I explain in my book.
Oh, right! And your mother was badly injured?
Yes, she had to go to the hospital. But even the crash was a crazy Hollywood story because it happened right in front of Vitaphone Studios when Dolores Costello happened to be doing a scene right there in the street. So she came running over to help us.
Crazy — you wouldn’t believe such a thing if it were in a movie!
I know! She was very nice and took me to her dressing room and put cold cloths on my head as people were taking care of my mother.
Do you remember making that first movie, Women Love Once, with Eleanor Boardman and Paul Lukas as your parents?
Oh yes, very well. It seemed pretty easy to me, I knew about play acting from my little skits in Oakland. I mean, it’s kind of natural for children to play, that’s what they do. I don’t remember getting much direction from Edward Goodman who was the director, but everyone was very nice to me. I think they made an effort not to use any bad language around me, not that I would have understood it! (Laughs.)
Just amazing that you were plopped into this substantial role at the age of four.
It was really fun. I remember one day the director took me over to meet the Marx Brothers who were making a film on another soundstage. I loved that, and ended up playing a duet with Chico on the piano. He told me, “I’ll play this note and you play these notes when I nod to you.” That was great. This was all at Paramount — they had just completed the studio a few years earlier, it was beautiful.
Do remember doing any publicity for that first film?
Yes, they sent me on a personal appearance tour to my home town! I went out on the stage at the big Fox theater in Oakland before the movie started all by myself and did one of the skits I had learned. I had to appear on stage many times during the day in between the movie showings. I think I must’ve singlehandedly killed vaudeville because that year was the end of it!
And you never had any fear going out on that stage all by yourself or making those early movies?
No, I never had any fear, and I still don’t to this day. I remember watching that movie with my parents, it must have been the first movie I had ever seen, and I said, “But mommy, I died!” I had a scene in the film where my character died and I didn’t even realize that when we were shooting the film!
And how did your second film happen?
It was while I was appearing at the theater in Oakland that we got a telegram from Fox that they wanted me for The Cisco Kid so we went back to Los Angeles and then right after that I got Husband’s Holiday with Dickie Moore and the offers kept coming. At that point, my father quit his law practice and just focused on my career.
Well, you’re lucky your parents really had your best interests at heart — that was obviously not the case with all child performers.
I know, but they really did. Before I started any movie, my mother would ask me, “Now Marilyn, are you sure you want to do this?” And, of course, I did. She might as well have been asking, “Do you want to skip Christmas this year?” It was all just wonderful fun.
And you never had anyone do anything mean to try to get an emotional reaction from you for a scene?
That only happened one time. I describe an incident in my book where some director asked my mother to leave and then he took me into another room and told me my mother had left me for good. They were trying to see if they could make me cry. That was horrible and my mother was furious. Furious! But most of the time I had really quality directors and they never pulled stuff like that. My father worked very hard to get me with the best directors in town.
Were there ever any parts that you really wanted that you didn’t get?
Just two that I can think of: I really wanted to play Becky Thatcher in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It was going to happen at one point with Jackie Moran as Tom but by the time they started filming, we were too big so we were out.
Oh, the same thing happened on that film to Cora Sue Collins although she ended up in a smaller role. What was the other part?
I was up for the role of Scarlett O’Hara’s youngest sister Carreen in Gone With the Wind and I so wanted to be in that movie! But I lost the part to Ann Rutherford.
Oh, wow. I love Ann Rutherford but I thought she was a little too Polly Benedict for that role. And frankly, you looked a lot more like Vivien Leigh. I think you would have been perfect in that part!
(Laughs.) I think Ann agreed with you. At least that’s what she said to me many years later. I asked her to sign my autograph book and she wrote, “To Marilyn, I didn’t mean to be Carreen, you would have been perfect!” I thought that was very sweet.
You were so young when you were making these films, were you even aware of how famous the people you were working with were?
Absolutely not. They were just people to me, I was never bothered or overly impressed by any of them. Even Garbo. I worked with her and Clark Gable on Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) but my scenes got cut.
Were you aware that you were getting famous as well? Did you get fan mail?
I did, but my mother didn’t let me see most of it. Even when I was doing that first personal appearance, I found out later that my parents drove around to the back of the theater so I wouldn’t see my name in lights. They really didn’t want me to get a big head!
It’s crazy how many high-profile films you were in, such as the 1936 Irene Dunne version of Show Boat. How did that happen?
I remember once I was called in to meet some men for a film. I was six years old and they handed me sides and I had to do a cold reading without my mother’s help. Can you imagine? Well, I found out that two of the men were Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein! This was for a different film but that’s how I got the part in Show Boat, they remembered this little girl they had met and called me in. I didn’t even have to audition.
Wow, that’s very cool.
And I’m very proud of the fact that Oscar Hammerstein wrote some new verses of the song “Make Believe” that would be appropriate for Allan Jones to sing to me.
It’s funny that when I looked you up I found so many references to you being in Morning Glory with Katharine Hepburn but you didn’t end up being in that film.
I know, my scenes were cut out of that film, too, darn it. But I do have a photo of me with the director, Lowell Sherman. And I did get to play Katharine Hepburn’s daughter in A Woman Rebels in 1936. I liked her very much. I had to use a bow and arrow in that film and Miss Hepburn promised me a dollar if I could hit a bull’s-eye. At the end of the film she signed an autograph for me that says, “To Marilyn — Hoping that her archery improves. Affectionately, Katharine Hepburn.” I cherish that to this day especially since I found out later how rarely she would give her autograph.
Did you always to go to regular schools during your time in the movies?
Most of the time, except during Marie Antoinette. Tyrone Power had to shoot all his scenes at once because he was needed for Blood and Sand so Scotty Beckett and I were free for six weeks while we were already under contract for that film and we went to the Little Red Schoolhouse on the MGM lot with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
Oh, fun. What do you remember about them?
I loved Judy Garland, she was really nice and I thought she was incredibly talented. I remember the studio was really pushing Susanna Foster at that time, but I preferred Judy. I didn’t get along that well with Mickey Rooney, though, even though I was in two films with him!
You also made David Copperfield at MGM with Freddie Bartholomew. That was a pretty prestigious picture, no?
Oh, yes. That was with George Cukor who I met when I was in Little Women. That’s how it went, usually, a director would remember me from an earlier film, even if it was a very small part. I was hardly ever competing with the other children. I liked Freddie a lot. And I remember going to the very fancy premiere at Grauman’s Chinese. I also went to one of Freddie’s big birthday parties even though I usually didn’t socialize that much with the other kids.
It’s funny how few movies actually aimed at children that you made. They were mostly serious dramas like David Copperfield, Marie Antoinette, Anthony Adverse, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Les Misérables.
Yes, I can’t think of any actual “kids’ movies” that I was in.
Let’s talk about Les Misérables for a minute. You were so moving as young Cosette in the Victor Hugo classic.
I really enjoyed working with that director, Richard Boleslawski, he was just outstanding.
It’s weird that he’s barely known for his film work today.
He died very young, but he was one of the most famous students of Stanislavski and he wrote this book, Six Lessons for Actors. He started the method school of acting, I studied him years later when I was a drama student at Mills College. He was great at helping actors experience the real emotions of what they were playing. “But how could I experience the emotions of a murderer?” someone would ask, “I’ve never killed anyone.” “Ah,” he’d say, “but have you never killed a fly?” I made two films with him, Les Misérables and Metropolitan. I think he would have had a huge career in Hollywood if he hadn’t died so young.
Do you think you were aware of the heavy plot of Les Misérables at the time?
Probably not the whole plot but Boleslawski did a superior job of explaining what was going on with Cosette. He was wonderful. Often times directors would not bother explaining things to me, like James Whale, the director of Show Boat, he didn’t give me the help that I needed. I really didn’t understand what was going on when I finally see my father. It was nice when the directors really took the time to work with the children.
Did you like working with Fredric March who played Jean Valjean?
Oh yes, I loved him so much I used to call him Papa! Almost all of my scenes were with him and we were real buddies.
I know you also worked with three of the biggest child stars at the time: Virginia Weidler, who was one of my favorites, as well as Jane Withers and Shirley Temple.
Oh, Virginia was such a good actress. I’m embarrassed that in my book, I list Weidler’s Men with Wings as one of my films. I didn’t remember being in it but the people at IMDB just insisted that I was, so I thought, “Well, what do I know?” But it turns out that I’m not in it.
I know. I found a bunch of articles saying that you were going to be in that film, too, but that was one of those movies that they kept casting different actresses to play the kids at different ages.
Yeah, I’m sure it was discussed but it didn’t happen. I think Virginia or Joan Leslie played the part I would have had. But I had a small part in All This and Heaven, Too. Virginia Weidler was one of the main characters in that.
And how about Jane Withers?
I love Jane! She was an extra in Imitation of Life, you can see her right there in the front in one of the classroom scenes. And then two years later I had a small part in one of her big movies, Pepper. She’s very sweet, she took my daughter to lunch once at the Pig n’Whistle.
And I love the story in your book about the day you played with Shirley Temple on set and how sad you were when you weren’t allowed to play with her anymore.
Yes, I just loved her, we had a great time during our costume fittings, I think it was for a picture called As the Earth Turns. I remember that my name was five above hers in the credits. (Laughs.)
But then when she became such a big star she wasn’t allowed to play with you anymore?
I read in Shirley’s book that it was a producer who told her mother that she could be ruined by her experience in Hollywood and her mother became very protective which was probably a good thing. It was a little hard on the rest of us because we wanted to play with her but she was off in her own little bungalow, she didn’t even get to eat with the other kids. I think she was allowed to play with her stand-ins. But she had a pretty normal life as a result, which is kind of amazing. It could have been horrible.
You also seemed to have avoided all the troubles that afflicted so many child actors of your era.
That is entirely thanks to my parents. They loved me so much and always put my needs first. I had a very charmed childhood. A charmed life, really.
Marilyn and I finished our lunch and adjourned into a small auditorium at her retirement home as many of the other residents filed in. Marilyn gave a small talk about making Rainbow on the River with Bobby Breen and how happy she was to be a real meanie in the film for a change. She played the spoiled, bratty daughter of Benita Hume in the film. She talked about how she was able to locate Bobby Breen in recent years and talk to him on the phone before he died in 2016. It was great fun watching Marilyn watch herself in the film, shot over 80 years earlier when she was 10 years old. Spending the day with the talented and charming Marilyn Knowlden is something I’ll never forget.