Sweet boys with insufferable parents

What happens to little stars when they grow up and stop twinkling? Peter Parker reports The Moving Picture Boy: An International Encyclopaedia 1895-1995 by John Holmstrom, Michael Russell, pounds 39.50
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The Independent Culture
The title of John Holmstrom's handsome encyclopaedia is taken from a song composed and sung by Kenneth Casey, "the Vitagraph Boy": "Every time my face is flashed upon the screen," he warbled unblushingly, "They say: 'Oh, he's the sweetest thing we've ever seen'." The accompanying photo shows an extremely decadent-looking child, androgynous of feature, haughty of expression, somewhat reminiscent of Adore Loomis, the repulsive child star very satisfactorily stamped to death at the climax of John Schlesinger's film version of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust. Holmstrom has been unable to find a genuine model for Adore (played by Jackie Haley in the film), and his book is in some ways a corrective to the popular image of the child star as monster. This does not, however, restrain him from making some pleasingly astringent comments about the talents and behaviour of some of his subjects. Of Anatole "Bebe" Mary, an infant phenomenon of the early French cinema, he records that Pathe's Louis Feuillade "had had about enough of 'Bebe', with his prima donna airs and his insufferable parents; but he couldn't possibly dump such a valuable commodity until he had found a successor whom the public preferred". "Bebe" was eventually replaced by Rene Poyen, but was immediately taken up by Gaumont and was still acting in his sixties.

Not all child actors were so fortunate, and much of the interest and poignancy of this book comes from learning what happened to these little stars when they reached maturity and stopped twinkling. While Serge Grave was still playing schoolboys at 19 ("with some grace, but there was a strong sense of knobbly knees") and Wesley Barry continued to play teenagers into his mid-thirties, others grew up all too soon. Poyen's career was over by the time be was 17: he ended up "director of a rubber factory in Paris".

Some of these actors failed even to reach maturity: six-year-old Breezy Eason, Jr, "Universal's Littlest Cowboy", was crushed by a truck on one of his film director father's sets; Lawrence McKeen ("Baby Snookums") died of blood poisoning at the age of eight; and Norman "Chubby" Chaney, "resident fatso" of the "Our Gang" films, died aged 17 of a glandular disorder which had seen him tip the scales at a grotesque 300 lbs.

Not all child actors were doomed, however, and even those who failed to make it as adult actors of often made use of their first-hand knowledge of the business, becoming directors, editors, cameramen or technicians. Some grow up more than others: Jackie Moran, 1937's Huck Finn and Buster Crabbe's juvenile sidekick in the Buck Rogers space series, ended up writing scripts for Russ Meyer Tommy Kirk, "the Disney boy actor" of the 1950s, came out as gay - not something calculated to delight the distinctly conservative Uncle Walt. These are the sort of quirky details that make Holmstrom's book so engrossing.

Early child stars were worked very hard, particularly those who appeared in the "Our Gang" series of shorts, started by Hal Roach in the 1920s and still going strong into the 1940s. "Farina" Hoskins, a black actor whose hair was usually done up in braids and who was "all too often required to weep or goggle in craven fear", clocked up 106 of these films between the ages of two and ten. The rewards could be considerable. In 1916, at the age of six, "Little Billy" Jacobs was earning an astonishing $10,000 a year. Inevitably not every diminutive star benefited so directly from his earnings. The greatest of all the moving picture boys, Jackie Coogan, earned some $4,000,000 during the 192Os, but was later obliged to sue his mother and step-father in order to recover what little remained after the legal fees had been deducted. Holmstrom writes that Coogan "left the world groggy with admiration," but he never falls into this trap himself. He judges these boys rigorously, not only on what the Germans call Moppethaftigkeit, but also on their acting skills. In some cases these were negligible, and Holstrom says so. The book is beautifully produced, profusely illustrated, contains scrupulous filmographies and two indexes (of boy actors and film titles) in addition to the general one. A companion volume on moving picture girls is forthcoming, completing a project that will be invaluable for reference and make a fascinating contribution to our knowledge of the ways in which children have been viewed and treated in our century.