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Bob Anderson: Child actor in 'It's a Wonderful Life'

The child actor Bob Anderson has a place in silver-screen history for one performance, that of the young George Bailey in Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Playing the character who, after he grows up, is portrayed by James Stewart, Anderson featured memorably in the scene in which a drunken chemist inadvertently makes up a prescription including poison, but is saved by George, who is rewarded by being boxed around the ears.

The druggist was played by the former silent screen star H.B. Warner, famous for playing Christ in Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings (1927). He had allegedly been drinking on the day his scene with Anderson was shot. In a 1996 interview, Anderson said, "He actually bloodied my ear, and my face was red, and I was in tears. At the end, he was very lovable. He grabbed and hugged me, and he meant it."

It is amazing now to think that It's a Wonderful Life was not a great success and lost money on its initial release. Though it was nominated for an Oscar, most of the year's awards went to The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler's brilliant film about returning Second World War veterans. It was more in tune with the public's mood than fantasy, and it was only many years later that screenings on television of It's a Wonderful Life (particularly frequent since the film had lapsed into public domain and could be shown without payment) gained it the fame it deserved.

Born in 1933 in California, Bobby Anderson was part of a Hollywood family. His father, Gene, was an assistant director and later a production manager, and his two uncles were both directors – William Beaudine, who entered films as a prop boy for D.W. Griffith and directed stars ranging from Mary Pickford to the Bowery Boys, and James Flood, whose career also started with silent films.

Bobby made his screen début when relatives arranged for him to feature in a movie scene that called for a baby. He had his first speaking role at the age of seven with a small part in Young People (1940), the under-rated musical that was the last made by the child star Shirley Temple for her home studio, 20th Century-Fox. Bob Anderson played one of the inhabitants of the small town where Temple and her parents try to settle down after retiring from show business.

After It's a Wonderful Life, the fair-haired youth appeared in another film with James Stewart, William Wellman's Magic Town (1947), a Capraesque (but heavy-handed) tale of a small town that identically matches the whole of the United States in its tastes and views.

Anderson had his most substantial role in Edgar G. Ulmer's richly melodramatic Ruthless (1948), in which he played the central character, an unscrupulous financier Horace Vendig (Zachary Scott), as a boy. In a lengthy flashback sequence, he shared scenes with Joyce Arling, as his hard-bitten mother, Raymond Burr, as his estranged waterfront gambler father, and most importantly Ann Carter, as the childhood sweetheart he saves from drowning, winning the affection of her prosperous parents. Carter, like Anderson, was a child star who is remembered primarily for starring in Robert Wise's The Curse of the Cat People (1944).

Other films in which Anderson appeared include The Bishop's Wife (1947), Kidnapped (1948) and Samson and Delilah (1949). Unlike many child stars, he had a fulfilling life when his acting career ended. During the Korean war he enlisted in the navy, serving as a photographer on aircraft carriers, after which he spent four decades behind the scenes of the film industry, working his way up from assistant director to production manager for both movies and television shows.

Tom Vallance

Robert J. Anderson, actor: born Hollywood, California 6 March 1933; married (three sons, three daughters); died Palm Springs, California 6 June 2008.