David Holt

Child actor promoted as a 'male Shirley Temple'
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The Independent Online

David Holt, actor and songwriter: born Jacksonville, Florida 14 August 1927; married (four children); died San Juan Capistrano, California 15 November 2003.

The actor David Holt began his film career as a child actor publicised as a "male Shirley Temple". Though his career never came close to rivalling that of Temple's, he made over 20 movies in the Thirties, and gave some sterling performances, notably in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and later in Pride of the Yankees. A talented dancer, he was also part of Universal's dancing group the Jivin' Jacks and Jills in the early Forties, and played the older brother of Elizabeth Taylor in Courage of Lassie.

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1927, he was training at a dance school in 1933 when he was given the opportunity to audition for the renowned actor and comedy raconteur Will Rogers. Afterwards, Rogers told the boy and his mother to look him up if they ever got to Hollywood, and he would arrange a screen test. Holt's father resigned from his job with Ford Motors and drove the family west on the strength of the promise, only to find that Rogers would not see them.

Penniless, and with work hard to find during the Depression, the family was forced to eat in soup kitchens, with Holt's father digging ditches to make ends meet. Holt's mother meanwhile took the six-year-old David to casting calls and agents' offices, and was grateful when he was offered the role of body double for the chimpanzee Cheetah in a Tarzan serial, the first four episodes of which were strung together to make a feature film Tarzan the Fearless (1933) starring Buster Crabbe. Holt, in a chimpanzee costume, did anything called for by the script that Cheetah wouldn't do.

Later the same year he made his screen acting début in Mary Stevens, MD, starring Kay Francis. Signed to a contract by Paramount Pictures, he had a small role in Now and Forever (1934) starring Shirley Temple, but had his first important part in You Belong to Me (1934), in which he was a youngster whose father dies and whose mother remarries a philandering vaudevillian who treats him badly.

In Black Moon (1934) he was a child nearly sacrificed by his mother in a voodoo ritual; in the Harold Lloyd comedy The Cat's Paw (1934) he played Lloyd's character as a child; and in Age of Indiscretion (1935) he was a child neglected by his parents while they fight out divorce proceedings.

In some of these films he was billed as David Jack Holt. He had a telling cameo as a hospitalised child in a dramatic sketch that provided a change of pace in the otherwise surreal mixture of music and comedy, The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935), and effectively played the young Flavius, idealistic son of a gladiator in The Last Days of Pompeii (1935).

In the thriller Straight from the Shoulder (1936), he played a leading role as a young boy trapped in his father's mountain cabin by mobsters waiting to kill his father on his arrival. Holt turns the table on the killers by stealing their guns in the night and filling them with molten lead so that they backfire. In Trouble for Two (1936), based on Robert Louis Stevenson's The Suicide Club, Holt and Virginia Weidler played Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell's characters as children.

Holt's best-remembered role is in David O. Selznick's charming production The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1937). As sneaky cousin Sidney, Holt is amusingly prissy as he tells tales on mischievous Tom. He is given the film's final scene as, having snitched once too often, he is given a well-deserved, hearty slap by Aunt Polly (May Robson).

Selznick was very impressed by the youth, whom he had cast two years earlier in the title role of his prestigious production David Copperfield (after a search of Scarlett-like proportions). Selznick was worried, though, that British audiences would resent seeing an American child playing David, and after Holt had been preparing for the role for two weeks, he was replaced when Freddie Bartholomew suddenly became available.

The film would doubtless have set Holt's career on a different course, but after Tom Sawyer he made only a handful of films. He displayed his brilliant, under-used tap-dancing in the Universal musical What's Cookin'? (1942), and had one of his finest cameos in the lifestory of the baseball star Lou Gehrig, Pride of the Yankees (1942).

In the climactic scene, as the fatally ill Gehrig arrives at the Yankee Studium to bid farewell to his fans, Holt steps out of the crowd to reveal himself as the teenage version of a crippled child Gehrig once hit a home run for. Other films included The Human Comedy (1943) and Battleground (1949).

Holt had a later career as a jazz musician and songwriter. One of his compositions, "The Christmas Blues" (lyrics by Sammy Cahn) was featured on the soundtrack of the thriller L.A. Confidential (1997). His younger sister Betty had a brief career as a child actress in the mid-Thirties, and his younger brother Ricky played the infant son of Melanie (Olivia DeHavilland) in Gone with the Wind (1939).

Tom Vallance