Edith Fellows: Child star who was forced in court to choose between her mother and grandmother

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The Independent Online

Edith Fellows was one of the most talented of the child stars of the 1930s, and had major roles in many films, including Pennies from Heaven (1936) with Bing Crosby, before going on to roles in theatre and television.

Offscreen there was drama too, when the mother who had abandoned her as a baby reappeared to try to wrest custody of the young star from the paternal grandmother who had raised her. Edith was forced in court to choose which relative to go with and, though not fond of her fiercely ambitious grandmother, she elected to stay with "the devil she knew", though she was later to suffer from a nervous breakdown and the loss of the fortune she earned.

Born Edith Marilyn Fellows in Boston in 1923, she was taken by her grandmother to live in South Carolina. When a doctor recommended dance classes to cure the child's pigeon toes, her grandmother, who had herself wanted a showbusiness career, enrolled her at the Henderson School of Dance. Fellows told the historian Michael Barnum, "When I did a show put on by the kids at the school, a talent scout told my grandmother that he knew people at Hal Roach Studios and he'd be glad to open a few doors for us. He said he'd help us for 50 dollars, showed us his card, and told us to look him up in California and he'd arrange some interviews."

After raising money for the trip from a collection at the school, the couple set out for Los Angeles. "Of course there was no such address or name as the 'scout' had given. My poor grandmother had been had, but she was too proud to go home, so she did housework to make ends meet."

Fellows was sometimes left in the care of a neighbour, whose small son did extra work in movies. "One day the boy got a call for an interview with Hal Roach and his mother had to take me along. The boy got the part, but before filming began he got the measles and the studio said to send the boy's 'sister' as a replacement."

The film was Movie Night (1929), a comedy short. "I'd never been in front of a camera before, and when I saw the film several years later I was stunned that I reacted to the camera the way I did. Then I realised it was a silent film, so the director was able to guide me with his voice."

Fellows did extra work in several films, playing uncredited roles as an orphan in Daddy Long Legs and a schoolgirl in Huckleberry Finn (both 1931) and had parts in three of Roach's "Our Gang" comedies. In 1932 she appeared in the Marie Dressler vehicle, Emma, and a Tom Mix Western, The Rider of Death Valley.

Fellows had a small role in The Devil's Brother (1933) starring Laurel and Hardy, but she was impressive as Rochester's precocious ward Adele in Jane Eyre (1934). In Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934), with WC Fields, she was one of five children pluckily surviving poverty. She can also be spotted in the spectacular Technicolor ice-cream finale created by Busby Berkeley for the Eddie Cantor musical Kid Millions (1934).

She played a brat in She Married Her Boss (1935), trying to break up the romance between her divorced father (Melvyn Douglas) and career woman Claudette Colbert. "Colbert was darling, just the sweetest lady, and I would always apologise for being so nasty to her when the scene was over." She was a feisty orphan in Pennies from Heaven, in which the Oscar-nominated title song was sung to her by Crosby and was praised by the New York Times for "skirting the perils of bathos in her tender scenes and playing her rebellious ones with comic impertinence." She was rooming at the time with the former child vaudevillian Nanette Fabray, who later recalled that Crosby visited Fellows when she was sick with influenza, and later took the girls out for "a fancy dinner".

Columbia now gave her a seven-year contract, and her mother reappeared to sue for custody, a case driven, said Fellows later, by "my money, past,present and future." In court, she testified: "I might be willing to be friends with her if she'd left me alone, but I'm not used to loving strangers." Her mother testified: "I saw her in a picture once, but I didn't know she was my daughter." Years later, Fellows confessed that she had had mixed feelings in making her choice, since her grandmother was fiercely domineering and had "forced her" into show business. The court case resulted in her earnings being put into a trust fund, but when she tried to collect the money in 1944, there was only $900 in the account. Though the money was never traced, Fellows blamed her mother.

Fellows received top billing in Little Miss Roughneck (1938), playing a would-be child star with an obnoxious stage mother, and she also starred in The Little Adventuress (1938). The following year Columbia gave her a series of her own and she played Polly Pepper in four films. In Music in My Heart (1940) she was sister to Rita Hayworth, but her finest opportunity to display her vocal prowess was in Her First Romance (1940), in which she sang two duets with the baritone Wilbur Evans, including "La ci darem la mano" from Don Giovanni. In 1941 the studio decided not to renew her contract, and her last films for Columbia were two Westerns starring Gene Autry.

Fellows then moved to New York, where she toured vaudeville houses as a "special attraction". "As a coloratura soprano, I was able to earn a living as a singer for a while, and I toured in the hit play Janie, during the war. Then I did a musical on Broadway, Marinka – the Mayerling Story, but with a happy ending, and I did a lot of summer stock in such operettas as The Student Prince, Naughty Marietta and Rosalie."

In 1946 Fellows, who had earlier had a relationship with Bobby Jordan, one of the original "Dead End Kids", married the talent agent Freddie Fields, and they had a daughter. In 1949 she co-starred in the television series The Benny Rubin Show, and her television shows included Babes in Toyland (1950) and The Good Companions (1952).

After her marriage ended in 1955 she suffered a nervous breakdown during a live performance, caused, according to a psychiatrist, by "incurable stage fright", and he prescribed Librium, on which she became dependent. A second brief marriage ended when her husband tried to force her back into performing, and later she worked as an answer-phone operator while battling addiction to drugs and alcohol.

She finally returned to acting in 1979, starring in Los Angeles in a play based on her life, then took supporting roles on television, notably that of dress designer Edith Head in the television movie The Grace Kelly Story (1983). Fellows also appeared in such TV shows as Cagney and Lacey and ER. She retired in 1995, and in 2003 moved into the Motion Picture Country Home.

Edith Marilyn Fellows, actress and singer: born Boston, Massachusetts 20 May 1923; married 1942 Freddie Fields (divorced 1955; one daughter), secondly (marriage dissolved); died Los Angeles 26 June 2011.