Growing Up on Screen

February 18, 2021
Growing Up On Screen

Many performers who succeeded in the movies as children unfortunately failed to make the transition into adult careers, while a relative few flourished and matured into stars. With Growing Up On Screen, TCM takes a look at 10 talented youngsters who grew up onscreen and continued to have important careers as adults. Our Spotlight will feature interviews with such former child stars as Jodie Foster, Todd Bridges, Mara Wilson and Alex Winter; Judy Garland historian and author John Fricke; daughter of Natalie Wood, Natasha Gregson-Wagner, along with her husband and former child star and actor Barry Watson.

This TCM Spotlight is shown in connection with the HBO Max original documentary Showbiz Kids (2020), written and directed by former child star Alex Winter. Winter grew up to star in such successful films as the Bill and Ted series and The Lost Boys (1987). He continued his career by writing and directing documentaries and fictional films, including Freaked (1993) and Fever (1999).

Here are the performers and films in our Spotlight: 

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, those twin founts of youth and energy in movies of the 1930s and ’40s, were both in show business from a tender age and made their screen debuts in shorts before being signed by MGM as teenagers. Their first film together was Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937), released when Garland was 15 and Rooney 17. He plays a brash jockey and she is a perky would-be actress who helps him win a race. This was the first of 10 films in which both appear.

Garland’s years as MGM’s top female musical-comedy star are represented by Easter Parade (1948), in which she is cast opposite Fred Astaire. Garland is at the height of her mature powers in her bravura Warner Bros. vehicle A Star Is Born (1954), for which she earned a Best Actress Academy nomination. In her later years, Garland made a few more films and immortalized herself on the concert stage with an audience that had remained faithful since her Wizard of Oz (1939) days.

Rooney became an MGM superstar playing Andy Hardy in a series of beloved films beginning with A Family Affair (1937). Garland would appear with him in three of these movies, which left audiences feeling they had watched Andy/Mickey come of age onscreen. The Human Comedy (1943), the screen version of a William Saroyan novel, finds Rooney in his early 20s but convincingly cast as a teenager. With Quicksand (1950), a film noir in which Rooney plays a garage mechanic who turns to crime, he extends his dramatic range by abandoning his “nice guy” image.

The Andy Hardy films covered a span of 21 years, concluding with Andy Hardy Comes Home (1958). This, the 16th entry in the series, was shot 12 years after the previous Hardy movie and found our hero as a successful lawyer in his late 30s with a young son played by Rooney’s own son, Teddy. The Black Stallion (1979) has Rooney in his late 50s and in character-actor mode as a trainer who coaches a boy and his spirited steed as they compete in a race. For his performance in this film, reminiscent of an earlier Rooney role in National Velvet (1944), he was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actor.

Dean Stockwell came from a family of entertainers – a  singer-actor father who provided the voice of Prince Charming in Disney’s 1937 Snow White; a stepmother who performed in burlesque; and an older brother, Guy Stockwell, who was a TV and film actor.

Little Dean made his Broadway debut at the tender age of seven in the play Innocent Voyage. This led to a contract with MGM, and by the age of nine he was appearing in the Frank Sinatra/Gene Kelly musical Anchors Aweigh (1945), in which he plays the nephew of leading lady Kathryn Grayson. In MGM’s The Green Years (1946), the story of an Irish orphan who comes of age in Scotland, Stockwell plays the lead character as a child, before he grows up to become Tom Drake.

An important role for the young Stockwell at MGM was Kim (1950), a film version of the Kipling story. He plays the title role of an orphan boy in 1885 India, with Errol Flynn starring as the horse trader/secret agent who befriends him. Stockwell’s impressive performances as a young adult include those in Compulsion (1959), Sons and Lovers (1960­) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962). The TCM tribute skips ahead to Stockwell as the star of a fright film from producer Roger Corman, The Dunwich Horror (1970). In this one, Stockwell plays a wizard’s descendant who tries to summon alien demons to earth!

A studio casting director once famously said of a young Elizabeth Taylor that her eyes were “too old” for her to become a successful child actress. Elizabeth and her stage mother persevered, and she was signed by another studio (MGM) when she was 11. Taylor had a minor breakthrough in a small role in Lassie Come Home (1943). This film starred the beloved collie along with Taylor’s lifelong friend Roddy McDowall, another child star who grew up on film.

Taylor’s star-making vehicle came when she was 12 and, through her own grit and determination, won the part of the young heroine in National Velvet (1944). In this film version of the Enid Bagnold story, she enjoyed a personal triumph as the girl who disguises herself as a boy to win England’s Grand National.

Within a few years, Taylor had established herself as MGM’s most glamorous ingenue in such films as Father of the Bride (1950), as the adored daughter whose wedding proves stressful for dad Spencer Tracy. A few years after that she was scoring Oscar nominations for such sizzling roles as Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). By this time, Taylor was generally considered to be the most beautiful woman in film. Gaining weight and wearing makeup to look much older, she moved into character actress territory in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). This was one of two films for which she won an Oscar.

Roddy McDowall began his career as a child model in his native England before starring in more than 15 British films during the late1930s after he won an acting prize in a school play. His family moved to the U.S. during the onset of WWII, where he remained as citizen for the rest of his life. McDowall signed a contract with 20th Century-Fox kicking off an astounding that began with Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941) followed by John Ford’s Oscar-winning drama How Green Was My Valley (1941).

After his success as a child star, McDowall turned to the stage and television before developed into an interesting character actor in his adult years. In addition to Lassie Come Home, he is represented in the TCM Spotlight by The Steel Fist (1952) and a humorous turn as a rock hitmaker in The Cool Ones (1967).

It was evident from an early age that Jodie Foster was an exceptional performer. She made her professional debut as a model at age three, and after acting in many TV shows made her feature debut at age 10 in a leading role of the Disney film Napoleon and Samantha (1972). Foster had a banner year in 1976 when her striking performances included those in Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, a musical in which all the adult roles are played by children and she is a vamp named Tallulah, and in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in which she plays a child prostitute.

The following year, Foster starred in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1977), a mystery-thriller about a 13-year-old forced to deal with some very adult issues. In Foxes (1980) she plays a California teenager coming of age during the decadence of the 1970s.

Foster has enjoyed a rich career as an adult, winning two Best Actress Oscars (for The Accused, 1988, and The Silence of the Lambs, 1991) while also distinguishing herself as a director in film and television.

For generations of moviegoers during the years following World War II, Natalie Wood was an emblematic presence – everybody’s friend, daughter or sister and, later, girlfriend or wife. Wood was acting in films by the age of four, beginning with uncredited bits. She was receiving costar billing by eight in the RKO film The Green Promise (1949). The first of Wood’s archetypal roles was as Maureen O’Hara’s cynical little girl who doubts Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). As she matured onscreen, Wood played daughter to such other superstars as Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, Margaret Sullavan, Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell.

Along with costar James Dean, Wood personified teenage angst in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955). That performance brought her an Oscar nomination, as did her portraits of conflicted young adults in Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). Wood had a dazzling role in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) as a 15-year-old tomboy who blossoms as a star of Hollywood musicals but battles inner demons. She had earlier played coveted musical roles in West Side Story (1961) and Gypsy (1962).

Later in her career, Wood had a substantial hit in Bob &Carol &Ted & Alice (1969), a comedy about two couples exploring the social and sexual freedoms of the 1960s. Representing Wood’s mature period in the TCM Spotlight are a cameo as herself in Robert Redford’s The Candidate (1972) and her final role in the sci-fi thriller Brainstorm (1983).

The latter film was still in production when Wood drowned in a tragic boating incident in Santa Catalina, CA, in 1981 at the age of 43. Because of the personal bond she had formed with her audiences, many fans mourned as if they had lost a personal friend. In his eulogy for Wood, fellow former child star Roddy McDowall said, “It is downright joyous to think that one pretty individual accomplished so much beauty in so few decades. She found not only a way to put life into her art but art into her life. She has given us a slice of life and eternity.”

Other performers in this TCM Spotlight who began as youngsters and matured through their movies are Kurt Russell (Guns of Diablo, 1964; Fools’ Parade, 1971; Overboard, 1987),  Patty McCormack (The Bad Seed, 1956; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1960; The Young Runaways, 1968) and Jackie Cooper (Treasure Island, 1934; Gallant Sons, 1940).

By Roger Fristoe

Featured Films

3/2 - Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney

Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937)
Easter Parade (1948)
A Star is Born (1954)
A Family Affair (1937)
The Human Comedy (1943)
Quicksand (1950)
Andy Hardy Comes Home (1958)
The Black Stallion (1979)

3/9 - Dean Stockwell & Kurt Russell

Anchors Aweigh (1945)
The Green Years (1946)
Kim (1950)
The Dunwich Horror (1970)
Guns of Diablo (1964)
Fools' Parade (1971)
Overboard (1987)

3/16 - Elizabeth Taylor & Roddy McDowall

National Velvet (1944)
Father of the Bride (1950)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Lassie Come Home (1943)
The Steel Fist (1952)
The Cool Ones (1967)

3/23 - Jodie Foster & Patty McCormack

Bugsy Malone (1976)
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1977)
Foxes (1980)
The Bad Seed (1956)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960)
The Young Runaways (1968)

3/30 - Natalie Wood & Jackie Cooper

The Green Promise (1949)
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Inside Daisy Clover (1965)
The Candidate (1972)
Brainstorm (1983)
Treasure Island (1934)
Gallant Sons (1940)