I attended New York’s Junior High School 109 from the ages of 12 through 14 so it’s fitting that for my 109th Oscar profile I focus on Oscar winners in that age group.
Jackie Cooper was 8 years old in 1931 when he became the first child actor nominated for a competitive Oscar for his performance in Skippy. Three years later the Academy established an award for performers under the age of 18 called the Juvenile Award. It would be given periodically through the 1960 awards year. It didn’t preclude child performances from being nominated for regular awards, but such nominations were rare during this period with only 14 year-old Bonita Granville and 11 year-old Brandon de Wilde receiving them 17 years apart for 1936’s These Three and 1953’s Shane.
Two years after the last Juvenile Award, two child performances, those of 9 year-old Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird and 14 year-old Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker were nominated for Best Supporting Actress, with Duke winning. Since then several child performances have been singled out with nominations.
The Juvenile Award was fittingly first presented to Shirley Temple, the 6 year-old wunderkind who first appeared on screen two years earlier. In 1934 alone, Temple appeared in twelve films including Little Miss Marker; Baby Take a Bow and Bright Eyes and had replaced the late Marie Dressler as the No. 1 Box-office Star. Temple remained a box office fixture through most of her childhood, but attempts to extend her popularity into adulthood were unsuccessful. Although she still makes popular appearances, the now 84 year-old legend hasn’t been seen on screen since 1949.
Four years later the Academy gave out two Juvenile Awards. One was to 18 year-old Mickey Rooney, largely on the basis of his performances in Boys Town opposite the year’s Best Actor winner, Spencer Tracy, and the popular Andy Hardy series in which he starred. The now 92 year-old show business legend shows no signs of slowing down with several films in pre and post-production.
The other was to 17 year-old singing sensation Deanna Durbin, whose light musical comedies literally saved Universal from bankruptcy. Her first two films, 1936’s Three Smart Girls and 1937’s 100 Hundred Men and a Girl, were both nominated for Best Picture, but they were mere warm-ups for what were Durbin’s truly remarkable performances in 1938’s Mad About Music and That Certain Age. Durbin would appear in hit after hit over the next ten years, but when her Universal contract expired in 1948, she moved to France with her third husband and hasn’t set foot in Hollywood since. She’ll be 91 in December.
17 year-old Judy Garland received the Juvenile Award for her performances in two 1939 films, Babes in Arms, as well as the classic The Wizard of Oz. I was the only Oscar the screen legend who died in 1969 at 42 would receive.
One of the most naturalistic actresses of her time, Peggy Ann Garner made her screen debut at 6. By 12, she had become a full-fledged star. Her three films of 1945, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; Nob Hill and Junior Miss earned her that year’s Juvenile Award. Garner’s roles in film and TV grew increasingly smaller as she aged. She made her last appearance in a TV movie four years before she died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 52.
Claude Jarman, Jr. was discovered in a nationwide search for the coveted role of Jody Baxter in 1946’s The Yearling for which he received that year’s Juvenile Award. In demand after that, Jarman gave memorable performances in such subsequent films as The Sun Comes Up and Rio Grande. An active participant in San Francisco Bay Area society, his 75th birthday in 2009 was celebrated by both former Republican Secretary of State George Schultz and then Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
One of the most tragic recipients of the Juvenile Award was Ivan Jandl, the celebrated Czech child actor who all but stole Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 film The Search. A victim of polio as a child, he was later a victim of the Communist state which refused to allow him any further participation in American films despite offers that came pouring in from Hollywood. Denied entry into the Prague Academy of Performing Arts because he had accepted his Oscar years earlier, he spent most of his life drifting from career to career and died of diabetes in 1987 at the age of 50.
Perhaps even more tragic was the life of 1949 Juvenile Award winner, Bobby Driscoll who began his screen career at the age of 5. He received his award on the strength of his performances in So Dear to My Heart and The Window. Dropped by Disney after voicing the title role in 1953’s Peter Pan his appearances became fewer and fewer. Married in 1956, he was divorced by his wife and mother of his three children in 1960 after which he spent time in jail for drug addiction. Sinking lower and lower, he died in an abandoned tenement in New York City in 1968 at the age of 31 and is buried in a pauper’s grave without a marker on New York’s Hart Island.
Jon Whitely and Vincent Winter, 10 and 5, respectively, when they received their awards, were the only Juvenile Award winners to be honored for a non-Hollywood production, the UK classic, The Little Kidnappers. Whitely, now 67, has not acted since childhood. He is a noted historian at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Winter, who became a successful Hollywood producer, died in 1998 at the age of 50.
The daughter of legendary British actor John Mills, Hayley Mills burst onto American screens as the star of Disney’s 1960 hit, Pollyanna, for which she received her Juvenile Award. Next in an even bigger hit, 1961’s The Parent Trap, she had a hugely successful career as a child and later teenage actress in the 1960s. Later a musical comedy star and voice artists, she is still active at the age of 66.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), directed by Vincent Minnelli
Whether singing a feisty “Mother I Was Drunk Last Night” or knocking off the head of a snowman, seven year-old Margaret O’Brien stole every scene she was in in Minnelli’s still captivating family classic.
O’Brien’s Oscar was stolen by a maid in 1954 a few days before her mother’s death. By the time seventeen year-old O’Brien hired detectives to find the woman, she had moved leaving no traces behind. Although the Academy replaced the missing Oscar, O’Brien never gave up hope of finding the original which resurfaced forty years later at an auction in 1994.
A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945), directed by Elia Kazan
Peggy Ann Garner’s heartfelt portrayal of twelve year-old Francie was good enough to have won a competitive Oscar, but the non-competitive Juvenile Award assured she would be honored no matter what. She’s also quite good in her other 1945 films, Nob Hill and Junior Miss.
Garner slept with the Oscar the night she won. By the time of her death in 1984, the Oscar had disappeared and has never been found.
THE YEARLING (1946), directed by Clarence Brown
Despite the star power of Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman, both of whom received Oscar nominations for their performances, the performance best remembered in the film is that of 11 year-old Claude Jarman, Jr., a non-professional who captivated audiences world-wide with his sensitive portrayal of the farmer’s son. Equally memorable roles in The Sun Comes Up opposite Jeanette Macdonald and Lassie and Rio Grande opposite John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara proved he was no one-trick pony.
THE SEARCH (1948), directed by Fred Zinnemann
Montgomery Clift’s second film, but the first released, made him an overnight star as the young G.I. who helps a lost boy find his missing mother in Post-War Berlin. Equally impressive was 11 year-old discovery Ivan Jandl whose future looked bright. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. The Communist government of his native Czechoslovakia, wary of the attention he received for his performance, refused to allow him to leave the country to act in any further non-Czech films. They also refused him entry in the prestigious Prague Academy of Performing Arts for having accepted his Oscar which was presented to him in Prague as he was unable to attend the ceremony. His unhappy life ended at the age of 50 when he died alone in his apartment from complications from diabetes.
THE WINDOW (1949), directed by Ted Tetzlaff
Bobby Driscoll stole nearly every film he was in. He didn’t have to steal this one, it was built around him as the 9 year-old boy who witnesses a murder who no one would believe.
Bobby Driscoll’s last film was the 1965 short Dirt from the Andy Warhol Factory. Three years later he would be found dead in an NYC tenement and buried as a pauper.
OSCAR’S JUVENILE AWARD WINNERS
- Shirley Temple (1934) – age 6 at time of award
- Deanna Durbin (1938) – age 17 at time of award
- Mickey Rooney (1938) – age 18 at time of award
- Judy Garland (1939) – age 17 at time of award
- Margaret O’Brien (1944) – age 8 at time of award
- Peggy Ann Garner (1945) – age 14 at time of award
- Claude Jarman, Jr. (1946) – age 12 at time of award
- Ivan Jandl (1948) – age 12 at time of award
- Bobby Driscoll (1949) – age 13 at time of award
- Jon Whitely (1954) – age 10 at time of award
- Vincent Winter (1954) – age 7 at time of award
- Hayley Mills (1960) – age 14 at time of award