Oscar Profile #439: Bonita Granville

Born February 2, 1923 in New York, New York, Bonita Granville was the daughter of stage performers Rosina (née Timponi) and Bernard “Bunny” Granville. Unsurprisingly, she became a child actress at 9, and made her film debut at 10.

Granville’s second credited screen role was as Fanny Bridges, the young dancer daughter of Una O’Connor and Herbert Mundin in the 1933 Oscar winner, Cavalcade. She later had uncredited roles in 1933’s Little Women and 1934’s Anne of Green Gables. She supported Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore in 1935’s Ah, Wilderness. Her breakthrough role was as the brat in 1936’s These Three, William Wyler’s first film version of The Children’s Hour, which he remade under the Lillian Hellman play’s original title in 1961. The role earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the first year in which the category was recognized. She also appeared uncredited that year in The Garden of Allah starring Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer.

In 1937, she co-starred in Maid of Salem with fellow 1936 Supporting Actress Oscar nominees Beulah Bondi and winner Gale Sondergaard in support of Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. In 1938, she co-starred in White Banners for which Fay Bainter received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and Merrily We Live for which Billie Burke received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, playing her mother. Later that year, she starred in Nancy Drew – Detective, the first of four films based on Nancy Drew novels. Nancy Drew – Reporter, Nancy Drew – Troubleshooter and Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase would follow in 1939. In 1940, she co-starred with Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm, and Norma Shearer and Robert Taylor in Mervyn LeRoy’s Escape, both set in Nazi Germany.

As a young adult, Granville was cast in supporting roles in prestige films such as 1942’s The Glass Key and Now, Voyager. In 1943, she starred opposite Tim Holt in yet another film set in Nazi Germany, the lurid exposé of Hitler Youth in Hitler’s Children. She later co-starred in a couple of Andy Hardy films, 1944’s Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble and 1946’s Love Laughs at Andy Hardy. In 1947, she married millionaire oilman and film producer, Jack Wrather, and adopted his two children from a previous marriage. She later gave birth to two children of her own with Wrather.

Wrather owned the film rights to both The Lone Ranger and Lassie. The lucrative Lassie TV series ran from 1954-1973, with Granville becoming associate producer in 1959 and producer in 1971. She also had roles in thirteen episodes from 1960 through 1972. In 1978, she produced the theatrical film, The Magic of Lassie, starring James Stewart, Mickey Rooney and Alice Faye. In 1981, she played her last role on screen in a bit part in the theatrical film, The Legend of the Lone Ranger.

Wrather died in 1984. Bonita Granville died of lung cancer four years later, on October 11, 1988. She was 65.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THESE THREE (1936), directed by William Wellman

Granville became one of the first nominees for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar with her portrayal of the troublemaking brat in this version of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour in which the whispering was not about the alleged lesbianism of the two female teachers at a girl’s school, but about one of the women and the young doctor one of them is alleged have spent the night with in her room. It’s brilliantly acted by Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea in the leads with strong support from Granville, Maria Mae Jones as the other liar and Alma Kruger as Granville’s influential grandmother.

MERRILY WE LIVE (1938), directed by Norman Z. McLeod

An uncredited remake of the 1930 film, What a Man, this film was made to capitalize on both 1936’s My Man Godfrey about a butler (William Powell) who is not what he seems and 1937’s Topper from director McLeod, in which co-stars Constance Bennett, Billie Burke and Alan Mowbray are culled. Brian Aherne has the equivalent of Powell’s role, albeit as a chauffeur instead of a butler, with Burke and Clarence Kolb as the wacky parents of Bennett, Granville and Tom Brown. Granville is cute as a button, but it was Burke who received the Oscar nomination this time.

NANCY DREW – DETECTIVE (1938), directed by William Clemens

Everything old is new again. Nancy Drew, the teenage amateur detective, first appeared in novels beginning in 1930. Ghostwritten by various house authors for Edward Stratemeyer’s publishing company, the last one was published in 2003. This was the first of four Nancy Drew films made in 1938 and 1939 showcasing Granville’s talents. Frankie Thomas as her boyfriend and John Litel as her lawyer father, co-starred. The fourth in the series, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, was remade in 2019. In the interim, the character has appeared in two TV series and numerous TV and theatrical films.

NOW, VOYAGER (1942), directed by Irving Rapper

This classic tearjerker from the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of Stella Dallas, contains one of Bette Davis’ greatest performances as the frumpy spinster who blossoms with the help of psychiatrist Claude Rains, becoming an elegant, independent woman who falls in love with married man Paul Henreid. Davis and Gladys Cooper as her domineering mother were nominated for Oscars, but there are fine performances as well from Rains, Henreid, Ilka Chase as Davis’ caring sister-in-law, Granville as Chase’s outspoken daughter and Mary Wickes as the nurse who tends to the bedridden Cooper.

HITLER’S CHILDREN (1943), directed by Edward Dmytryk

A genuine shocker in its day, this was one of the biggest box-office hits of its year. Granville stars as a German-American girl who is kidnapped by the Nazis, declared German and threatened with sterilization if she doesn’t co-habit with German youth Tim Holt in order to produce more “racially pure” children for Der Fuhrer. This was not science-fiction, but an actual Nazi program that was carried out between German officers and captured women during the war. Granville and Holt are supported by some of Hollywood’s best character actors including Kent Smith, H.B. Warner, Otto Kruger and Hans Conried.

BONITA GRAVILLE AND OSCAR

  • These Three (1936) – nominated – Best Supporting Actress

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