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Friday, 14 October 2011

Freddie Bartholomew - Ugly Scenes Behind The Scene

Freddie Bartholomew, one of the greatest child stars of all time 
and second only to Shirley Temple in the Hollywood high-earners list.

Freddie Bartholomew was born in 1924 in Middlesex, England. Freddie's talents were instantly obvious to those around him. In 1930 he made his film debut in Toyland, aged six. The next year Freddie had bit parts in Fascination and Strip Strip Hooray and then scored a feature role in 1932 with Lily Christine.

Freddie's otherwise occupied parents soon tired of the novelty of their precocious child and were only too happy to palm Freddie off to his aunt Millicent, who ferried him to the set everyday and gave him the support he needed.

At the same time, in Hollywood, movie moguls and producers David O Selznick and George Cukor, were busy planning their next big budget film, David Copperfield. A local young actor, Florida born David Jack Holt, had been chosen for the role and the youngster was studiously learning a British accent.

To also ready themselves for the production, O Selznick and Cukor decided they needed a dose of  British culture, so the producer and director sailed to London to get a feel for the landscapes, sets and local atmosphere. It was then they saw Freddie Bartholomew and decided they had to sign him to the role.

Freddie with W.C. Fields in David Copperfield in 1934

After some difficult negotiations with local authorities and a murky episode involving the local child labour laws, Freddie and his Aunt Millicent boarded a liner for the United States. At the wharf Aunt Millicent waved goodbye clutching a proof of guardianship and a power of attorney certificate Freddie's parents were only too happy to sign.

On the David Copperfield set, young Freddie astounded the production crew and he sent the Hollywood gossip machine into overdrive with his performance. The movie cost a massive $1 million to make and took $2.8 million in a record breaking 86 week run. It also made Freddie a huge star. He was paid $100 a week for his trouble.

Freddie as Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1936
Freddie's upper-class British accent, angelic face, gentle trusting manner and china-doll fragility
was perfect for his role in Little Lord Fauntelroy.

Freddie's successful Hollywood screen debut in David Copperfield had studio executives clamouring to bounce little Freddie on their laps and offer him roles. MGM were desperate to sign Freddie so they offered him the lead role in Oliver Twist. Once again with the critics raving about the newcomer, MGM touted Freddie as a young male Shirley Temple and backed it up with a new long-term contract, casting  him to play young Cedric in Little Lord Fauntelroy.

Soon Freddie was bringing home a salary to his Aunt Millicent of over $1,000 a week! [33 times more than average wages at the time]

In Little Lord Fauntelroy, Freddie role as Cedric, heir to a British Lord, was unforgettable. He plays opposite his screen-pal Mickey Rooney, a 15 year old bootblack in the Bronx, whom Freddie must leave behind to claim his peerage in England.

Despite the many film adaptions of Little Lord Fauntelroy, in hindsight, no-one can match Freddie Bartholomew's mastery to pull at our heart-strings. His expression of vulnerability and the innocence of his performance had audiences desperately involved in his fate.

When he arrived in Hollywood, Freddie had the dubious honour of eclipsing previous child-star Jackie Coogan, who was entering adolescence and outgrowing his parts. Although Jackie was gaining some extra bits, he was fast losing his popularity as America's favourite son.

Freddie snuggles up to Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina in 1935

Freddie's sudden fortune did not go unnoticed back in Britain. Soon Freddie's mother suddenly realised she loved the little superstar and showed up in Hollywood to wrench guardianship away from Aunt Millicent. Not to be left out Freddie's estranged father and grandfather soon followed with their own claims of undying affection.

Freddie spent the next three years in court testifying in 27 seperate lawsuits filed by his family members against each other, as to who owned his pay packets. Freddie finally had to give 20% of his earnings to his family but there was little left. After his mother and father left to sail back to Britain, Freddie had only $1,400 in the bank. His defence lawyers got the lot.

Movie poster for Captains Courageous circa 1937. Notice how Mickey Rooney has equal billing with Spencer Tracy and Freddie does not get a mention.

Spoilt rich-kid Harvey Cheyne falls overboard from an ocean liner and nearly drowns but for Portuguese fisherman Manuel Fidello. Manuel [Spencer Tracy] calls his unusual catch "my little fish" and young Harvey is forced to drop his "airs" and grow to survive his ordeal on the boat.

Freddie and Spencer Tracy in 1937

Totally shattered, young Freddie bounced back to give the performance of his life opposite Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous. Appearing in almost every scene, most of it soaking wet and cold, Freddie amazed all around him with his resolute attitude and absolute professionalism, holding his own against a screen legend like Tracy.

One can only imagine the pressure on a 13 year old, being dragged through the courts by his parents, and then having to front the cameras everyday with the weight of expectant, critical movie audiences on your shoulders. Do yourself a favour, get this movie out and watch it, now knowing what was going on in Freddie's personal life.

Freddie Bartholomew went on to make Anna Karenina with Greta Garbo [1935] and Professional Soldier [1935], Lloyds of London with Tyrone Power [1936], Captains Courageous [1937], Robert Louis Stevenson's adaption of Kidnapped [1938] and then Lord Jeff with Mickey Rooney [1938].

A strong male role model may have been just what Freddie needed at a time when his own parents lacked any moral conviction or commitment. Certainly this iconic image with Spencer Tracy is life imitating art.

Lord Jeff 1938

In Lord Jeff, spoilt child Geoffrey Bramer [Freddie] teams up with a pair of small time crooks to pose as an aristocrat and steal jewelry from exclusive shops. During a caper, Geoffrey is caught and is sentenced to a reformatory where young men are trained to be sailors. He is befriended by model in-mate Terry O'Mulvaney [Mickey Rooney] but soon starts to get them both in trouble.

As he grew Freddie managed his transition into his teenage years better than most child stars. He continues to co-star with Hollywood's A-List . In 1938, a 14 year old Freddie played Buzz in Little Darling opposite 16 year old Judy Garland.

But with the advent of young manhood, his dimpled, angelic good looks began to fade. After a stint in the Air Force in World War II, his film career was all but finished. In 1954, he went to work for an advertising agency as a television producer and director, and remarked at the time that the millions he had earned as a child had been spent mostly on lawsuits, many of which involved headline court battles between his parents and his aunt for custody of young Freddie and his money.

"I was drained dry," he said.

Freddie Bartholomew died in Florida in 1992 at the age of 67.

Freddie Bartholomew

The famous child star of his generation and one of the best juvenile actors in the history of Hollywood.

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