Saturday, May 25, 2013

Beloved Brat - Bonita Granville

Bonita Granville was one of Hollywood's finest and most versatile child actors. On the big screen she perfected a characterization of a malicious child that had not been portrayed previously. Bonita Granville was uniquely Bonita Granville....a "beloved brat". No other actress was quite able to rival her in these roles. Virginia Weidler was a contemporary and was often given mischievous juvenile parts but unlike Bonita she was perceived as a child. Naughty, and perhaps conniving, but nevertheless a child, whereas Bonita had a maturity about her that made her viciousness particularly fearful. She was the original "bad seed". It was not until the late 1950s that child actors like Patty McCormick and Martin Stephens ( "Village of the Damned" ) perfected these kinds of portrayals again. 

Bonita Granville was born on February 2, 1923 in Long Island, New York and came from a family rich in entertainment lineage. Her mother was Rosa Timponti, an actress, whose parents included a ballerina for the Ballet Russes in Monaco, and a conductor of the famed La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy. Bonita's father, Bernard Granville, was a vaudeville actor who had appeared with the Ziegfeld Follies on the New York stage. 

The Granvilles lost much of their fortune during the Great Depression and, due to an illness Bonita had contracted, decided to head out West to California, the land of promise and sunshine cures. Bonita quickly recovered and a casting director spotted the sprightly little blonde in a hotel lobby one day and decided she belonged in the "talking pictures". 



Her first role was in 'Westward Passage" ( 1932 ) at the age of tender age of nine. She played Little Olivia Allen opposite such big names as Ann Harding and a young Laurence Olivier. Other bit parts quickly followed in movies such as "Little Women", "Anne of Green Gables", and a small role in Noel Coward's "Cavalcade" ( 1933 ) which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture that year. It was in 1936 that Bonita performed in the movie that would really bring her to stardom - "These Three". Based on Lillian Hellmann's play, The Children's Hour, it told the story of two teachers whose lives are wrecked by the lies of one of their students. Bonita Granville played this student and was so utterly spiteful and malicious that she stole every scene she was in away from Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon. Her performance did not go unnoticed and she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress ( not a "miniature" one either ). She lost to Gale Sondergaard for "Anthony Adverse" but her career was well boosted by the publicity and parts came pouring in. 

Unfortunately, many of these parts were once again roles calling for a particularly hateful child. In 1937's "Maid of Salem" she portrays a little girl who spreads accusations that Claudette Colbert is a witch who deserves to be burned. That same year she had minor roles in "The Plough and the Stars", "Quality Street", "My Bill", as well as the title role in "Beloved Brat". How well that title suited her! This film told the story of an unruly girl whose father sends her away to a private school where she reforms under the loving care of the principal ( played by the beautiful Dolores Costello ). 

As is often the case in Hollywood, many of the actors who portray the vilest villains onscreen are the sweetest characters in real life, and so was the case with Bonita Granville. She was called "Bunny" by her friends, which included Marcia Mae Jones, Helen Parrish and Deanna Durbin, and enjoyed horseback riding, dress designing, and collecting ivory elephant figurines. She spoke fluent French and Italian and was raised a devout Catholic, attending church regularly.

One of her first boyfriends was Jackie Cooper, another child star, whom she got to work with in "Syncopation"( 1940 ), a very un-syncopated story of two jazz-obsessed youths. 



In 1938, Warner Brothers cast her as the spunky Nancy Drew in the first of a series of four films featuring Carolyn Keene's beloved girl sleuth. Although the stories didn't bear much resemblance to the books they were a hit at the box-office and are today still a sheer delight to watch. Nancy Drew has remained her most fondly remembered role. Several other parts in mystery films developed because of the Drew series, including "Gallant Sons" ( with Jackie Cooper again ), a story of several boys who solve a murder, and "Down in San Diego" ( 1941 ) about a group of teenagers who foil an enemy spy ring. 



In 1940 she starred in two charming films that look back with nostalgia on America at the turn-of-the-century..."Wild Man from Borneo" ( with Frank Morgan ) and "Those Were the Days!" ( 1940 ) featuring William Holden in one of his first major roles. 



Bonita was finally getting roles for characters that let her exercise her range as an actress. "Seven Miles from Alcatraz" ( 1943 ) featured Bonita as the daughter of a lighthouse keeper
who aids two convicts in hiding from the authorities. Since one of the convicts happens to be handsome James Craig ( sigh ), romance naturally ensues between them. 



That same year Bonita starred in the film she claimed was her favorite, "Hitler's Children". This was a violent pot-boiler about the horrors young women had to face in the Vaterland for refusing sterilization for childbirth. It slipped by the censorship office under it's disguise of educational patriotic fare and became RKO's top box-office champion of the year, grossing over three million dollars. Tim Holt, Kent Smith and Otto Kruger also starred in this sensational expose. 

As with most juvenile leading ladies at MGM, Bonita got to star in several Andy Hardy films. In "Now, Voyager" she played Charlotte Vale's rather tart-tongued niece who helped drive Charlotte to a much-needed nervous breakdown. She also had meaty roles in two excellent films, "H.M Pulham Esq" ( as Robert Young's sister ) and the film noir classic, "The Glass Key" starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. 



In 1947, Bonita married Jack Wrather, an entrepreneur, oil tycoon, and ex-Marine officer. In the years following she would let her career take a back-seat interest while she helped her husband grow Wrather Corporation into an entertainment and broadcasting empire. Throughout the 1950s, Jack Wrather acquired television properties such as "Lassie", "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon", and "The Lone Ranger" which were developed into icons of American pop culture. Bonita Granville Wrather took the helm as executive producer of "Lassie" while her husband pursued development of another branch of the corporation - tourist attractions.
In 1955, Walt Disney selected him to build and oversee the Disneyland Hotel across from which Wrather successfully did when others considered Disneyland a risky venture. 

Around this same time he also purchased Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose and a controlling interest in the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California and transformed them into tourist attractions. Along with Associated Television Ltd. of England, the Wrather Corporation founded International Television Corp. ( ITC ) which became one of the major television distribution companies of the 1960s and 70s.

During the 1950s Bonita kept busy with her involvement in Jack's interests as well as in raising their two children, Christopher and Linda. Little Linda appeared in several episodes of her parents television show "Lassie" as Wilhemena Brewster. Still, Bonita found time to appear occasionally on television in several Studio One and Playhouse 90 productions and in the film version of "The Lone Ranger". 



In later years she was a leader in charitable and civic causes and served on the boards of the Los Angeles Orphanage Guild and the Children's Bureau of Los Angeles. With Jack she helped support their good friend Ronald Reagan into the governorship and later with his bid for presidency. 


When her husband died in 1984, she directed the numerous enterprises of the corporation until its sale to the Disney Corporation in 1988. She also served as chairman of the American Film Institute from 1986 until her death at the age of 65, in 1988.

Bonita Granville began her career as a beloved brat and then blossomed into an All-American girl hero as Nancy Drew, and a lovely leading lady....and later in life grew to be a true humanitarian. Unlike many child stars, she had no difficulty in making the transition to adult roles. Perhaps this was due to the fact that her roles, even as a child, were well beyond her years. 

This post is my contribution to Comet Over Hollywood's Children in Film Blogathon dedicated to some of the cutest and most talented child stars of the golden age of film. To read  about the other entries in this series click here.

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for the article on Bonita! I first saw her in "The Glass Key" where she was, as you said, quite the brat! It's nice to hear what a lovely woman she was in real life.

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    1. It's always nice to find out that the worst "baddies" on screen were really the kindest people in Hollywood...that was especially the case with Brian Donlevy. Yesterland has an excellent article about her and Jack's contributions to Disneyland. They were recently recognized as being "Disney Legends".

      http://www.yesterland.com/wrather.html

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  2. Bonita Granville has always been one of my favorite child stars. She was especially good in the Nancy Drew films. Loved reading your post!

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    1. Quite true, she was wonderful as Nancy Drew and I never tire of watching the series. Glad you enjoyed reading about Bonita!

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  3. I'm not usually one to gripe about the Academy's choices, but Bonita really deserved that Oscar for "These Three"!

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    1. I share your opinion Caftan Woman! If only we had a chance to vote....

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  4. I love her so much as Nancy Drew and have also enjoyed some of her later performances, but I must admit I haven't seen many of her earliest films! I will have to add them to the "to watch" list. Great post on a very talented "brat" :)

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    1. By all means check them out. But fair warning...if you watch her in "These Three" you'll be tempted not to see another one of her performances. She's really nasty in that one!

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  5. Ooh - great post!!! What a talent she was and what a terrific career. She did have the hateful thing down pat, but, then again, she was Nancy Drew! I love her - I hate her! I feel like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown!

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    1. She was so lovable ( and feisty! ) as Nancy Drew that she more than made up for her past "meanie" roles. I only wish she made more Drew films...like a mystery on a train, or out west at a dude ranch. Shucks!

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  6. I love Bonita Granville! I didn't know she had so many high profile family members. She really blossomed into a gorgeous young woman.
    You spotlighted her terrifically and I love her as a brat. You really hate her in "These Three," don't you?
    Loved her as Nancy Drew too (I'm a Nancy fan) and wish there had been more!
    Wonderful post and thank you so much for participating! BTW, I love your blog layout

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    1. Thank you for the compliments..glad you enjoyed it. And an especial thanks for hosting such a great blogathon! Nancy Drew is my favorite of all of Bonita's roles as well.

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