When you think of child actresses of the 1930’s, the name that comes to mind is without question, Shirley Temple. Not that Shirley doesn’t deserve her spot as number one; she most certainly does, for no other star before or since has captivated a nation. There were many others too, including Jane Withers, Sybil Jason, Ann Rutherford and Deanna Durbin among many others. But how many of you are saying “Bonita Granville?” I know you are probably saying, “Who is Bonita Granville?” If you do not know, you are missing out on who could be the most versatile child actress in movie history!
Bonita Granville was born on February 2, 1923 in Long Island, New York, to Bernard Granville a Vaudevillian and the former Rosa Timponti of the famous Timponti acting family of Chicago. When she was old enough to walk, her father would lead her on to the stage to take a bow. He would sometimes let her participate in skits but ad-libbing. Being from acting family and living around stage people, it was instilled in Bonita at an early age that she wanted to be an actress.
When she was eight years of age, the family moved to Hollywood so young Bonita could get over an illness. A casting director happened to live in the same apartment building as the Granvilles and asked if Bonita would like to play the daughter in the film Westward Passage (1933) because she resembled the movie’s star Ann Harding. The answer was yes, and she was soon playing many small roles in films for various studios.
The film where she would reach stardom was Samuel Goldwyn’s production of These Three (1936) based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour. The plot of this film is about two recent college graduates, Karen Wright (Merle Oberon), and Martha Dobie (Miriam Hopkins) who decide to turn an old farmhouse into a boarding school for young girls. One of the girls at school is Mary Tilford (Bonita Granville) whose grandmother, Mrs. Tilford, is the main benefactor. The characters played my Oberon and Hopkins meet a young doctor, Joe Cardin (Joel McCrea.) Karen begins to date Joe. She is unaware that Martha also has feelings for him.
Bonita tortures and threatens the other students blaming them for things she has done herself. One of the students Rosalie Wells (Marcia Mae Jones) is pulled into Bonita’s web of lies. Mary plants a bracelet she stole from another student with Rosalie’s things. When Mary finds out that Rosalie injured her arm because she was listening to an argument between Martha and Martha’s Aunt Lily, (about Martha’s apparent feelings for Joe) and got her arm closed in the door by accident, she concocts a twisted version of the exchange. Because of the presence of the young doctor, Mary starts a rumor that Martha was having a sexual affair with Joe and tells her grandmother. She tells a frightened Rosalie that she will tell everyone that Rosalie stole the bracelet if she does not go along with the lie.
Eventually the truth comes out, but not before the teachers are humiliated and Joe is fired from his job at the hospital.
After Mrs. Tilford offers reparation to Martha for the trouble Mary caused, Martha only asks that she explains everything to Karen so that Karen can get back together with Joe.
Bonita’s performance in These Three earned her an Academy Award Nomination (not the miniature “special” one given to a specific child star but for best supporting actress.) However, she lost to Gale Sondergaard for Anthony Adverse. Her portrayal was so convincing that many people believed it to be the real her! Parents sent her letters, Bibles, and instructions by the droves telling her to be a good little girl and not a menace to society.
This could not be further from the truth as Bonita was exactly the opposite. Called “Bunny” by her friends, she was a devout Catholic who was so intelligent she graduated from high school at age sixteen. She spoke French and Italian and studied German. Her hobbies included record collecting, collecting ivory elephants, horseback riding, and dress designing. Her circle of friends included Marcia Mae Jones, Deanna Durbin, and Helen Parrish among others. Her best friend was Ann Rutherford. Her first major boyfriend was actor Jackie Cooper.
According to his 1981 Cooper’s autobiography, “Please Don’t Shoot my Dog,” Bonita and her mother were very religious, and Jackie Cooper had to take Bonita to confession before their dates on Saturday nights. Her strong moral character is strongly reflected in the article she wrote for the September 1943 edition of “Photoplay.” It was entitled, “My Wartime Morals.”
This is not to say that Bonita was without a sense of humor, for she could also be a practical joker. Her favorite prank was to escort a guest to a door and when opening it would find themselves in a clothes closet; she got a big kick out of it!
Not that she was ever typecast, but Bonita was often called upon to play a “meanie” many more times in her career. Right after These Three, she played in 1937’s Maid of Salem, where she was one of the people who accused Claudette Colbert’s character of being an evil witch. Bonita then played in two of my favorite movies of hers, both in 1938, My Bill, and The Beloved Brat. The Beloved Brat was about a wealthy young girl (Roberta Morgan), whose parents did not pay much attention to her. They also really did not care. Bonita lashes out at the servants, causing any kind of trouble imaginable. This includes a fake fire that sends the entire town’s fire department over to her house. Realizing they could no longer control her, her parents send her to a private girl’s school. She is against this at first, but soon finds solace in helping teach the younger girls in the school. She finds where she wants to be thanks to the help of the principal of the school, played by the legendary silent screen actress and wife of John Barrymore, Dolores Costello.
Bonita’s most famous role came in 1938 and 1939 as Nancy Drew, the title character based on the books by Carolyn Keene. There were four movies in the series: Nancy Drew -- Detective, Nancy Drew... Reporter Nancy Drew: Trouble Shooter , and Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase
In 1940, Bonita had a small part in the MGM film, Escape, starring Robert Taylor and Norma Shearer. Robert Taylor played a man who was looking for his mother and found out she was sentenced to die in a concentration camp. Norma Shearer played a widowed American countess, Taylor had befriended. The countess ran a boarding school for girls, and Bonita played a girl who was a deep Nazi sympathizer. She strongly believed in the Nazi ideology. Her chilling performance clearly illustrates how the minds of the German youth were brainwashed by the Hitler.
Bonita’s most powerful performance after These Three was RKO’s 1943 anti-Nazi propaganda film, Hitler’s Children. She plays a German-born American, (Anna Miller) who lives at the American school in Berlin. She meets and falls in love with a Hitler youth, Lt. Karl Bruner (played by Tim Holt) who was born in America but is now a Nazi. On Memorial Day, she is taken by the S.S. to a working camp, where she appears to have accepted Nazism. Tim Holt’s character also works at the camp. She eventually cracks and shows her true side, which is for American ideals. She is taken to be whipped in front of the whole camp and Holt tries to stop it. Before this, she is deemed unfit to bear children, and is marked for sterilization. She also attempts to escape and a hide in a church, but is found. This is one of the only anti-Nazi films to show the brutal treatment of young women.
Bonita continued to act in many films throughout the 1940’s, including two pictures in the Andy Hardy Series.
In 1948, Bonita married Jack Wrather, a wealthy businessman who made his money in oil, as well as other investments. He also owned the ocean liner, The Queen Mary, and later the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California. Bonita and Jack would go on to co-produce the television series, Lassie. During this time, they raised four children, Molly, Linda, Jack, and Christopher. They had many close friends, including future President, Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy. Bonita and Jack were very much involved with the Reagan campaign.
Jack Rather died in 1984, but Bonita still kept busy. In 1986, she became Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute, a position she held until her death two years later.
Bonita Granville Wrather died on October 11, 1988 at the young age of 65. A victim of cancer, she was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.
I have only mentioned a few of the many films and reasons why I believe Bonita Granville is very important. She should be more well-known today than she is. In fact, I think she is just as good, if not better, than someone she greatly admired growing up and someone she co-starred in the film, Now Voyager, and that would be Miss Bette Davis. Bonita should be studied and most of all remembered and I want to do something about that along with the many of the other forgotten actors and actresses of this era.
And just one side-note, during my research for this article, I came across many old clippings which had said that Bonita was not pretty, was very plump, and not much to look at. Now, if I may say so, whoever wrote these articles really needs to have their eyes and their heads examined! First of all, the name Bonita is Spanish for the word “pretty.” And the word fits Bonita perfectly!
All pictures curtesy of Fanpix.net (other sources cited in article)