HIS, SIR," announced Mr. Crummles in Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, "This is the infant phenomenon, Miss Ninetta Crummles."
"Your daughter?" inquired Nicholas.
"My daughter," replied Mr. Crummles.
"May I ask how old she is?"
"You may, sir. She is ten years of age, sir."
"Dear me," said Nicholas, "It's extraordinary!"
And extraordinary it was, for Nicholas Nickleby faced a youngster short in stature, dressed like a child, but possessing an aged, dissipated countenance that could have belonged to a woman of 50. In fact, Dickens' "infant phenomenon" had been 10 years of age for a good five years and to prevent growth was fed gin and water and kept up late each night from infancy, the cash value to parents such as Mr. Crummles of a fully grown former infant phenomenon being nil.
Diana Serra Cary, the author of Hollywood's Children was one of Tinselland's earliest and youngest infant phenonomena. At the age of 20 months, housebroken and taught to take commands like the wonder dog, Brownie, with whom she starred, Cary -- then known as Baby Peggy -- captivated America as she "effortlessly" did daredevil stunts and affected adult postures in a series of silent two-reelers. The year was 1920 and Hollywood was young then. Not so its performing children.
Considering it far too great a waste of earning potential to allow a child to play in a sandbox, Hollywood made it's children do things that would have caused any one of the Flying Wallendas to blanch with horror because of the sheer element of chance attached to them. At age two, Baby Peggy, for instance, was thrown from a speeding pickup truck together with a terrified goat to which she had been wired. Seven-year-old Darla Hood, of our Gang fame, was forced to hang onto the back of a speeding dogcatcher's wagon for half a day, reenacting the same scene until she was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes. Even Shirley Temple (during her Baby Burlesks days) was not exempt from work conditions so dangerous that her mother was barred from the set.
Ah, yes, the mothers and (it's good someone finally sets the record straight) the fathers of infant phenomena. It is difficult to assess whether the greatest threat to these children was the danger of their working conditions or the unnaturalness of their home lives. But that special subhuman species of man and womankind who seemingly bred children for the sole purpose of exploiting them has been documented in all its Dickensian horror in many previous autobiographies and biographies of child performers. What Cary adds to the stockpile of infant phenomena gothic is an ability to treat her subject with great perception and in a non-sensational manner as well as to give her readers an eyeopening wide-angled view.
The book's title could lead to a misconception as to its contents. Actually, it deals with more than Hollywood's children, beginning with their legitimate antecedents -- those children who performed in American road companies, mining camps, and taverns during the 19th century; thus, it is in this, the first half of the book, that the author presents fresh and well-researched material. Cary writes with intelligence and manages a master-weaver's task in picking up the threads of the many stories she is telling simultaneously. If there is any criticism I have of her fine workmanship it is that she spends too much time on the same familiar, though tragic, case histories of the Garland-Cooper-Coogan-Temple-Rooney era and that she did not delve far enough back to include such historical infant phenomena as Jean Davenport, who was the most celebrated small performer in England in the early part of the 19th century and most certainly the prototype for Dickens' Ninetta Crummles.
All in all, though, this is a riveting, discerning account of performing children and their parents. Cary has obviously survived being one of Hollywood's children in an admirable fashion. CAPTION:
Picture 1, 2, 3, UPI photo of Shirley Temple receiving the Academy Award in 1935 (left); Charlie Chaplin with Jackie Coogan in "The Kid" (1919); and Deanna Durbin in 1935