Edith Fellows, former spunky child star of the 1930s and '40s, died of natural causes on June 26, 2011, at the Motion Picture & Television Fund retirement home in Woodland Hills, CA. She was 88.
What's sadder – the fact that the death of this one-time golden girl was barely a blip on the radar, or how many hardships Edith faced as a result of her film career? And we're not talking about "she never won an Oscar" hardships. No, we mean much grimmer stuff – a girl with a domineering stage grandmother, who was the subject of a bitter custody battle between the adults in her life, who was typecast, exploited, and abandoned by the studio industry, whose childhood earnings mysteriously finished, and who suffered paralyzing stage fright when she tried to find work as an adult.
Child stars who have successful adult careers – think Jodie Foster or Elizabeth Taylor – are the exceptions. Edith Fellows, who has died aged 88, had a film career of 13 years, but it wasn't without its ups and downs. It is a familiar story: a a talented child, exploited by avaricious adults, often family members, suffers in later life.
Born in Boston, Edith had a domineering paternal grandmother who took over raising her after her mother walked out. The grandmother later barred Edith's mostly-absent father from seeing his daughter after she became a movie star. "She did not want anyone around me," Edith once explained. "No one. Just the two of us."
Edith may never have gotten into film at all if she hadn't been pigeon-toed as a toddler. At age 2, her grandmother signed her up for dancing lessons to correct the condition. At age 4, Edith was spotted by a talent scout, who told her grandmother that he could arrange a screen test for $50. They boarded the train for Hollywood, but once there, they found an empty lot at the scout's supposed address. Unable to return home, and too proud to admit she had been swindled, Edith's grandmother found work as a housekeeper and left the girl in the care of neighbors while she worked. The neighbor's son was an extra in pictures, and one day Edith accompanied him to an audition. Without being asked, she began singing and dancing in front of the director. She got a contract.
Edith's first film was a silent short called Movie Night (1929), in which she played Charley Chase's brat of a daughter. After several small roles, usually as orphans, she won the part of Adele Rochester in Jane Eyre (1934), an hugely unfaithful adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's novel. To her credit, Edith managed an English accent (Adele is not French in this adaptation) and made the most of the role, as a little matchmaker between her guardian Edward Rochester and Jane Eyre, inappropriately portrayed by glamorous blonde Virginia Bruce.
The same year, Edith appeared in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, as one of five children living in a shanty town by their poverty-stricken mother, whose husband had deserted her. But it was her performance in She Married Her Boss (1935) as Melvyn Douglas's terror of a daughter, tamed when Claudette Colbert spanks with a hairbrush, that earned Edith a seven-year contract with Columbia studios.
But stardom came at a high price, for Edith's grandmother managed her career with an iron hand. She was not allowed to play with her schoolmates, as she might fall and mar her pearly skin. She was not to shout or speak loudly, as it might strain her voice. Over time, her grandmother cut her off from anyone who might be a bad influence, including her father.
Oscreen, Edith came to belong to that generation of bright-eyed child actors whose on-screen antics were meant to sweep Depression-era clouds away. Though overshadowed by contemporaries like Shirley Temple and Jane Withers, she worked with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, including Bing Crosby and Gene Autry.
Then in 1935, at the height of her fame, Edith's mother suddenly appeared, looking for her daughter – or rather, her daughter's money.
A bitter custody battle ensued, and accounts of it saturated newspapers nationwide in the summer of 1936. Edith's mother claimed that the girl had been abducted by her grandmother, a charge that the authorities took seriously in the wake of the Lindbergh kidnapping. She sued for custody of Edith and her earnings. "She wanted my money, past, present and future," explained Edith. In the end, Edith chose to stay with her grandmother, rather than her equally "cold and tough" mother, testifying that she was "not used to loving strangers."
Afterwards, Edith was cast again as a spoiled brat in And So They Were Married (1936). In her most famous role, Pennies from Heaven (also 1936), Edith gives a sterling performance as a precocious waif taken in by Bing Crosby's singing vagabond. Her tantrums are abated this time, not with a spanking, but with Crosby's soothing songs, particularly the title song, sung to her during a thunderstorm.
Columbia then continued to typecast Edith in the title roles of B-pictures such as Tugboat Princess (1936), Little Miss Roughneck (1938), and The Little Adventuress (1938), the last publicising her as "your favourite cyclone in curls." Edith had a rare chance to play it sweet as Rita Hayworth's kid sister in Music in My Heart (1940). Edith also starred in four features as Polly Pepper, the eldest of five orphans, in the Five Little Peppers series (1939-40). After Columbia failed to renew her contract – at 18, she was over-the-hill – Fellows made a few more films as juvenile pests.
Her considerable earnings were placed in a trust, but when she turned 21, with her film career over, Edith found that only $900 out of about $150,000 remained. She never discovered where the money had gone, but always blamed the missing money on her mother.
In 1946, Edith married talent agent Freddie Fields, with whom she had a daughter, but the breakdown of the marriage in the mid-50s contributed to a psychological crisis. In 1958, she was appearing in a benefit performance in New York and suddenly felt unable to move her legs. A psychiatrist diagnosed "incurable stage fright" and prescribed the antidepressant Librium. This led to years of dependence on the drug, alcoholism, and a second failed marriage.
In the late 1970s, Rudy Venz, a playwright and director at a Los Angeles community theatre, wrote a play based on her life called Dreams Deferred, in which Fellows played herself. On opening night, she feared the spotlight would fill her with dread; Venz promised to leave the stage door open in case she needed to turn and flee. "The moment I walked out on stage, it was like going through a doorway," Edith said. "The adrenaline was flowing. I had no leg problems, no sweating from nerves. I just knew that I was home."
This gave her the confidence to take more roles on television (including ER, St Elsewhere and Cagney & Lacey) and to play the costume designer Edith Head in the TV biopic Grace Kelly (1983). There was no trace of the naughty young girl who had cheered up Depression-era audiences.
Edith with Bing Crosby in her most endearing role, Pennies From Heaven (1936).