Hollywood isn’t nearly as glamorous as people think it is. In fact, being a Hollywood star can be quite brutal at times. That goes double for child stars, who have long been treated poorly by the film and television industry. Fortunately, in modern times child actors have started to be treated a bit better, but it still isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be – especially for Disney stars, apparently.
In this facts-packed video, we’ll be discussing how old Hollywood child stars were treated terribly behind the scenes.
The Birth of the “Star System”
Before we go any further, we just want to warn you that throughout the remainder of this video, we’ll be discussing some rather heavy material. If talk of eating disorders, sexual assault, and drug abuse is too much for you to handle, you might want to check out another one of our videos instead.
Fortunately, today’s celebrities get paid a whole better than their early 20th-century counterparts. They are aslo given far more autonomy than they used to. In the early days of silent films, actors faced a great deal of stigma. They were ashamed to be seen in films. Movies were seen as low-brow diversions, while the theater was seen as being the respected art of the wealthier class.
You see, back then, there weren’t really movie stars as we know them today. Nobody knew the names of the people that were up on the big screen, but that all changed when a producer named Carl Laemmie intentionally spread a rumor that actress Florence Lawrence had been tragically killed in a streetcar accident. Not long after spreading that lie, Laemmie corrected the rumor while announcing that Lawrence would be appearing in one of his upcoming films. Just like that, he had promoted the very first movie star.
In the years that would follow, Hollywood’s star system would begin to take shape. In case you’re not aware, this was the process of Hollywood studios discovering, creating, and exploiting actors and actresses for profit. They would essentially pluck people out of obscurity and turn them into internationally famous stars. In the process, they would gain control of every last aspect of their lives.
In the 1920s, studios would send talent scouts out to spot promising young talent. They would then recruit and slap them with contracts for years of work. The major studios would invent elaborate backstories for these young stars to make them seem more exciting to the press and filmgoers.
When molding the identities of these young, impressionable people, they would basically formulate roles that would define them for a lifetime. They would even change the actor’s names. For example, MGM once held a contest to let the public cast votes on selecting Joan Crawford’s name. Joan ended up hating the name she was given thinking that it sounded too much like ‘crayfish’, but that didn’t matter to any of the studio brass. To them, she was just a moneymaker.
Child Actors Were Treated Like Garbage
Take Judy Garland, for example. Studio executives once referred to the Wizard of Oz star as a ‘fat little pig in pigtails’. Garland was reportedly just 14 years old when she was subjected to this kind of verbal abuse. All she wanted was to be a movie star, but as soon as she entered show business, she was torn apart for her looks.
After signing with MGM, she was put on a strict diet and was forced to restrict her caloric intake. In fact, whenever she would reach for a plate of food, someone was always there to snatch it away from her.
Whenever Garland snuck away to enjoy a snack on set, execs would inform each other about her strict diet through internal memos to make sure that she didn’t do it again. When she was 18, she was encouraged to smoke as many as 80 cigarettes a day to avoid having food cravings. She was even forced to pop amphetamines to keep her awake and curtail her appetite. This only led to her developing a nasty eating disorder and drug addiction that likely contributed to her eventual death.
MGM Fed Garland and Mickey Rooney A Steady Supply Of Drugs
While Judy Garland worked with MGM, so did actor Mickey Rooney. These two child stars were frequently paired up with each other on screen, but beneath their happy-go-lucky veneer was a deep, dark, sinister secret.
To keep them performing always at their peak, the studio fed Garland and Rooney a constant supply of pills. While they were on set, where they would work days and nights on end, the two young stars were given stimulants to keep them on their feat. At the end of the day, they’d be taken to the studio hospital, where they’d be knocked out with sleeping pills. After four hours, they’d wake them back up again, feed them more uppers and force them to work for another 72 hour shift.
Natalie Wood Was Sexually Assaulted By A Famous Movie Star
When she was just 16, Natalie Wood was repeatedly raped by a superstar who claimed that he would be able to help land more mature film roles. According to one of Wood’s biographers, the actress long contended that the actor in question took her as his ‘sexual hostage’ during this troubling encounter.
Wood was apparently lured to the actor’s hotel room under the pretense of it being an audition. While the identity of Wood’s attacker has never been known for certain, it’s long been rumored that it was Kirk Douglas.
Shirley Temple Was Just 12 When She Was Nearly Assaulted
As the producer of such hits as The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, and Easter Parade, Arthur Reed was one of the most powerful people in Hollywood during it’s Golden Age.
Shirley Temple was arguably the most famous child actor of her day. When she was 12 in 1941, she was looking for a way to transition to more grown-up roles. That’s when she had a meeting with Reed, who promised her that he would be able to make that happen.
The prospect of having a one-on-one meeting with such a high-profile Hollywood heavyweight was enough to send Shirley’s spirit’s soaring, but little did she know that Freed had other things on his mind. When she stepped into his office, he unzipped his pants and exposed himself to the prepubescent star.
Frightened and undoubtedly filled with anxiety over the unexpected turn of events that had just taken place, Temple started nervously laughing. This enraged Freed and likely saved him from experiencing a much-more traumatic experience.
Freed screamed at Temple to get out of his office. Without hesitation, she followed his instructions and high-tailed it out of there.
Tommy Kirk Was Fired After He Was Outed As Being Gay
In the ’50s and 60s, Tommy Kirk was one of the most prolific child actors of his day. He was one of Disney’s biggest stars, but behind the scenes, he was far from happy. In a 1993 interview, he revealed that he always knew that he was gay, but he had no way of expressing his feelings.
At the time, it was very difficult for someone in Kirk’s shoes to meet people. He had no place to go to socialize. It wasn’t until the early 60s that he began to hear of spots where other LGBT people like himself congregated.
At one of these places, he met a 15-year-old boy whom he started dating, but when Walt Disney learned of his relationship, Kirk was abruptly fired. The two were outed when they were caught hooking up at a public pool in Burbank. They were both young at the time, and the other boy’s mother decided that she should go straight to Walt to tell him what Kirk was up to. What a Karen!
Judy Garland Was Sexually Assaulted on The Wizard of Oz Set.
The sheer number of terrible things that happened to Judy Garland in the early days of her career are downright shocking. While she was still a teenager during the filming of Oz, she was repeatedly groped on set by some of the actors who played the Munchkins.
Garland’s third husband, film producer Sid Luft, later documented some of the abuse she was subjected to in a memoir. Luft revealed that actors that assaulted her thought that she could get away with anything because of their height. They apparently did everything they could to make her life miserable – even to the point of putting their hands under her dress.
While Garland was a teen, the men that inappropriately touched her were all in their 40s and 50s.
Bobby Driscoll Was Given The Ax For Having Acne
In the 1940s, Bobby Driscoll was a popular child star who appeared in dozens of commercially successful films. He even won a juvenile Academy Award at one point. Driscoll was also the first actor that Walt Disney ever put under contract.
By the mid-1950s, however, Driscoll was beginning to lose his boyish charm. He was growing up, which might as well be a mortal sin for a child star.
Even though he had just signed an extension to his contract, Driscoll was fired by Disney and his contract was abruptly canceled. The reason why he was given the boot by Disney is pretty crazy! When Driscoll hit puberty, he developed a fairly serious case of acne.
The studio claimed that it would be impossible to cover up the acne with makeup, and apparently this was reason enough for them to fire him.
Driscoll ended up drifting for the remainder of his life. He became hopelessly addicted to drugs and eventually ended up dying broke and alone at the age of 31. What makes his story even sadder is the fact that no one claimed his body and he ended up getting buried in an unmarked grave.
It’s really depressing to hear just how terribly child stars were treated in the old days of Hollywood. We could share with you countless other stories that highlight just how awful child actors used to be treated back in the day, but fortunately, we’re just about out of time.
Before you go, let us know in the comments which former child star’s experiences shocked you the most to learn about. And can you think of any other child stars that were subjected to abuse during their time in the spotlight? If so, we’d love to hear your insights.