A book was released some years back called "Hollywood Babylon," which reveled in the sordid life
and death of some of Tinsel Town's biggest names. Gossip goodies such as Marilyn Monroe's suicide, Errol Flynn's fancy
for preteen girls, Liz Taylor's incessant drinking and multiple marriages, Rock Hudson's secret gay life, etc.., etc...
You read a book like that and it makes you wonder if living a sleazy, scandalous life is not a prerequisite to Hollywood success.
That being said, it was indeed a breath of fresh air writing about Bonita Granville. A wisp of loveliness, who not only
defied the dreaded child-star curse, but also managed to grind out a career which was far more controversial on-screen then
it was off. This petite blonde Venus earned an Academy Award nomination at the tender age of thirteen, made the transition
to adult roles with ease, married and left Hollywood, only to achieve even greater success as an entrepreneur.
The showbiz star was shining high in 1923, when vaudeville showman Bernard (Bunny) Granville and
wife Rosina gave birth to baby girl Bonita. Practically born on stage, Bonita made her screen debut at the age of nine
in 1932's Westward Passage. Smart and personable, Bonita was a natural in front of the camera. However,
playing Shirley Temple-like cutesy roles would not be Bonita's claim to fame. Instead, Bonita would become the anti-Shirley,
earning high praise, as well as loathing as one of the meanest kids in film history.
In 1936, acclaimed director William Wyler (Wuthering Heights, The Little Foxes,
Ben-Hur) chose Bonita to star in These Three. The film also starred 1930's heavyweights Merle Oberon,
Joel McCrea and Miriam Hopkins, but it was Bonita who would steal this show. The story centers on a love triangle between
teachers Oberon, McCrea and Hopkins, which is turned into scandal by the distorted lies of a malicious little girl named Mary
(Bonita). Satan..., I mean Mary, even resorts to blackmailing one of her school chums to keep her lies going in the
face of the truth. Bonita's Mary is so vile and contemptible that, no matter how much you adore children, you will yearn
to strangle her evil butt. In the immortal words of comedian Bernie Mac, you'll want to "bust her head open till the
white meat shows!" Thirteen year old Bonita not only stole the show from her more esteemed co-stars, she also garnered
an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
She followed up These Three with "bad girl" roles in 1937's Maid of Salem, in
which she accused Ann Baxter of being a witch. Three "bratty little sister" roles followed in Call It a Day,
It's Love I'm After (both also released in 1937) and The Beloved Brat released the following year.
Within a few short years, Bonita had become the girl everybody loved to hate. However, her screen persona was nowhere
near a reflection of the real Bonita. Eventually, playing such despicable and unlikable characters began to grate on
her, and Bonita yearned to break free of her evil image. "I don't want to be branded as a mean little girl,"
Bonita revealed in a 1936 L.A. Times interview. It was time for an image change and Warner Bros. had just the right
vehicle for this talented young star. Bonita was chosen to play the role of a super-sleuth teenybopper called Nancy
Drew. Created by writer Carolyn Keene, Nancy Drew was the champion to millions of young girls around the world.
Smart, witty, driven, this Sherlock Holmes in a dress could hold her own against any boy, or man for that fact.
Warner Bros. ground out four Nancy Drew films, Nancy Drew -- Detective (1938), Nancy Drew -- Reporter, Nancy
Drew -- Trouble Shooter and Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (the latter three released in
1939). The Nancy Drew character proved the perfect metamorphosis for Bonita. Her charm and charisma
were allowed to shine through and overnight she made fans forget about evil Mary from These Three. She
was now ready to approach the next hurdle in her career, making the transition from child star to adult roles. Many
before her (and after her) had failed, but Bonita was confident that the curse would not fall upon her.
With so much piled up on in her Hollywood plate, it seemed like a given that scandal would now
be Bonita's middle name. However, in actuality, the bratty bad girl turned super sleuth's life was, well,
a bit dull. Bonita didn't have a "Hollywood mom," forcing her to work. Drinking and drugs were not on the Granville
menu either, nor were wild parties and casual flings. With the exception of a school girl crush on fellow child star
Jackie Cooper, Bonita's nights were spent alone, and scandal-wise, very uneventful. Financially, the Granvilles made
sure their daughter's money was properly saved and invested. In 1943, at the age of twenty, Bonita signed a three year
contract with RKO studios paying her a healthy $15,000 per picture.
Bonita's first film as an adult would be the compelling Hitler's Children in 1943. Based
on Adolf Hitler's insane plan to populate the world with children born of his "master race," Bonita plays Anna Muller, a teacher
who becomes the object of affection for young "Nazi in training," Karl Bruner (actor Tim Holt). When Anna spurns Karl's
advances (Herr Karl wants to fulfill the Fuhrer's propitagation prophecy by mating with Anna) he threatens to have her sterilized.
Filled with propaganda, the film has many flaws, of which Bonita's, as well as Holt's acting is not one of them. MGM
would borrow Bonita for two of it's popular Andy Hardy films (Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble in 1944 and Love Laughs
at Andy Hardy in 1946). We were seeing a new, sultry, seductive Bonita Granville, far removed from her bratty kid
and Nancy Drew days. This was never more evident then in 1944's Youth Runs Wild where she plays a sexy
street-wise girl from the wrong side of the tracks. While in 1946's underrated murder mystery The
Truth About Murder, Bonita showed she could glam it up with the best of them.
While the bulk of her screen work as an adult can easily be categorized as B-Movies, Bonita was
still one of Hollywood's most loved actresses. She was working steadily, and better roles seemed certain for her down
the road. That is until a certain bump popped up on that road, which would produce a radical change in the direction
of her life.
In 1947, Bonita was signed for the starring role in The Guilty. This film would give
her fans the chance to see both the good and bad Bonita on screen together for the first time. She played the role of
Estelle and Linda Mitchell, twins with completely opposite natures, one good, one evil. It was like Little Mary
of These Three out to murder goody-two shoes Nancy Drew!
One of the financiers of The Guilty was a young Texas oilman named Jack Wrather, who quickly
became smitten with his pretty star. A romance quickly blossomed and the two were married soon after. Jack Wrather
was an "old-fashion guy" and wanted his new wife to devote her full attention to their marraige and eventual family.
Bonita, all of twenty-four years old, was agreeable to her husband's wishes and retired from acting. "Playing a love
scene with someone else irritated him," Bonita was quoted in a 1969 L.A. Times interview. "I'd already seen too many
marriages break away to risk it.
Bonita gave Jack two lovely children, who they both doted over. However, Bonita, who had been
acting since she was practically a toddler, was not ready for the role of just being Mrs. Jack Wrather, stay at home mom and
social butterfly. Luckily for both Jack and Bonita, jack valued his wife's input and wisdom in regards to his business
ventures. So much so, that he frequently ran his day-to-day wheeling and dealings by her.
Bonita became one of Jack's most valuable resources, as he began making his mark on the Hollywood
production scene. With Bonita's input, Jack would go on to produce two highly successful television shows, The Lone
Ranger (1949) and Lassie (1954). Bonita was brought in as co-producer on Lassie and also directed
several of the shows. "When Jack brought The Lone Ranger, he talked things over with me," she explained in the
times interview. "When he brought Lassie, well the children were gone from 9 to 3 and I decided to
go to work on the show." With Bonita's help, Jack was also able to get the go-ahead from Disney to open the Disneyland
Hotel, directly across from the famed theme park in Anaheim,California (which is still the premier hotel for visitors to Disneyland).
Bonita not only possessed a head for business, but was the owner of a compassionate heart as well.
The mother of two had a special spark for disabled children, and worked frequently with blind and hearing impaired kids.
Bonita and Jack remained happily married until Jack's death in 1984. Four years later, Bonita herself would succumb
to cancer, passing away in 1988 at the age of sixty-five. The former bad girl of the silver screen, who raised much
hell in These Three and Maid of Salem proved to be not much of a hellion in her real life. Poster
child for Hollywood kid stars? Not unless that means remaining faithfully married to one man, or being a loving
mother, with a caring heart for those less fortunate, not to mention being an astute successful business woman.
Life behind the scenes for Bonita Granville; kinda dull? Maybe, but I can imagine that many of her peers would have
traded a few of their Oscars and wild parties for her type of boredom.