Growing older is an occupational hazard in Hollywood -- and not just for sex symbols. Sadly, the career arc of some child actors goes from 8 x 10 glossies to mug shots once they age out and face the harsh realities of post-show biz life. For every young performer who manages to achieve adult fame (Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney), there are many others who peak in puberty.
In the ‘30s and ‘40s, two of Hollywood’s most popular juveniles were Freddie Bartholomew and Virginia Weidler. Both headlined A-List pictures. Both held their own against legendary stars. Both were preternaturally gifted and mature for their ages. Neither wound up in the slammer or rehab, yet both were unable to leverage youthful notoriety into lasting success.
Freddie Bartholomew was discovered in England at the age of 10 by producer David O. Selznick, who cast him as young David Copperfield (1935). By then, Freddie was a pint-sized pro, having made his British screen debut at the age of six. Virtually abandoned by his parents and raised by his Aunt Millicent, Freddie was a natural: He could play kiddie parts without any of the overly precious affectations of other Tinseltown moppets.
After earning rave reviews for Copperfield, Freddie portrayed Garbo’s son in Anna Karenina (1935), crushed the title role in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), and wrung tears from moviegoers in Captains Courageous (1937). Of the latter film, Freddie recalled, "For a kid, it was like one long outing. Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Mickey Rooney, Melvyn Douglas and I – we all grew very close toward one another in those 12 months. When the shooting was finished, we cried like a bunch of babies as we said our goodbyes."
Off-camera, Freddie was the pawn in a costly family drama. Freddie’s parents – presumably smelling money – resurfaced to win back custody from Aunt Millicent. Seven years of legal fights drained Freddie’s earnings (second only to Shirley Temple’s), and contract disputes with MGM left him idle for a year, just as teen hormones kicked in. Once the smoke cleared, Freddie was a gangly, six-foot tall adolescent consigned to forgettable fluff. Eventually, Freddie left acting to become a TV executive for CBS. He died at age 67 in 1992.
Virginia Weidler got an even earlier start than Freddie, scoring her first part at age four in the 1931 drama, Surrender. She appeared with W.C. Fields in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, and lent charming support to stars like Gary Cooper and John Barrymore, who dissed the scene-stealing sprite – calling her “Mrs. Thomas Whiffen,” a 19th-century grande dame of the stage – while shooting The Great Man Votes (1939).
MGM put Virginia to work in comedies like The Women (where she went toe-to-toe with step-mommie dearest Joan Crawford), and aced her best-known performance as Katharine Hepburn’s precocious sister Dinah in The Philadelphia Story. After notable turns opposite Clark Gable and Myrna Loy (Too Hot to Handle), Bette Davis (All This and Heaven Too), and Lucille Ball (Best Foot Forward), Virginia retired from the screen in 1943 at the ripe old age of 16.
Unlike Freddie’s greedy parents, Virginia was raised in a fairly functional family of entertainers (yay)! Her mother sang opera, her sibs were bit players, and her brother George, a big-band saxophonist, was Doris Day’s first husband. Even patriarch Alfred Weidler got into the act, building miniature sets for 20th Century-Fox.
In 1947, 20-year-old Virginia tied the knot with Navy officer Lionel Krisel and put her stellar past in the rear view mirror. Krisel recalls that whenever Virginia’s days as a child star came up, she "would always change the subject as quickly as possible without being rude. She never watched her old movies or replied to requests for interviews. Although she was never one to criticize, I think our boys got the impression that their mother didn't think very much of the motion picture industry."
On July 1, 1968, Virginia died of a heart attack at age 41. Today, her grandson Jonathan Krisel reps the next generation of Weidler talent: He has written digital shorts for Saturday Night Live, and served as the co-creator, writer, producer and director of the Emmy-winning comedy series, Portlandia.