They Made Our Child a Movie Star
THREE years ago, when he was eight, my son John became a celebrity overnight. If you saw the English movie “Oliver Twist” you will know why. It was one of the biggest money spinners ever screened by J. Arthur Rank. And Charles Dickens’ classic orphan, the Boy Who Asked For More, was played by John Howard Davies, who calls me Daddy.
Since then John has made “The Rocking Horse Winner,” an unusual, ironic story of a small boy who develops prophetic powers for racing results by riding a wooden steed in his nursery. This year you’ll see John Howard Davies in the title role of “Tom Brown’s School Days.” Soon he’ll be making another Dickens epic, the title of which must remain, for the moment, a secret.
Today John is his own limited company, formed to produce stories starring himself and to exploit his name in advertisements for merchandise. He is driven to work in a Humber Super Snipe, one of Britain’s biggest and slinkiest cars. He has a tutor, a secretary and a riding master. For “The Rocking Horse Winner” he was paid $15,000.
When he’s 13 he will retire from movies and enter Charterhouse, one of Britain’s biggest and oldest boarding schools. If necessary he will be able to pay his own fees. Since he became a movie star my family has moved from a five-room apartment in a London suburb to a pleasant Georgian house at Milford, Surrey, about 40 miles from London.
What is it like to have a film star son? How do you get a boy into movies? Does it spoil him? Does he become a millionaire? Everybody who has seen child actors asks these questions. I used to ask them myself. Now that I know the answers I’ll pass them on as honestly as I can.
It’s important to remember that London is not Hollywood. English producers do not exploit juveniles, or adults for that matter, with the sort of ballyhoo which made idols out of Jackie Coogan, Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney. Nor do they pay the fabulous salaries these Hollywood prodigies were reputed to earn. Even so, John is the topranking child star in Britain today and his success has changed his family’s life. My wife Dorothy and I wrestled with our consciences for weeks before we decided to let him act. Now we are not sorry.
In a way it was luck that John got a screen test. But there is no point in giving readers the idea it could happen to anybody’s son. John has proved a splendid artist but I don’t think he is unique. There are probably a hundred boys who could have done as well if they’d been given the chance.
John’s opportunity came by accident through a chance remark by a dinner guest. I have been a newspaperman for 20 years, apart from six years in the RAF, and since the war I have been film critic for Lord Kemsley’s Sunday Graphic. At the time of John’s big break we were living in a part of Hampstead favored by writers, artists, actors and musicians. My wife, a Cambridge grad, had given up newspaper work to look after our two boys, John and his two-year-old brother Legh.
My newspaper work and the fact that I’ve written film scripts and plays in my spare time bring me in touch with movie people. One night Ted Lloyd, an agent who was negotiating the sale of one of my scripts, dined at our apartment. John came into the room to say goodnight. Ted looked at him sharply and when John had gone he said: “You know they’re looking for a boy to play
If your child suddenly won fame and wealth on the screen what would it do to him? And you? Would he become a spoiled brat? Would he turn his back on his family? Here one film prodigy’s father tells his own story
‘Oliver Twist.’ They’ve had a talent competition but can’t find the right youngster. May I suggest John for the part?”
My wife and I glanced at each other. I said: “Well I suppose it’s all right if you want to.” We didn’t discuss it again that night. The next day I’d almost forgotten about it.
Two weeks later Ted Lloyd telephoned Dorothy lo bring John to his office next day to meet a casting director. That night we talked ourselves into a lather. Suppose the boy did click would it turn his head? In my job I had met one or two obnoxious child actors and was cynical about them. Suppose he were a flop the other boys at school might laugh at him. Wouldn’t that mark him for life? If he went acting Dorothy would have to go with him. Who would look after Legh?
A Quick Lad at Memorizing
We went over these points until we were completely unhappy. Finally Dorothy said: “I don’t
see why we’re getting so worked up. He’ll probably be turned down anyway.” So we decided, with many misgivings, to let John go ahead.
He was tickled to death. He liked the movies though we have always been careful about selecting shows he should see. I don’t think any boy would be disinterested in such a proposition.
The casting director was impressed. John had the piquant type of face he was looking for. He asked us for every photograph we had of the boy.
Next Ted Lloyd telephoned to say he was sending two pages of script for John to memorize. He added that Ronald Neame and David Lean, producer and director of “Oliver Twist,” would be calling on us and would John please be ready to recite his piece.
Up to that time John had seemed to lack concentration. We thought he would never memorize
two pages. Dorothy took him into the bedroom to help him. She came out looking puzzled. “It’s a most extraordinary thing,” she said, “he’s learned it already. I just read it over three times and he recited it back word perfect.” Since then John has shown himself to be an amazingly quick “study.” Neame and Lean called and heard John go through his part. Then Lean took him to his office and heard him again. He brought him back and said he had won the part and told us to let his
hair grow. I still wasn’t sure I liked the idea.
That night Dorothy and I had the whole thing out again. Finally I said, “If I had had this opportunity when I was John’s age, and my father hadn’t let me take it, I think I would have held it against him.”
I was thinking of the excellent start in life John’s earnings would give him and of the experience if ever he chose to become an adult actor.
Two days before filming John got swollen glands. There was a lump on his neck like half an orange. We thought it might be nerves and blamed ourselves for upsetting him. A specialist told me film work for John was out of the question. I called Ronald Neame almost in relief and told him it was all off.
This shook Neame because a lot of money hangs on shooting to schedule. He thought it over for two days and then called me back. He said he would hold up production for three weeks and see what happened. In three weeks John was fully recovered.
He’s thrived in the movie business ever since.
At first John’s job threw our household for a loop. He had to be taken away from school and placed under a tutor. Dorothy always goes with him to the studio. That meant getting someone to look after Legh.
When John is working Dorothy rouses him at 7 a.m. They leave the house at 7.45, pick up Sheila Brun, the tutor, and reach the studios around 8.30. John rarely has to use make-up, so that saves time. Filming starts about 8.45. Between shots John takes tuition, but nothing to overtax his mind. Sheila generally reads history or geography to him. Between pictures he makes up ground at home. Often he is doing a full day’s school work when other boys are on holiday.
Shooting continues through the day and Dorothy brings him home, sometimes rather tired, about 6.30. He has supper at 7 p.m., then takes his Labrador, Flash, for a walk. He’s always in bed
by 8.15 and it’s “lights out” at 8.30, winter and summer. The only time he stays up later is when he has to attend film premieres. Then he sleeps in next flay.
Acting has not made him precocious.
When the roof-top scenes for “Oliver Twist” were being shot, he and Robert.
Newton, who played Bill Sikes, had to scramble along a ledge 00 feet high. I went up first to see if if was safe, and nearly passed out with vertigo. But as a safety precaution John and Newton were fitted with Kirby Flying Wires, those strong almost invisible steel wires they use for (lying fairies about the theatre stage. Even so, Dorothy and I fretted when he was up there. When t he shot was finished David Lean shouted to John saying he had done a good job and asking if there was anything lu; wanted. John said: “Yes, could I fly to the ground?” Lean grinned but (irmly refused the request.
Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann were making “Red Shoes” on the next st inarm brought his mother along one day and she sat next to John at lunch. “It’s lucky you came today,” John said. “You’re really going to see something.” Mrs. Helpmann, thinking he d got some inside information on “Red Shoes,” said: “Really, what ’s I hat ?” John said solemnly, “We’ve got a rain machine on our set.”
Occasionally he makes appearances for publicity. He attended a civic lunch in Scotland one day and the mayor made a speech praising British films and what they meant in dollars for Britain. Dorothy looked at John and found him reading a comicbook.
John used to be a trifle shy but these publicevents have given him self-confidence. He’s been presented to every member of the Royal Family and we couldn’t help gulping at the way he carried himself. He’s also met such notables as the late Syd Field, who was Britain’s top comic, and Field-Marshal Lord Montgomery.
Teasingly, Monty told him to get his hair cut. This riled John but he kept his temper and piped up, “I don’t like it this way either, sir, but it’s got to be long for my work.” Monty took quite a shine to him.
John has just finished “Tom Brown’s School Days.” It was made at Rugby, the famous publicschool which gave its name to the game. Dorothy and I were pleased when we were invited to enter him at the school. The people there aren’t swayed by film glamour but they told us they liked the way John played games with the boys and his good-natured manner. We had to turn down the offer because he was already entered for Charterhouse.
I hope nothing will interfere with his later schooling. If he wants to be an actor when he’s through university that’s fine with me. But I regard his present occupation as purely temporary.
We have made him into a limited company. Ninety-eight, shares are in his name. Dorothy and I own one share each. The company pays for the tutor, agent, traveling expenses, clothes, publicity and other costs essential to John’s efficiency as a working actor.
We often entertain on his behalf and in these cases the company foots the bill.
But out of the $15,000 he got for “The Rocking Horse Winner” we had to meet heavy expenses. The agent's commission, for example, was $1,500. His tutor costs $1,500 a year. We didn't own a car at that time because we couldn’t get one; they were all going for export. A hired car to take him to the studios during shooting of the picture cost at $25 a day a total of $750. John never goes to the studio without his mot her or his t utor.
So all three had to be lodged at a nearby hotel. This cost another $750.
In costume pictures the producers provide all the clot hes. But in modern-dress movies the actors supply their own. John’s clothes for “The Rocking 1 lorse Winner” cost $150 but he had the use of them a fterward.
His secretary, plus the stationery and stamps she uses, runs another $1,500 a year. Last year we spent about $300 entertaining on various small occasions. John is also having his teeth straightened; cost to date, $300.
John is taxed as a single man with no dependents. He is in a bracket where almost half of his taxable income is taken by revenue authorities. When you are earning big money in the film business it pays to look like it and this is expensive. So you can see that John is not a millionaire. Neither are we.
We give him the best life possible for a boy within the bounds of prudence. Everything remaining after expenses goes into trust for him.
John’s home life would be envied by many boys his age. We have a large garden and the people next door own an estate with a swimming pool. He takes riding lessons and his riding master expects him to run away with a few firsts for show jumping this year. I was anxious that John should be good at all sports, particularly cricket. He has a cricket net in the garden and is a promising spin bowler. But his batting is deplorable.
After his first, movie John got about 50 fan letters a week. Now he gets hundreds. One of his chores is answering personally those from crippled children, regular correspondents, or anybody special. The secretary deals with the rest.
The biggest disadvantage in having a film star son is having to put up with his fans. He’s always being pounced on in the street for autographs. In
London silly women are always rushing up to kiss him. Other children who know his identity are apt to stare at him and stand off for a while.
The theatre is in John’s blood.
My maternal grandmother was a famous acrobat known as “Zaeo.” She was the first woman to be catapulted across a circus ring. Her husband was the first vaudeville artists’ agent in Britain; he managed Lily Langtry and once booked W. C. Fields for a British tour.
My mother, Elizabeth Wieland, was first a ballet dancer then a Shakespearean actress in Beerbohm Tree’s company at His Majesty’s Theatre. My late father was an agent and managed John Mills, Binnie Hale and others.
My sister, Betty-Ann Davies, has been on the screen and stage since she was 15. Now she’s a character actress. You might have seen her as the wife of the ,llinself-pitying tubercular patient in “Sanatorium,” the third of Somerset Maugham’s stories in “Trio.” She was also John Mills’ nagging wife in “Mr. Polly.”
1 was an actor myself once. At l(> I understudied Ernest Thesiger in a play called “The Red Dog.” He got ill and I had to go on. But after that I couldn’t get parts on the legitimate stage and became a newspaperman.
I wouldn’t advise any parent to go dragging a child around agents’ offices in the hope of landing a part. That’s the sort of life which produces “little horrors.” The only way to get your child into films is by get ting to know film people first people who are in a posit ion to give an honest appraisal of the child’s chances.
John got into the movies because a talent competition failed to find the right boy and because a movie agent happened to be dining at our house. But he’s remained in the business purely on his talent. The film business is like any ot her business. Contacts may get you in but. once there you must stand on your own two feet.
I think we’ve kept John a happy, healthy, average lad. If I thought show business was spoiling him I’d have him out tomorrow. So would any other parent with his boy’s future at heart.
We’ve looked for signs that he’s not behaving like other boys his age but so far we haven’t found any. A bunch of kids were playing cricket recently with a hard ball. John was bowling and an adult friend noticed that little Legh was standing like a statue in the path of the ball. He told him to move. “Don’t move Legh,” shouted John. “He’s the wicket.”
We haven’t seen John show any interest in girls yet but the ot her day we not iced on the barn wall a heart pierced by an arrow and inscribed with “JHD loves SG.” We haven’t a clue who “SC” is.
He’s not interested in seeing himself on the screen. He only goes when it’s a boxing or a swimming scene or something which appeals to his boyish ideas. The only time he saw “Oliver Twist” was at its premiere when he was presented to Queen Mary. Six months later he turned down a suggestion he should see it again. “I’ve seen it once,” he said. He has never seen himself in “The Rocking Horse Winner.” We don’t t hink it’s suitable.
John’s favorite movie at t he moment is “Destination Moon.” His favorite film star is Rcy Rogers.
Recently Dorothy had a chance to see his dawning social consciousness. At a National Savings Rally in Cambridge where he was making a public appearance the mayor asked him to say a few words. “What shall I say?” asked John. “Say anything you like,” said the mayor.
John seized a microphone purposefully. Everybody thought he was going to talk about the movies. But in ringing tones he cried: “Pit ponies shouldn’t be allowed to work down t he mines!” ★