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The Window

by Peter Bogdanovich
August 3, 2011 8:11 AM
5 Comments
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The lives of most child stars unfortunately do not have happy endings. Why so many of them have to endure hell in later life has a lot to do with our ever more disposable society, the nature of American movie fame, and each individual family taking such risks with their children.

Bobby Driscoll was a favorite kid actor with audiences from 1946 through 1950, while the boy was ages 9 to 13. Because he was the first player to sign a long-term deal with Walt Disney’s animation department, most of Driscoll’s work was in family movies that today are somewhat dated (So Dear to My Heart) or politically incorrect (Song of the South); ones that combine animation with live action (Melody Time), and include Disney’s first all live-action adventure, Treasure Island (with a memorable performance by Robert Newton as Long John Silver). But Bobby’s biggest claim to immortality was also his best movie, the one for which the Academy voted him a Special Oscar as “the outstanding juvenile actor of 1949”: among pictures’ most fortuitous happy accidents, that little-known, modest, but absolutely riveting New York thriller, THE WINDOW (available on DVD).

A picture my parents took me to see more than once in its original run, The Window was one we all liked a lot, my mother pointing out that it was essentially a modernized variation on the old cautionary fable about “the boy who cried wolf.” Seven years later, I saw the movie again and noted in my movie-card file: “Breathlessly tense and suspenseful, superbly written and directed, brilliantly played—-by Bobby Driscoll—-thriller about a young boy who is a perpetual liar, the murder he really sees, and his desperate attempts to make parents, police and neighbors believe him; only the killers do.”

Tightly adapted from ace crime writer Cornell Woolrich’s novel, The Boy Who Cried Murder, the film is the single most notable work in director Ted Tetzlaff’s otherwise fairly undistinguished career. But as director of photography, Tetzlaff had been involved in numerous memorable pictures, from early Frank Capra through such favorites as My Man Godfrey, I Married A Witch, and one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces, Notorious, shot only three years before The Window, and clearly an inspiration in technique.

Other valuable ingredients include typically fine understated work from the superb Arthur Kennedy, right around the time he won a Tony for his performance as Biff in the original Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman; Orson Welles veteran Paul Stewart as an inexorable heavy; two excellent women, Barbara Hale and Ruth Roman; and the gritty, sweaty feel of a lower East Side tenement neighborhood at the height of summer heat.

After The Window, Driscoll appeared in only three other pictures worth noting: as Jim Hawkins in the likable Treasure Island, as a boy coming of age in the charming, forgotten little movie, The Happy Time, and as the voice of Disney’s animated Peter Pan. By then he was sixteen and all washed up: nobody wanted him anymore in pictures or TV. At 18 he did one little feature, then another three years later and that was it.

As he turned 21, drugs began to take over his life. Arrested a few times for different things, he moved to New York when he was 28 and, three years later, in 1968, his body was discovered in a broken-down, abandoned tenement building not unlike the ones in The Window, dead from a heart attack at 31, buried as a John Doe in a pauper’s grave. It wasn’t until a year later that fingerprints proved the body to have been Bobby Driscoll’s. Certainly the climax of his short career, The Window is the best way to remember him.

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5 Comments

  • Jim Foster | November 4, 2012 2:32 AMReply

    I've lost count of the number of times I have seen THE WINDOW since its release in May 1949. It ranks as one of my four all-time favorite motion pictures, and I continue to enjoy periodic viewings of it to this very day. Bobby Driscoll, who was my contemporary, richly deserved the acclaim he received for his convincing portrayal of the terrified Tommy Woodry, who is being pursued by the perpetrators of the murder he accidentally witnessed. What he might have gone on to achieve in future years had fate not dealt him a hand from the bottom of the deck can be only conjectured. It has been said that Hollywood eats its young. Well, that most certainly applies to Bobby's case, for those who were so quick to sing his praises during his palmy days just as quickly turned their backs on him when he was so abruptly and unexpectedly set adrift by his studio. Shameful, is the only way to describe the treatment he received at the hands of the industry that nurtured him. Because only a few remember him today, his star has dimmed, but for me it still shines brightly.

  • Bob | August 14, 2011 4:18 AMReply

    Bobby does have a star on the walk of fame in Hollywood and long time fans have made efforts to have his body moved from the pauper's grave to something more fitting, but to no avail. RIP Bobby

  • Jon Parker | August 7, 2011 12:00 PMReply

    I saw The Window a few years ago at a local revival theater. I had no idea what to expect going in, and came out utterly amazed. Bobby Driscoll owns this film.

    It's sad to think of what a fine actor we could have had if he had not been dismissed as Walt's pet.

  • The Questioner | August 4, 2011 11:24 AMReply

    Mr. Bogdanovich---thanks for this article on Bobby Driscoll. I will certainly check out "The Window"---sounds like a powerful film if it still resonates with you all these years later. I definitely know how movies can do that; ask me about any movie I first saw as a child (I came of age during the eighties), and there's a visceral memory attached to it. For example, "The Color Purple" and "Trading Places" are rewind movies for me, and both movies were my introduction to the world of adult contradictions and relationships. I still learn a ton from both movies to this day.

    I was just thinking about the struggles of child performers the other day: Michael Jackson, Gary Coleman, Dana Plato, Corey Haim---the list goes on and on. Creating art is a hard enough struggle when you're an adult, but I couldn't imagine being expected to do it as a child. Whether a child performer becomes a grown-up superstar or has been in adulthood, it seems like the psychic costs are the same.

    It's a problem that begs for a solution. So what can we do about it? How can we have an impact on the treatment of children in the entertainment industry?

  • Tim | August 4, 2011 9:09 AMReply

    Sorry sorry sorry to drift from the topic, but I think it's absolutely necessary to ensure that readers of this wonderful blog realize that another overlooked film from the past is currently available: Bogdanovich's AT LONG LAST LOVE is on Netflix streaming! I wasn't born at the time of its release and this is the first time the film has been available to me. And what a wonderful movie! Supposedly you, Bogdanovich, issued an apology for the film, though I can't find a copy of this alleged letter online, and can only assume you, Bogdanovich, were going through a Hollyweird period of booze and drugs and personal confusion if you did indeed ever doubt, publicly or otherwise, the merits of this fine movie. I earnestly and humbly request a blog entry on AT LONG LAST LOVE, now that it's available (on Netflix streaming); a firsthand account of the how and the why of this movie, At Long Last Love (which is so wonderful).

    PS Noah Baumbach's Highball is also available on Netflix streaming. Watch it to see Bogdanovich as the funny out-of-place neighbor who does impressions.

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