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.