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Children's Films

Children's Films




Children's films may be divided into two categories: those made expressly for a child audience, and those made about children regardless of audience. This distinction is important, as many of the most popular films that feature child actors, like The Exorcist (1973) and The Sixth Sense (1999), are clearly not meant to be seen by children. Yet it is in such films that the film industry represents children, reflecting society's own notions of childhood. Quite often, the very definition of childhood is at stake in these films, changing as it does from one generation to the next and within different contexts.


The nickelodeons of the early movie industry showcased films that appealed to all ages and populations rather than specifically to children. Moral guardians of the early 1900s were concerned about children attending movies on their own because it could be an inducement to skip school or become familiar with unruly characters, both onscreen and in theaters. Although children did appear in many films of the early film era, their roles were almost exclusively as accessories to adult activities, such as the little girl who frees her father in The Great Train Robbery (1903) or the numerous children depicted as victims of kidnappings in films like The Adventures of Dollie (D. W. Griffith, 1908).

Yet, as Richard deCordova's research has shown, Hollywood had indeed become concerned with the child movie audience by the 1910s. Children's matinees became common in many movie houses by 1913, and groups like the National Board of Review's Committee on Films for Young People not only promoted matinees at the national level but encouraged studios to make more films suitable for children, despite the fact that children still often preferred films aimed at adults. Then in 1925 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association under Will Hays (1879–1954) began an effort to identify films suitable for children. By the fall of 1925, the MPPDA had arranged fifty-two matinee programs, with many films reedited and retitled for youngsters. These programs were shipped as a special block to theaters, and exhibitors were contracted to show only the selected program films during Saturday matinees. The MPPDA used this approach to promote the studios' sense of responsibility and at the same time to encourage children to be loyal movie customers.

But no sooner had the MPPDA established this successful program than they abandoned it the next year, letting the task of staging children's matinees fall back into the hands of exhibitors. This brief foray into cultivating a child audience did not induce the Hollywood studios, which wanted to keep their audience as wide as possible, to produce a new genre of films aimed at children. Hollywood even cast established adult actors in children's roles, a practice that may seem preposterous by present standards but at the time fostered a diverse family audience. Stars such as Lillian Gish (1893–1993), Richard Barthelmess (1895–1963), and especially Mary Pickford (1893–1979) were exploited for their youthful looks in popular stories like Pollyanna (1920) and Little Annie Rooney (1925). Actual child actors of the 1920s who gained fame on their own, such as Jackie Coogan (1914–1984) and Baby Peggy (b. 1918), were cast alongside adult stars to further ensure that their movies were not exclusively focused on a childhood perspective.

Two genres of film were particularly appealing to children during this period, even though they did not gain the respect of features: short subjects (or serials) and cartoons, which were shown at the beginning of programs. Studios and exhibitors likely thought that children's attention spans were better suited to shorter fare, and that placing the shorter films early in a program would help ensure children's interest in the longer films that followed. One of the most famous short subject series that was clearly geared to children (although also appealing to adults) was Our Gang, which the producer Hal Roach (1892–1992) started in 1922. This series used actual child actors to play children who tended to be of the working class, curious, and funny. The series of over two hundred short films was quite successful, running into the 1940s. Other short-subject series, such as the slapstick antics of the Three Stooges, though not featuring children were nonetheless of enormous appeal to them.

Cartoons were quite a different market. Animation, though effective in telling fantastic stories of unusual, often nonhuman, characters, was slow to start in early cinema. By the 1920s a handful of animators had made short films, with the most popular series being Felix the Cat, and by the end of the decade an ambitious artist, Walt Disney (1901–1966), introduced a character who grew into the sound era: Mickey Mouse. Disney's success paved the way for a generation of new cartoon characters, and by the 1930s all of the major and minor Hollywood studios had developed their own cartoon series to appeal to entire families. When Disney made the first American animated feature in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a new approach to making films for children began.


The remarkable success of Snow White—one of the highest-grossing films of its era—demonstrated that films with a particular appeal to children were a viable source of revenue for the studios. Animated features continued for some time to be the primary genre aimed at children. Thus followed further Disney productions such as Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942), all of which dealt specifically with issues of childhood development. Meanwhile, MGM had initiated a live-action series of films that gained unexpected and widespread success among young audiences. The Andy Hardy series featured an adolescent protagonist and his primarily adolescent friends. As had been the case since the 1910s, a key component in targeting the child audience was not so much the content of the films as the time of their exhibition; weekend matinees continued to be common in most American communities after World War II, and by the late 1950s the studios reaffirmed their effort to tap the burgeoning baby-boom market with films catering to the interests of the young (a trend even more evident in films for teenagers).

Beginning in 1950 the Disney studio gravitated toward more live-action films featuring youngsters. It had great success with Treasure Island (1950), an appealing adventure with a boy in a lead role, and with features about youth such as Johnny Tremain (1957), Old Yeller (1957), Pollyanna (1960), Big Red (1962), and Mary Poppins (1964). With the establishment of the ratings system in 1968, studios were under new pressure to produce G-rated movies that could appeal to all ages. Again Disney led the way with a number of comedies and adventures, such as The Love Bug (1968), The Million Dollar Duck (1971), The Island at the Top of the World (1974), The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), and Gus (1976). Other studios joined in the family film genre with The Phantom Tollbooth (1970), Pufnstuf (1970), Tom Sawyer (1973), The Little Prince (1974), The Black Stallion (1979), and Mountain Family Robinson (1979). For decades films featuring young people and animals continued to have a special appeal to children, from the numerous films about Lassie the dog (beginning with Lassie Come Home in 1943) to a series based on the scrappy dog Benji (beginning with Benji in 1974). Science fiction also took on new significance for children in the 1970s and 1980s, with the release of the Star Wars and Star Trek series (beginning in 1977 and 1979, respectively) and fables like The Cat from Outer Space (1978) and The Black Hole (1979).

In the 1980s, however, the Hollywood studios again seemed to lose interest in the child audience, as a new wave of PG–13 teen films offered greater profit potential. Once more, the Disney studio seemed single-handedly to revive interest in the child market when it released two animated musical features at the end of the decade, Oliver & Company (1988) and The Little Mermaid (1989). These films inaugurated a new kid-friendly atmosphere in American cinema, which was also beginning to flourish in the home-video market. Thus followed more Disney and non-Disney titles, many of which did not feature actual children, intended to draw children to theaters and televisions. Examples include Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Mighty Ducks (1992), 3 Ninjas (1992), The Flintstones (1994), Casper (1995), Pocahontas (1995), Toy Story (1995), Space Jam (1996), Mousehunt (1997), George of the Jungle (1997), A Bug's Life (1998), The Prince of Egypt (1998), Tarzan (1999), and Stuart Little (1999).

In the twenty-first century the studios have maintained a consistent output of similar films for children, most in the realm of animated features such as Shrek (2001) and The Incredibles (2004), but with some live-action films making a splash, such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), The Cat in the Hat (2003), Holes (2003), and the very popular series based on the Harry Potter novels (beginning in 2001). Many of these films were criticized for their open marketing of toys and other products to children and their promotion through product tie-ins with various fast-food chains. The media industry is targeting children more than ever before, linking the supposed pleasures of consumption with those of entertainment.


As Kathy Merlock Jackson pointed out in her pioneering study of children in film, movies have tended to present two divergent images of children: the wild ones who need to be tamed, and the innocents who need to be protected. In Hollywood movies before World War II, and especially before the 1930s, the prevalent image of children tended toward the innocents. However, child actors did not receive star billing before Jackie Coogan appeared in The Kid in 1921, and thus films were rarely centered around child characters, except those featuring adults in children's roles. With the rise of Coogan's career, a few other child stars emerged, and the studios began making films that gave a more persistent image of children: they were precious and precocious, eager to fix problems in the small world around them, and wise beyond their years. Such qualities were on display in the films of Baby Peggy (The Darling of New York, 1923; Captain January, 1924), Virginia Grey (1917–2004) (Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1927; Heart to Heart, 1928), and Jackie Cooper (b. 1922) (Skippy, 1931; The Champ, 1931). Cooper became the first child nominated for an Academy Award® for his performance in Skippy, and thus lent further legitimacy to films built around a central child character.

America in the 1930s was of course reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, so initially the films that focused on children tended to celebrate their plucky nature in dealing with poverty and adversity—hence the disproportionately high number of films about orphans and kidnapping victims. Depression-era movies like Let's Sing Again (1936), One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), and Babes in Arms (1939) suggested to audiences that children, by being more focused on their families and simple pursuits of happiness, were an antidote to the darker troubles typical of films about adults at the time. Nowhere was this aspect more evident than in the films of Shirley Temple (b. 1928), who burst onto the Hollywood scene with cherubic energy in 1934 at the age of six. After a big scene in Stand Up and Cheer! (1934), Temple was cast as the title character in Little Miss Marker (1934) and then achieved greater recognition in Bright Eyes (1934), further solidifying her role as a taskmaster and problem solver within a family crisis. As Jackson points out, however, for all of their resilience and capabilities in 1930s movies, children remained innocents deeply in need of the love and affection of adults around them. In that way, Hollywood preserved the dominant notion of the nuclear family, and gave children the clear message that they could not make it in the world on their own.

Temple continued fixing things in movies designed for her throughout the 1930s, and the studios had begun making more movies based on prominent children's characters. A contemporary of Temple's in this regard was Jane Withers (b. 1926), who acted alongside Temple in Bright Eyes and became a star in her own right with films like Ginger (1935) and Pepper (1936), showcasing her energetic persona. Films about children became increasingly popular, resulting in a ludicrous but brief run of films built around actual infant stars such as Baby LeRoy (1932–2001), who was made to upstage his adult costars in films during 1933, and Baby Sandy (b. 1938), whose phenomenon lasted from 1939 to 1941.

By the end of the 1930s, the most prominent roles of young characters, like child actors themselves, had aged toward adolescence, and Mickey Rooney's (b. 1920) teenage characters replaced Shirley Temple's little girls in terms of screen visibility. One of Rooney's recurring costars, Judy Garland (1922–1969), brought further visibility to roles about young people and as a teenager played the much younger lead character in one of the most popular children's films of the era, The Wizard of Oz (1939). Still, adolescent performances by Rooney, Garland, Deanna Durbin (b. 1921), and the ensemble known as the Dead End Kids constituted the primary representations of youth in Hollywood throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, and thereafter films built around stories about children would be only occasionally noticed. To be sure, movies like Journey for Margaret (1942), National Velvet (1944), and Miracle on 34th Street (1947) were popular, but they did not offer a sustained or consistent representation of children during this era. With the rise of the even more dominant genre of teen films in the 1950s, American films presented only sporadic and inconsistent images of children.


Hollywood has often presented an image of children that international audiences could easily appreciate, with an emphasis on universal themes such as the thrill of mischief, the hilarity of misadventure, and the need for love. Films about children made outside the United States have not usually enjoyed the same exposure, since other film markets have not maintained stables of child actors and have rarely been able to produce series of films for their respective child audiences.

With the exception of some British films such as Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940), international films about children before the 1950s are especially difficult to research because of the low number of extant prints. Little is known about many children's films from around the world except for their plot lines listed in catalogues. Foreign films concerning children include Kono Vank? (Whose fault?, India, 1929), Dann schon lieber Lebertran (Germany, 1931; known in Britain as I'd Rather Have Cod Liver Oil), Mädchen in Uniform (Germany, 1931), La Maternelle (France, 1933; also known as Children of Montmartre), Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct, France, 1933), Bhakta Dhruva (India, 1934), Fétiche (The Mascot, France, 1934), De Big van het regiment (Netherlands, 1935), Durga (India, 1939), Sciuscià (Shoe-Shine, Italy, 1946), and Nagaya shinshiroku (The Record of a Tenement Gentleman, Japan, 1947). Alas, many of these films have faded into obscurity, and are now difficult to find.

In the 1950s, however, with the further exchange of international films in the global market, many movies about children achieved widespread recognition. Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones, Mexico, 1950) was one of the first films to explicitly confront poverty and crime among children in the Third World. Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, France, 1952) tells the story of a boy and a girl creatively coping with the effects of World War II. Pather Panchali (India, 1954) was the first film of a trilogy that followed a character, Apu, from his resilient childhood in an impoverished family to his eventual adjustment to fatherhood. Les quatres cents coups (The 400 Blows, France, 1959) was as significant for its portrait of a young delinquent as it was for its visual style, which inspired the French New Wave. All of these films, despite their different countries of origin, tended to emphasize the same universal themes about children: they are born innocent yet enter a world that systematically corrupts them, so they must learn to persevere in the face of conflict and rise above the conditions around them.

Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan's Childhood, Soviet Union, 1962) tells the story of a child spy who is exploited by the military for his ability to evade detection, and thus confronts his value as a tool for adults engaged in warfare. L'Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child, France, 1970) is François Truffaut's (1932–1984) clinical examination of the primal states in children that he had dramatized in The 400 Blows. Cría cuervos (Cría!, Spain, 1975) tells the story of a girl dealing with the deaths of her closest relatives. Padre Padrone (My Father My Master, Italy, 1977) follows a young boy through his literally torturous relationship with his father to his escape from him. Wend Kuuni (God's Gift, Burkina Faso, 1982) tells the story of an abandoned child who is adopted by a family and later confronts the repressed secrets of his tragic past. With only slight variation, international films about children continue to explore the theme of childhood innocence challenged by adult circumstances.

Even with Hollywood's development of various teen subgenres that became increasingly popular in the 1980s—sex comedies, slasher horror, science fantasy—the international depiction of children in film remained focused primarily on their playful and yet profound discovery of encroaching adult life. Alsino y el cóndor (Alsino and the Condor, Nicaragua, 1982) presents a child who would rather engage in his youthful pleasures than the military conflict going on around him. Kazoku gêmu (The Family Game, Japan, 1983) depicts the pressure that Japanese children face in the competitive market of prestigious schools. Skyggen af Emma (Emma's Shadow, Denmark, 1988) features a girl who stages her own kidnapping to alert her family to their disregard for her, and then discovers she would rather live without them. Badkonake sefid (The White Balloon, Iran, 1995) illustrates the sexism and ageism of many cultures in its story of a little girl who is pushed around by the male adults and boys around her. La Vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful, Italy, 1997) shows the extreme efforts that a father goes through to keep his son sheltered from the terrors of the Holocaust in World War II. About a Boy (Britain, 2002) highlights the efforts of a boy to convince a man that he is worthy of being accepted as a surrogate son. Although some of these films have comic touches, they all explore serious and relevant issues for children around the world, which is in stark contrast to the majority of films about children that Hollywood has produced in the past generation.


The child star system that had worked so well for Hollywood before the war broke down soon thereafter. Very few child actors had more than a couple of popular films to their name after the 1950s, as the studio system was losing its coherence and power in controlling the American movie market. Although this meant that fewer films were made about children, those that were made offered a wider array of images. For example, The Bad Seed (1956) takes on the topic of a little girl's villainous nature by considering if her evil is in fact genetic. The Miracle Worker (1962) tells the story of Helen Keller's childhood development, raising awareness about disability issues. Oliver! (1968) brings the Oliver Twist tale to screen as a musical, offering a nostalgic celebration of orphanages. And the Disney studio continued to make some films about children as well.

Then in the 1970s Hollywood produced many films featuring children that drew critical attention for their coverage of serious issues. Two of the most notable were Paper Moon (1973), for which nine-year-old Tatum O'Neal (b. 1963) won an acting Oscar® as a hardened hoyden, and The Exorcist, in which a little girl endures the unfathomable tortures of demonic possession. With such films the studios were clearly changing their previous images of childhood innocence into tales of cynical children damaged by their surroundings. This was certainly the case with Taxi Driver (1976) and Pretty Baby (1978), two radical portraits of teenage prostitution; the topic of girls' sexuality had been wildly controversial even when addressed in Lolita (1962).

The studios also began making more films about children that were aimed at a child audience, as in Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), The Bad News Bears (1976), My Bodyguard (1980), Annie (1982), and the biggest film of the 1980s, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Many of these films were humorous and adventurous, although they continued to explore realistic conflicts for children, such as broken families, teamwork, bullying, poverty, drug use, and missing parents. Perhaps this realistic aspect is what then explains the studios' movement away from films about children in the later 1980s: addressing childhood was becoming an increasingly delicate enterprise.

After the diverse and often dark depictions of children that had emerged in the 1970s, and the rise of a dominant teen cinema in the 1980s, Hollywood only occasionally explored contemporary childhood thereafter, and almost always did so in relation to adult culture. A popular topic became kids who comically torment their parents and other adults, as in Problem Child (1990), Home Alone (1990), Dennis the Menace (1993), Richie Rich (1994), First Kid (1996), Leave It to Beaver (1997), and The Parent Trap (1998). Still, few films took seriously the role that children play in the lives of adults and the culture at large; exceptions included Little Man Tate (1991), Free Willy (1993), Pay It Forward (2000), and I Am Sam (2001). Hollywood products nonetheless continue the trend of featuring children in fanciful or even absurd stories, as in the Harry Potter series, the Spy Kids series (2001–2003), Tuck Everlasting (2002), The Cat in the Hat (2003), Catch That Kid (2004), Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), and Hide and Seek (2005). For whatever reason, the American film industry remains largely reluctant to address real issues and aspects of children's lives.

SEE ALSO Cartoons;Child Actors;Fantasy Films;Teen Films;Walt Disney Company


Allen, Robert C. "Home Alone Together: Hollywood and the 'Family Film.'" In Identifying Hollywood's Audiences, edited by Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby, 109–131. London: British Film Institute, 1990.

De Cordova, Richard. "Ethnography and Exhibition: The Child Audience, the Hays Office, and Saturday Matinees." Camera Obscura 23 (1990): 91–106.

Goldstein, Ruth, and Edith Zornow. The Screen Image of Youth: Movies about Children and Adolescents. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1980.

Jackson, Kathy Merlock. Images of Children in American Film: A Sociocultural Analysis. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1986.

Staples, Terry. All Pals Together: The Story of Children's Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996.

Wojcik-Andrews, Ian. Children's Films: History, Ideology, Pedagogy, Theory. New York: Garland, 2000.

Timothy Shary

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