Hayley Mills, child star

In the early 1960s, Hayley Mills was the most popular child film star in the Western world. While she is best known for her performances in six Disney movies, she also played leading roles in several British-made film dramas of the time. Now in her seventies, she has had a long career in film, television and stage acting, although it is for her work with Disney between 1960 and 1965 that she is best remembered. In this essay, I will focus on a selection of Hayley Mills’s Disney films, and on some of her British films from the same period. As I will show, these films raise several broader questions about the phenomenon of child stardom, and about the representation of childhood – and specifically of girlhood – during this period of rapid social and cultural change.


Biography, Part One: The Making of a Child Star

Hayley Mills was born in London on April 18th, 1946. Her father was the prominent film actor Sir John Mills and her mother was the writer Mary Hayley Bell: Hayley later appeared in several films alongside her father, and in two written by her mother (Whistle Down the Wind and Sky West and Crooked). She made her screen debut as a baby in her father’s 1947 film So Well Remembered – although some accounts suggest that her parents were not necessarily keen for her to pursue an acting career.

Mills was brought up on her parents’ 400-acre dairy farm in Sussex, although she attended a private boarding school for most of her childhood. One day, the director J. Lee Thompson had come to visit her father in order to discuss his role as a police superintendent in his forthcoming thriller Tiger Bay. Thompson noticed twelve-year-old Hayley playing in the garden, apparently spoofing television commercials. He was so impressed by her that he immediately decided to change the lead role in the film – that of a child who witnesses a murder – from a boy to girl: he apparently cast Hayley without a screen test. Released in 1959, the film was a great critical success. Hayley Mills won the British Academy Award (BAFTA) for Most Promising Newcomer to Film, as well as an award at the Berlin Film Festival.

After Tiger Bay, Hayley went back to school. However, the film eventually brought her to the attention of Walt Disney. On a trip to London, Disney’s wife Lillian saw the film more or less accidentally, while seeking shelter from the rain. Disney asked the film’s distributor, Rank, to send him a print, but they refused. His wife was so insistent that Disney finally came over to London, where he met Hayley and her parents in the swanky Dorchester Hotel. At the time, Disney had been casting for his forthcoming film Pollyanna, and had tested 350 girls for the title role, without success: apparently he was at the point of dropping the project. Shortly after meeting her, he signed Mills to a five-year contract, again without a screen test.

Pollyanna, released in 1960, was something of a sensation, not least because of Disney Studios’ energetic pre-publicity. Amid a high-profile cast, Mills won very positive reviews, and was awarded a special miniature-sized Juvenile Academy Award. It seems that her parents didn’t tell her about this, and she wasn’t there to collect it, having once again gone back to her strict boarding school: the award was presented by the leading child star of a previous generation, Shirley Temple, and collected on Hayley’s behalf by a fellow Disney child actor, Annette Funicello.

Despite the critical acclaim, Pollyanna was not a major box-office success: apparently Disney put the blame for this on the title, which he believed would be a turn-off for male cinemagoers. However, Mills’s second Disney film, the comedy The Parent Trap (1961), in which she played identical twin sisters, was far more popular: it has made more than $25 million at the box office to date, as well as spawning several sequels. Mills’s performance of the song ‘Let’s Get Together’, written by Robert and Richard Sherman, was a top-ten chart hit, and led on to an album.

Hayley Mills’s Britishness was not entirely disguised in her Disney performances. She has a distinct British accent in Pollyanna – although the script tries to explain this by mentioning that her father had been a missionary in the ‘British West Indies’. In The Parent Trap, one of the twin characters has been brought up in an upper-class Boston neighbourhood; and in one scene, she teaches her California twin to speak in a ‘correct’ Boston accent – which (in Hayley’s version) is actually strongly English. Disney was apparently quite relaxed about having a mixture of accents in his films, although it is possible that part of Hayley Mills’s appeal was due to the associations of Englishness for (some) American audiences.

Walt Disney himself took a close personal interest in Mills’s career, and became friendly with her family: she later described how she was ‘looked after… like a cherished daughter’ at Disney. Yet Hayley Mills was also a leading earner for the studio. During this period, she regularly appeared on lists of the most popular female screen actors on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1961, she was the most popular star overall at the US box office. Mills was on the receiving end of a tidal wave of fan adoration: she reportedly received 6-7000 letters and gifts every week. Evidence from her recent public appearances, and from extensive video tributes and comments on YouTube, suggests that this fandom continues today – albeit, of course, with a strong element of nostalgia.

After The Parent Trap, Mills continued to appear in Disney films – albeit more routine ones like the adventure In Search of the Castaways (1962, with Maurice Chevalier and George Sanders) and Summer Magic (1963). She had a somewhat more adult part in the Disney mystery film The Moon-Spinners (1964), although her most successful later role was in the comedy That Darn Cat! (1965), which was her last Disney film, as well as the last Walt Disney produced before his death in 1966. I’ll be discussing several of these films in due course.

During this time, Mills was considered for the lead role in Stanley Kubrick’s film of Lolita, although this was apparently vetoed by Disney, and by her parents (who chose all her roles at this time). Significantly, Mills later said that she regretted missing out on Lolita, and that her career might have ‘turned out differently’ if she had taken it. She was also in line for a part in a Disney adaptation of Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture the Castle, although the film was never made. However, Mills also had a kind of parallel career in British films, often made with her parents. A year after Pollyanna, she played the lead role in a version of her mother’s novel Whistle Down the Wind (1961), directed by Bryan Forbes. In 1964, she co-starred with her father in the melodrama The Chalk Garden, and did so again in the comic adventure The Truth About Spring (1965), made for Universal Studios.

Towards the end of this period, Mills was beginning to transition out of her role as a child star – and that role was effectively put to an end when she appeared in a modest but much-discussed nude scene in the British comedy The Family Way (1966), at the age of twenty. I’ll consider this process of transition in more detail in a later section of this essay.


Understanding Child Stardom

Of course, there is a long history of child stardom, that can be traced back well beyond the advent of cinema. In Hollywood, the lineage extends from Mary Pickford in the 1910s and 1920s, through Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney, on to more contemporary examples such as Macaulay Culkin, Drew Barrymore and Miley Cyrus. Inevitably, there are significant variations here – not least in terms of how successfully these stars make the transition from child to adult roles. Yet broadly speaking, child stars function in two principal ways: as commodities and as representations.

Thus, like other stars, child stars have an economic function for the film industry. They operate as ‘unique selling points’ for films, enabling producers to draw attention to their products in a crowded and competitive marketplace, and thereby create a degree of predictability in an uncertain business. Stars are bankable, in a way that relatively few directors or screenwriters are; although the economic and legal position of child stars as paid employees is often complex. Meanwhile, stardom can also prove difficult for the industry to handle, not least because stars live off-screen lives that can sometimes conflict with the roles they play on screen. Considerable work goes into managing public perceptions of these off-screen lives, on the part of publicists, agents and studio executives.

At the same time, child stars also function as representations of childhood itself. They perform particular versions of childhood, and thereby embody assumptions about what children (and, by extension, adults) are, or ought to be. These actors are children, but they are also playing the role of children: childhood is, at least partly, a kind of masquerade. Again, there is a good deal of diversity here: but it is hard to ignore the dominant tendency to idealize and sentimentalize childhood. While this is certainly apparent within a good deal of Hollywood cinema, it has a longer history in the Romantic view of childhood, expressed for example in nineteenth century literature and painting (Wordsworth, Dickens, the pre-Raphaelites…). The child is often seen here as ‘cute’ or a ‘loveable moppet’ – as a beautiful, pure, free spirit, an object of unquestioning wonder and joy.

In her book Precocious Charms, the critic Gaylyn Studlar has explored these representations of childhood in the films of six leading Hollywood child stars, including Pickford and Temple, as well as actors such as Deanna Durbin and Jennifer Jones, who are less well remembered today. In performing childhood, she argues, these child stars also mark out the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, and the relationships between them. Indeed, the child is often seen to have something to teach adults: it is a repository of fundamental human values such as honesty, loyalty and affection, with which adults are sometimes seen to have lost touch. In these films, the child is innocent, and yet somehow intuitively knows and speaks the truth – even if that truth is something that adults seek to deny. The child is a peacemaker or a healer, with the power to make adults better people. Like some kind of sticky emotional glue, it has a unique ability to reunite or reassemble the family, and in some cases the wider community as well. One aspect that is especially striking here is the preponderance of sick and orphaned children in these films. These vulnerable children typically evoke or re-awaken feelings of pity and affection, and a hidden wish to care and protect; and this is especially notable among potential father-figures, who thereby become more human and domesticated, and can be integrated back into the family.

The majority of child stars are female; and as such, the girl star also embodies particular ways of being feminine, and therefore assumptions about what females are, or ought to be. This can obviously take the stereotypical form of prettiness and passivity, but girl stars are also often represented as independent and physically assertive. From Pickford and Temple on through, they often play the role of the ‘tomboy’ or the ‘hoyden’, who is feisty and rebellious. This is a child who is determined to be free of adult constraints, and to resist adult authority, and often takes on conventionally masculine characteristics in doing so. Even so, this is frequently a temporary starting position: such girls generally learn a more traditional form of femininity, although they may still use it to further their own interests.

In such narratives, the spectre of sexuality is often lurking, albeit often off-screen. Despite Freud, childhood is traditionally considered to be pre-sexual, or a-sexual: the child is not assumed to know about adult sexuality, let alone experience sexual feelings in its own right. However, numerous commentators have argued that the child star itself can also become an object of sexual desire. The most infamous instance of this is the novelist Graham Greene’s 1936-37 reviews of Shirley Temple, which commented on the star’s ‘voluptuous’ appeal, her ‘dubious coquetry’ and her ‘dimpled depravity’ – reviews for which he was successfully sued by Temple’s studio, Twentieth Century Fox. This argument may say more about Greene than it does about Temple – or indeed about the studio, which Greene accused of exploiting her appeal to ‘middle-age men and clergymen’. However, it has subsequently been taken up by feminist critics, who suggest that these films invoke a ‘paedophilic gaze’ that is equivalent to the ‘male gaze’ of mainstream Hollywood cinema.

There is no doubt that some adult men may find such images of girlish innocence erotic; and images of cute girls may be more palatable and comforting in this respect than images of sexual adult women. However, as Studlar points out, the fans of girl stars like Temple were by no means only adult men; and even for them, the appeal may have been more about the search for a lost childhood than anything overtly sexual. The role of the adult male (re-)discovering a fatherly desire to protect the child may hold a genuine appeal both to male and female viewers.

Nevertheless – and especially in the case of female stars – the issue of sexuality is frequently a key point of tension. As we’ll see, the transition from child star to adult actor is often fraught with difficulty, and this can be exacerbated by public perceptions of stars’ off-screen behaviour. The industry’s publicity machine may have to work overtime to reassert conservative notions of childhood and of femininity that the stars themselves urgently wish to jettison, and often resort to extreme tactics in seeking to do so (Miley Cyrus would be a recent case in point).

As we’ll see, these characteristics are apparent in several ways in the case of Hayley Mills. However, Mills was not just a Hollywood star. She was also an actor in British films – films whose style and approach reflect a very different context of production, and which also represent childhood (and girlhood) in rather different ways from her American movies. I want to begin by looking at two of these films, before contrasting them with Disney’s vision of childhood.

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