STAR TURNS: Hollywood’s first child stars
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TIM WALKER writes about his very special link with an actress from the golden age of cinema
It's almost 10 years since the last of the Mawby Triplets died, aged 90, at her home in Poole in Dorset. With her sisters, Claudette and Angella, Claudine had made 24 films in Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties with the likes of John Barrymore, Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford. They were the first child stars, and, at the height of their fame, they were honoured by ticker tape parades, had their tiny handprints set in stone at Grauman's Chinese Theatre and served as bridesmaids at the wedding of Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, his mistress, took them to lunch. The news of Claudine's death made headlines around the world and it hit me hard, not least because she was my mother.
Of course that was how I thought of her: the one person who was always there for me, put up with my screaming as a baby, the usual nonsense during adolescence and became my principal cheerleader after I started work. Until a few weeks of her death, we'd been regularly swimming together in the sea. I think because she'd been educated only on film sets and never worked in an office, she was a uniquely free spirit. She had little, if any, respect for authority and told people exactly what she thought of them. She was an unerringly good judge of character.
It felt strange reading about this film star in the obituaries. She had consigned her extraordinary early life to a few old scrapbooks that I only discovered after her death. I had an awareness she had acted as a child, but she seldom spoke about it. Once, watching The Sunshine Boys – a film about two old Vaudevillians starring Walter Matthau and George Burns – she casually mentioned that was her in one of the old black and white clips they showed in the opening credits. I think she considered it all to be rather vulgar and it also brought back an intensely painful memory.
Fame had happened to her accidentally when she arrived in southern California at the age of four with her parents and two sisters. Her mother Ella had been advised by her doctors to take a long break in sunnier climes after an illness. A newspaper photographer had spotted them, and, reckoning three beautiful identical youngsters were something of a novelty, took their picture. Talent scouts from MGM saw it and swiftly signed the girls up to appear in their first film, The Baby Cyclone, with Lew Cody.
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Others followed in quick succession: Dance of the Paper Dolls, one of the earliest colour films, and the original Broadway Melody with Bessie Love, among them. They sang Singin' in the Rain with Jack Benny in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. My grandparents attempted to explain that they weren't actually triplets: my mother and Claudette were twins, but Angella was 11 months older. The film publicists told them not to fret and billed them as the Mawby Triplets anyway.
They were paid an astronomical £25 a day and got to meet anyone who was anyone, including George Bernard Shaw. He asked them if they liked acting, and they replied – in unison, according to the Daily Herald – 'it's perfectly lovely'. My mother remembered how Shaw had ordered his wife to stay indoors. She'd looked out at them longingly from an upstairs window.
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In 1932, after the aviator Charles Lindbergh's 20-month-old son was kidnapped and murdered, the girls had begun receiving threats, and, on one occasion, a group of men ran their car off the road before being seen off by the burly actor Victor McLaglen, who happened to be travelling with them. The family decided it was time to head home.
The girls appeared in a few films at Elstree after their return, and, in 1936, when they had all reached the age of 10 – at the time the minimum age to legally appear on a stage – they starred in the musical Going Places at the Savoy Theatre. The outbreak of war put an end to their careers not long afterwards. Infinitely worse, Claudette was killed instantly when one of Hitler's V-1 flying bombs hit a building where she had been staying in Brighton.
It was, of course, the pain of that which made it so hard for my mother to look at the pictures of three such wonderfully happy children in her old scrapbooks. Still, she went on to find another role in life at which she excelled and that was motherhood. What she understood, above all things, was what mattered in life and what didn't.
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