A Woolrich Gallery #1

I once got into a silly argument with my friend Nicola about whether THE WINDOW was in colour or b&w. I clearly remembered the colours — proof, in fact, that sometimes the eye paints in what the film omits to record. I think also the all-American boy in a stripy top had formed a connection in my mind between Bobby Driscoll in THE WINDOW and little Tommy Rettig in THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR T, enabling me to “see” the colours of Bobby Dee’s shirt.

Maybe also the palpable sense of summer heat evoked by former DoP Ted Tetzlaff’s film (based on Woolrich’s juvenile Rear Window retread, The Boy Who Cried Wolf) added a wash of orange and red over my memories — although in fact, monochrome movies are often the best for making you feel a choking sense of humidity — see TOUCH OF EVIL for confirmation.

To threaten the life of a child, said Francois Truffaut (who filmed two Woolrich novels), is almost an abuse of cinematic power. THE WINDOW depends entirely for suspense on placing its miniature protagonist in peril, but we are reassured slightly by the fact that he’s the hero of the film, and he’s a star, so he’s probably going to make it through OK. Nevertheless, it’s disconcerting to find him playing in the ruins of a crumbling tenement in scene one, something modern American parents probably would tolerate, and which the city would take steps to render impossible. And when bad guy Paul Stewart punches the little mite unconscious later on, there’s a genuine sense of SHOCK.

Because the film is rooted in a fairly happy family, and the threat comes from entirely outside, and things are cleared up cosily by the end, perhaps we can’t call this true noir, but the visuals certainly fit. And Bobby looking up at the stars enables me to quote Woolrich’s memoirs. As an eleven-year-old boy, he looked up at the stars, and ~

“I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t.”*

The other thing that haunts this film and gives it a darker edge is the melancholy fate of Bobby Driscoll. After his movie career did a slow fade in adolescence, he drifted into drug abuse. Apparently a talented artist, he hung out with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd (he was apparently a promising visual artist), then vanished from view. An unidentified body found in an abandoned tenement was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave on Hart Island. A year and a half later, his mother approached the police, wanting Bobby to see his father, who was close to death. A fingerprint search matched Bobby’s name to his corpse.

Bobby Driscoll, RIP.

*Excepted from Francis M Nevins’ introduction to Night & Fear.

The Window [DVD]

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8 Responses to “A Woolrich Gallery #1”

  1. In the superb Crumb considerbale attention is paid to R. Crumb’s insane brother’s obsession with Bobby Driscoll.

    Dricoll’s last credit is for an obscure Piero Heliczer effort called Dirt.

  2. It’d be interesting to see what poor Bobby looked like then. Of all the tragic Hollywood kids stories, this has to be one of the most miserable.

  3. Dean Stockwell was aksed a few years back what would he do if his kids wanted to become actors. he said “I’d build them a stage in the back yard. They could act there.”

    Nothing more.

    And he’s one of the survivors!

    Most child actors are roadkill, unless they’re very, very lucky. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Neal Patrick Harris are two recent examples of child actors who overcame the curse to take thier places as adult stars. But they’re exceptions to the rule, alas.

  4. I always thought that most kids want to act (ask me how many plays I did in elementary school – at least a dozen by my count, and I even have a cast photo of one of the last I did, after I’d gotten sick of it), but the worst thing was to encourage it. My parents didn’t encourage it at all. They were both so sober and thoroughly European that anything but the professions wasn’t considered half good enough. By junior high, I was glad I was out of acting (I was besieged, much like Marty Scorsese, with bronchitis and pneumonia, which means I got to watch a lot of movies).

    When you were in the “gifted” program in my day (which means you get beat up and copied off of more than other kids), the school would shove you into every creative endeavor they could imagine. They even had me and the rest of the gifted kids each write a TV script at age 10. The only thing I liked doing then was music.

    I look at a lot of kid and teen stars and think that either an early grave or a slow fade faces them. So few take their early success to their 30s and beyond. My mantra is, “Remember the Brat Pack”.

  5. Jodie Foster and Natalie Portman look very smart for having taken time out to study. They got their careers back afterwards, but had they not, they’d have had something to fall back on.

    What’s tragic with Driscoll is that he seemingly did find another creative outlet, but it didn’t make him any money and it put him in an environment unhealthy for anyone with self-destructive tendencies…

    A lot of people in kids’ TV now do watch out for pushy parents and tend to avoid kids with that kind of baggage. But ultimately, they do what’s best for the show, so the risk of exploitation is always there. During my BBC time though, I was fairly impressed with how careful we all were with the kids’ well-being. And none of them got famous enough to be damaged!

  6. david wingrove Says:

    Does being a child-star really ‘damage’ a kid? Or does acting in general just attract all manner of ‘damaged’ people, regardless of age?

    A few years ago, I read Gavin Lambert’s biography of Natalie Wood. He spent the whole book trying to turn her into some sort of Garbo-esque tragic heroine, whereas in fact – from what I could gather – she seemed remarkably sane and well-adjusted, all things considered.

    Plus, I’ve known lots of people who’ve never had even a momentary brush with fame…and are still profoundly disturbed. Meanwhile if you’re famous and you have problems, the whole world will find out.

  7. The spotlight of publicity probably causes FAR more stress than the actual work, which most kids enjoy. I think the sudden wealth and attention screws with people who happen to be vulnerable, and more of them probably get into movies due to having pushy parents. If you have a studio doctor prescribing speed to keep your weight down, I guess that doesn’t help, but other than that I imagine it’s the side-products of money and celebrity that do more harm than the actual process of acting in films.

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