‘When I Grow Up’ (1951) – Hollywood’s Obscure Gem


by Denise Carey-CostaWhen I Grow Up Poster

Child star Bobby Driscoll will always be remembered as one of Disney’s young stars and the first actor to be placed under contract with the Disney Studio. During his Disney tenure, he made such memorable films as Song of the South, Treasure Island, and Peter Pan.

In 1951, Bobby was loaned to Horizon Productions to appear in a movie called When I Grow Up.  This is a rather obscure film and considered lost by many film historians. The plotline is quite simplistic and tells the story of three generations and the relationship between children and their elders.

Bobby Driscoll shows his acting brilliance in this film by playing dual roles: one set in present day (1951), and one set in 1892 during flashback sequences. He plays both parts equally well and captures the angst and feelings of alienation from his family that both the characters experience in two different centuries.

The film opens in present day 1951 with young Denny Reed (Bobby Driscoll) eating breakfast with his parents (Henry Morgan and Elizabeth Fraser). Denny is a sullen, rebellious teenager interested only in making money for his new bicycle. He feels disconnected from his parents and grandfather and lashes out at them verbally. While Denny is out with his friend Binks (Bobby Hyatt) trying to earn money by distributing fliers for a local hardware store, he manages to get into a fight with a local bully. Out of frustration at his ongoing bad attitude and penchant for trouble, Denny’s mother strikes him in the face, causing him to run away. When Grandpa Joshua Reed (Charley Grapewin) offers to look for him, mother lashes out at him cruelly, making him feel like a burden to the family. Grandpa, feeling unwanted and useless, goes up to the attic and begins to look through some memorabilia from his own life. He finds an old journal from 1892 and begins to read it.

Flashback to 1892, where we see a young Josh Reed (Bobby Driscoll) writing in his journal. His little sister Ruthie (Sherry Jackson) begins crying that he is keeping her awake. Father Reed (Robert Preston) punishes Josh harshly. Mother Reed (Martha Scott) chastises him for being too hard on the boy.

Josh and his pal Duckface Kelly (Johnny McGovern) spend their time together fishing and bemoaning their miserable home lives. Josh thinks his overly strict, emotionally cold father hates him and Duckface tries to tolerate his drunken, abusive mother. Both decide life will be better if they run away and join the circus when it comes to town. They both start working menial jobs for the circus in exchange for free tickets. They befriend one of the performers, a clown named Bobo (Poodles Hanneford). Both boys have starry-eyed dreams of a bright future, away from all the adults in their lives and leaving town with the circus. But tragedy soon strikes. A Typhoid epidemic breaks out and Josh’s plans of running away with Duckface are thwarted when he is left weak and bedridden, fighting to survive the illness. While he is recovering, he is unaware that the Typhoid has taken the lives of both his father and his best friend Duckface.

One of the most poignant moments in the film is with Josh, now recovered from the Typhoid, making a final entry into his journal, “When people love other people, why don’t they show it or something before it’s too late?” Josh is lamenting the fact that he never shared the close bond with his father that he wanted.

Back to the present day, Grandpa looks at the words he wrote nearly sixty years ago and wipes away a tear. Denny eventually returns home and locks himself in his room. He plans to run away and finds the journal inside the suitcase he plans to use. Intrigued by it, he begins reading. By morning, Denny is a changed person. He has a new understanding and respect for his elders. He apologizes to his parents and gives his grandfather a hug. The film ends on a positive note as the family ties are mended and all see the importance of treating each other with respect.

The interesting irony of this film is how the characters of Denny, Josh, and Duckface all feel oppressed by their parents and current living conditions. They think when they grow up, all their problems will be solved.

Unfortunately, this was not the case for Bobby Driscoll. When he grew up, he found himself ostracized by Hollywood and estranged from his family. He struggled to find himself and his identity separate from his child star image. He turned to drugs and was in and out of trouble with the law. He was found dead at the age of 31 in an empty tenement building and buried in a pauper’s grave.

On the other hand, Johnny McGovern (Duckface) achieved much success in adulthood. He changed his name to John Wilder and became well known as a writer/producer of well-known television series, such as Streets of San Francisco, Centennial, Return to Lonesome Dove, and most recently Shuffleton’s Barbershop.

When I Grow Up may seem outdated and modest to today’s audiences, but the film’s subtle messages still rings true 63 years later. The constant struggle for understanding between generations, family ties, the importance of great friendships, and loving and appreciating the people in our lives while we have them.

Sadly this film has never received the accolades it deserved. It will always remain one of Hollywood’s lost treasures.

About the Author

Denise Carey-Costa has been a lifelong advocate for animals. She has written numerous children’s books promoting kindness and compassion for all creatures and raising awareness for the plight of unwanted animals. Denise tours with her books to schools and libraries teaching the importance of spaying and neutering your pets, adopting a shelter pet and how to report animal cruelty. Visit Amazon.com and all other book retailers to see books written by Denise Carey-Costa.

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