Bonita Granville: The Beloved Brat (and the First Nancy Drew)

Bonita Granville (1923-1988) has a special place in the hearts of classic movie buffs and old time show biz fans. As a child, she specialized in playing bratty, precocious or otherwise bothersome children. Later she played naughty, sexy or adventurous adolescents and young women. In her maturity, she became a mogul herself.

Bonita was the daughter of vaudeville and Broadway star Bunny Granville. Bunny died when she was 13 but that was long enough to see his daughter appear in supporting roles in a dozen pictures, including the Oscar-winning Cavalcade (1933), Little Women (1933), Anne of Green Gables (1934), O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! (1934), John Ford’s adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars (1936) with Barbara Stanwyck, and her Oscar nominated turn as the evil child in These Three (1936), the adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, with Miriam Hopkins, Joel McCrea, and Merle Oberon. She was in Quality Street (1937) with Katharine Hepburn, and the all-star screwball comedy Merrily We Live (1938), played the title character in The Beloved Brat (1938), and was the first person to play Nancy Drew in several youth oriented mysteries in 1938 and 1939.

In 1939 Granville appeared in The Angels Wash Their Faces with the Dead End Kids, Ronald Reagan, and Ann Sheridan. Then came Forty Little Mothers (1940) with Eddie Cantor. She has a hilarious turn in The Wild Man of Borneo (1941), as an aging child star. In 1942 she was in Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, and Now, Voyager with Bette Davis, one of her more memorable roles. In 1943 she co-starred with Tim Holt in Hitler’s Children, one of the few, early pictures to take an unsparing view of the evils of Nazism. In the mid ’40s she was in some of Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy pictures, and Song of the Open Road (1944), Jane Powell’s first picture and W.C. Fields’ penultimate one.

In 1947 Granville married Jack Wrather; he produced her last three pictures as a star: The Guilty (1947), Strike it Rich (1948), and Guilty of Treason (1950). For the next decade she worked steadily on television dramatic anthologies like Schlitz Playhouse and Playhouse 90. But increasingly, joint projects with Wrather became her focus. In 1956 she appeared in the film version of The Lone Ranger, co-produced by Wrather. Starting in 1959 her main project in life was Lassie! She co-produced the television show for Wrather, and occasionally took supporting roles and provided narration on the show. Lassie ran until 1973. In 1978, she co-produced the hit movie The Magic of Lassie, with Jimmy Stewart, Mickey Rooney, Pernell Roberts, Alice Faye (in her final film role) and Stephanie Zimbalist, in one of her first professional roles. In 1981 Granville had a cameo in The Legend of the Lone Ranger, one of her final screen appearances. Wrather passed away in 1984; Granville joined him in 1988.

For more on vaudeville and show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,