Edith Fellows: The Biggest Little Pepper

Edith Fellows (1923-2011) is chiefly remembered as a child star, although her career lasted (with gaps) for over 65 years.

Fellows was only five years old when cast as a bratty kid in the hilarious silent Charley Chase classic Movie Night (1929). Other comedy shorts included Shivering Shakespeare (1930), Birthday Blues (1932) and Mush and Milk (1933) with Our Gang, Knights Before Christmas (1930) with Dane and Arthur, Second Hand Kisses (1931) with Louise Fazenda and Jimmy Finlayson, She also had small roles in such features as Cimarron (1931), Daddy Long Legs (1931), Huckleberry Finn (1931), One in a Lifetime (1932), The Penguin Pool Murder (1932), Fra Diavolo (1932) with Laurel and Hardy, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934) with W.C. Fields, and Kid Millions (1934) with Eddie Cantor.

By the mid ’30s Fellows was getting key roles in films. She was Adele in the 1934 version of Jane Eyre. She was the title character in Tugboat Princess (1936) with Walter C. Kelly. She was third billed in Pennies from Heaven (1936) with Bing Crosby and Madge Evans. Little Miss Roughneck (1938) was a starring vehicle for her, playing on her track record of playing bratty, precocious kids, while making use of her singing and dancing skills (she had studied both). The film paired her with Leo Carrillo, with whom she also co-starred in City Streets (1938).

A high water mark of her film career came when Fellows was cast in the key role of Polly Pepper, the oldest child in a brood of five, in screen adaptations of Margaret Sidney’s books: Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1939), Five Little Peppers at Home (1940), Out West with the Peppers (1940), and Five Little Peppers in Trouble (all 1940). Several other teen features followed, culminating in 1942 with a pair of Gene Autry westerns Heart of the Rio Grande and Stardust on the Sage and the B movie crime drama Criminal Investigator.

At this stage, Fellows was closing in on 20 years old and still under 4′ 11″ tall. This made her tricky to cast, although the major studios certainly made the effort to create starring careers for some similar diminutive actresses, such as Judy Garland and Veronica Lake. During this transitional period she appeared in the Broadway shows Marinka (1945) and Louisiana Lady (1947), and married talent agent and producer Freddie Fields (1946), who later co-founded CMA.

In 1949 she did a turn on The Benny Rubin Show, which began the third phase of her career, which consisted mostly of television work. She worked consistently in live TV drama through 1954. She divorced Fields in 1956, then appeared in the Broadway show Uncle Willie (1956-57).

In 1958 she appeared in a live charity event, her last professional work for some time. There followed a two-decade period of drug and alcohol dependency, homelessness, and menial jobs. During this period, she took extra parts in the films Lilith (1964) and Mirage (1965).

Wondrously, she managed to come back from all of this, and the 1980s were to be her most productive decade since kidhood. Her return started with a 1979 play called Dreams Deferred by playwright and director Rudy Venz. Based on her life story, it was presented as a starring vehicle for her at a Los Angeles community theatre. This led to a string of guest shots on hit tv shows: The Brady Brides, St. Elsewhere, Father Murphy, Simon & Simon, Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Cagney and Lacey, and Mr. Belvedere. In the 1983 movie Grace Kelly starring Cheryl Ladd her diminutive stature allowed her to play famed costume designer Edith Head. She was also in the horror film The Hills Have Eyes II (1984), among other credits. Her last film of this period was the risque comedy In the Mood (1987) starring Patrick Dempsey. 

After eight years off screen Fellows returned in 1995 to take two additional roles, on the tv shows ER and The Pursuit of Happiness, after which she officially retired.

For more on classic comedy film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube