The life of this extremely talented woman began on February 2, 1923 when Bonita Granville was born in New York City, New York. Her parents were in show business (dad Bernard Granville was a headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies), and Bonita made her debut on the stage at the age of three in 1926.
Bonita entered films in 1932 with roles in Westward Passage and Silver Dollar. She followed these up with the role of Ursula Jeans as a child in 1933's Cavalcade (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year).
She worked at a wide variety of studios during these early years, including RKO, Fox, Paramount, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was at United Artists however, that she would find her greatest success.
The film was These Three, directed by William Wyler and based on Lillian Hellman's controversial Broadway play "The Children's Hour." It was produced by Samuel Goldwyn and starred such motion picture heavyweights as Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea in the leading roles. The content of the film was altered drastically for the film version in order to get it past the censors, though it remains, even today, a very powerful film.
The plot dealt with two teachers (Oberon, Hopkins) who both fall in love with the same man (McCrea) and the malicious schoolgirl (Granville) who tries to ruin their lives with vicious rumors. For her performance, Bonita was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, the first time such an award was being given. She didn't get it however. Actress Gale Sondergaard took it home for her performance in Anthony Adverse.
After the success of These Three Bonita became Warner Bros.'s resident child star and also became typecast as a nasty little girl. In 1937's Maid of Salem, she accused Claudette Colbert of being a witch. In 1938's My Bill she turned against her mother (Kay Francis) after her father dies, and in Beloved Brat she runs away from home repeatedly and even kills a man, only to blame it on the family butler who goes to prison for it!
Off the screen, Bonita was the exact opposite of her movie persona. She was a kind, happy person whom her friends nicknamed "Bunny." She was also extremely intelligent and managed to graduate from high school (albeit a studio one) at the age of 16. Like other girls her age, she had teenage romances (though hers was with fellow movie star Jackie Cooper).
Bonita would get a memorable role in 1939 when she starred in Nancy Drew, Detective, a film based on the famous juvenile mystery stories. She thus became the first person to ever play the teenage detective. Warner Bros. tried to make it into a series to rival MGM's successful Andy Hardy pictures, though it only lasted through three more films.
In 1940, 17 year-old Bonita moved to MGM, the biggest and best movie studio, where she got mostly supporting roles in such important films as The Mortal Storm with James Stewart and Escape with Metro's reigning queen Norma Shearer. Outside of the studio she scored hits with the Alan Ladd film The Glass Key at Paramount and Now, Voyager with Bette Davis at Warner Bros.
Bonita had the privilege of starring in one of the best pictures of 1943 when she reported to RKO for work on Hitler's Children, a propaganda film which told about the horrors of young women living in Nazi Germany. It managed to get by the censors due to its patriotic theme and recouped its shoestring budget of $178,000 sixteen-fold, becoming the most successful RKO picture to date (even bigger than King Kong and Top Hat).
After that, there was nothing much left for Bonita besides a role supporting newcomer Jane Powell in UA's Song of the Open Road in 1944 and also playing Mickey Rooney's resident girlfriend in two films in the popular Andy Hardy series, which would soon come to a close.
In the late 1940s, Bonita went to work at smaller, poverty-row studios like Monogram, Allied Artists and Eagle Lion Classics, though she always rose above whatever poor material she had. She was now a woman in her mid-twenties and had not had any problems making the sometimes difficult transition from child to adult star.
In 1948 Bonita became the second wife of John "Jack" Wrather, Jr., a very wealthy businessman. She gave up her career as an actress in order to become an executive in his huge business empire which included oil wells, the Muzak Corporation (maker of elevator music), the ocean liner Queen Mary, dry-docked off Long Beach, California, and the Disneyland hotel in Anaheim, California.
She didn't leave show business entirely, however. In 1950, Jack Wrather bought the television series "Lassie," which Bonita would produce (along with "The Lone Ranger" television series) as Bonita Granville Wrather until 1972, when it went into syndication (wisely, the Wrathers kept the syndication rights). She would also co-produce the 1978 film The Magic of Lassie with James Stewart and Alice Faye.
In her later years, Bonita and her husband were very active socially. They belonged to a very close circle of friends which included President Ronald Reagan (a former co-star) and First Lady Nancy Davis Reagan in the early 1980s. The Wrathers donated thousands of dollars to their causes, and were also very influential in the President's decision-making.
Unlike other child stars, who more often than not had at least one unsuccessful marriage, Bonita managed to stay married to the same man for 37 years, until Jack Wrather's death in 1984. They had four children together: daughters Molly and Linda, and sons Jack and Christopher.
In 1986, Bonita became the fifth Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute, which was created in order to preserve American film. She served in the post until she died of cancer on October 11, 1988. She was only 65 years old. She was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery. After her death, the Chairmen of the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute were honored with the dedication of the Bonita Granville Wrather Gallery in the Warners Communications building. Her memory lives on. She left behind her a very full life and an on-screen legacy to last forever.
Bonita wasn't a spectator in the game of life, but a player who controlled it and did it well. She refused to fall into the same traps that some of her peers in the movie industry did. She was a very talented woman who deserves to be remembered today much more than she is.
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