Marilyn Knowlden

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Marilyn Knowlden
Knowlden in Barefoot Boy (1938)
Marilyn Knowlden

(1926-05-12) May 12, 1926 (age 97)
OccupationChild actress
Years active1931–1944
Spouse(s)Richard Goates (1946–?)
Eliseo Busnardo (?)

Marilyn Knowlden (born May 12, 1926) is an American former child actress. She started appearing in Hollywood films in 1931 when she was four years old. She established herself as a freelancer who worked frequently at different major film studios throughout the decade, being cast in films such as Imitation of Life, Les Misérables, and Angels with Dirty Faces. She worked with film stars such as Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney, and Claudette Colbert. In total, six of the films in which she appeared were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, all within the span of seven years.

She retired from film acting when she became an adult, but was active in local theatre productions as a playwright and composer. She is considered to be one of the last surviving actors from the 1930s period of Hollywood's Golden Years.

Early life[edit]

Marilyn Knowlden was born on May 12, 1926, in Oakland, California. Her parents were Robert E. Knowlden Jr. (1896–1972),[1] a Utah-born attorney (and later her agent), and Bertha McKenzie.[2] They married on December 23, 1921.[3] She was an only child. When she was nearly three years old, in early 1929, she entered a beauty pageant for babies and was crowned the winner.[4] She started taking dance lessons at the age of three. One of her teachers saw her show business potential early on, and was convinced that she would make it in the entertainment industry.[5] Among others, she was tutored by Russian-born ballet dancer, choreographer, and actor Theodore Kosloff.[2]

Career in Hollywood (1931–1944)[edit]

In 1931, Knowlden's father got her a screen test for the Paramount Pictures film Women Love Once while the whole family was visiting Hollywood for reasons related to Robert's work. He had called Fred Datig, a casting director at Paramount.[6] Despite her young age, she managed to handle a speaking part with many lines without any problems.[5][7] Due to child labor laws at the time, the family had to get permission for her to be able to work. They survived a car accident that day.[6] Bertha had to be hospitalized for injuring her collar bone and a rib.[2] Marilyn herself was only slightly injured and got help from actress Dolores Costello, who happened to witness the event. As promotion for the film, she performed at cinemas right before it would start.[6] Her debut was met with praise from various newspapers at the time.[8]

Knowlden worked steadily in films, many high-budget ones, throughout the 1930s. She was often cast as the daughter of the main characters, or as the leading lady in her childhood. Looking like a younger version of the actress cast as the leading lady was often a major reason why she was cast in a certain role. Unlike most actors, children and adults alike, during the studio system era, she was never contracted to a particular studio. Apart from a temporary period during the filming of Marie Antoinette when she studied at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Little Red Schoolhouse, she went to public school instead of schools for child actors in Hollywood.[6] She was in Greta Garbo and Clark Gable's 1931 film Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) but her scenes were deleted in the final cut.[9] In 1933, Knowlden had an uncredited role as a young Flora in the pre-code drama Little Women, which starred Katharine Hepburn, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture at the 6th Academy Awards in 1934.[10]

By 1934, Knowlden was seen as one of the few child actors to have established herself in a competitive industry.[11] She was one of three actresses to portray Jessie Pullman (at age eight) in the 1934 Universal Pictures film Imitation of Life. Over 100 children had auditioned for the part that she ultimately got. The film, based on Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel of the same name, dealt with the topic of passing (a theme that would again be explored in a film that she appeared in a couple of years later, Show Boat). She played Claudette Colbert's character's daughter as a child.[12] It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture at the 7th Academy Awards the next year.[13] In 2005, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[14]

Knowlden portrayed Cosette in Les Misérables (1935)

Knowlden appeared in two Academy Award-nominated films for Best Picture the following year, David Copperfield, and Les Misérables. David Copperfield was based on Charles Dickens' 1850 novel, directed by George Cukor, and released by MGM. It was Freddie Bartholomew's debut in Hollywood. She played David's foster sister Agnes Wickfield as a child.[15] Despite both being cast in the same film, she never met comedic actor W.C. Fields on the set.[16] Her piano playing can be heard in one scene. Les Misérables, directed by Richard Boleslawski, was based on French author Victor Hugo's 1862 novel of the same name. Having both played the same character in Imitation of Life, Knowlden and Rochelle Hudson did it once again in Les Misérables when they portrayed Cosette during different moments of the film. Knowlden's face can be seen on most DVD covers of the film, which starred Fredric March and Charles Laughton.[9] Her performance was described as "memorable" and "excellent" by various newspapers.[17] She would be cast in another one of Boleslawski's films, Metropolitan, later that year.

Knowlden had a small part as Florence Udney in the 1936 epic historical drama film Anthony Adverse, again with Fredric March in a leading role, and Olivia de Havilland as his leading lady. It was nominated for Best Picture at the 9th Academy Awards the following year.[18] She was cast in Rainbow on the River (1936), starring Bobby Breen, one of the few children's films that Knowlden ever appeared in. A reviewer from Detroit Free Press lauded her performance as Lucille Layton, calling her "a fine little actress".[19] In the 1938 historical drama film Marie Antoinette, she portrayed princess Marie Thérèse of France, daughter of the title character, which was played by Norma Shearer. She also played Laurie Martin, James Cagney's character's love interest, as a child in Angels with Dirty Faces the same year.[20]

Knowlden was considered for the role of Carreen O'Hara, Scarlett O'Hara's youngest sister, in Gone With the Wind, which ultimately went to the decade-older actress Ann Rutherford.[6] Towards the end of her film career, she made an appearance in All This, and Heaven Too (1940), with Bette Davis and Charles Boyer. She played Marianna van Horn, one of the school students. This was the sixth time that she was in a film that became nominated for Best Picture by the Academy Awards.[9]

The last film she appeared in was The Way of All Flesh in 1940.[21]

Later life[edit]

Knowlden attended Beverly Hills High School.[7] She retired from acting in films in 1944 to concentrate on her educational studies, and developing her musical and dramatic skills. She was attending the private California-based liberal arts and sciences college Mills College, majoring in music and drama, when she met and married the World War II Army Captain Richard Goates on July 30, 1946, at the All Saints Episcopal Church in San Leandro. They had met three years earlier.[22] She accompanied her husband in his assignment in China and Japan, and became a radio announcer for the United States Armed Forces Radio Station in Nanking, which gave them better accommodations than the barracks. The call sign at her radio station was XMAG. They were also stationed in Yokohama and Shanghai.[23][24] Leaving the military and returning to the United States, Richard enrolled at Stanford University while Marilyn supported him through school. He graduated in business, but not before they had their first child, Carolyn. He then attained his MBA, and they had two more children, Brian and Kevin, plus one foster child. She went back to Mills College as a student at the age of 50.[21] She later divorced Richard and married Eliseo Busnardo.[25][26]

Throughout most of her post-Hollywood life, Knowlden was a musician, songwriter and playwright, authoring a number of songs and musical plays. She often worked with Richard on these projects. For instance, they wrote a local musical called Never Put Off Until Tomorrow in 1962 in association with their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints church. Richard ran a transportation business at the time.[27] She moved to Fallbrook in 1983. Then, at the age of 69, she had a leading role in a local theater production of My Fair Lady and continued in a variety of roles. Cinecon honored her with a lifetime achievement award at the Cinecon Classic Movies Festival in September 2010.[9] The award was presented to her by actress Marsha Hunt, with whom she had appeared in the 1936 film Easy to Take.[28] In 2011, she published an autobiography she had written, Little Girl in Big Pictures, describing her experiences as a child actress during the golden years of Hollywood, and telling "the rest of the story" about her life. She has fond memories of her time in Hollywood, and was always supported by her parents.[7] She lives in a retirement home in California.[6] In 2015, she was said to be one of the few people still alive that were working in Hollywood in the 1930s.[9]


Year Title Role Studio Director
1931 Women Love Once Janet Fields Paramount Edward Goodman
The Cisco Kid Annie Fox Film Corp. Irving Cummings
Husband's Holiday Anne Boyd Paramount Robert Milton
Wicked Girl Fox Film Allan Dwan
Once a Lady Little girl Paramount Guthrie McClintic
1932 The Conquerors Frances Standish RKO William Wellman
Call Her Savage Ruth (as a girl) Fox Film John Francis Dillon (director)
1933 The Mind Reader Little girl Warner Bros. Roy Del Ruth
Little Women Amy's classmate (uncredited) RKO George Cukor
The World Changes Selma (as a child) Warner Bros. Mervyn LeRoy
1934 Imitation of Life Jessie Pullman (age 8) Universal John M. Stahl
As the Earth Turns Esther Warner Bros. Alfred E. Green
1935 David Copperfield Agnes MGM George Cukor
Les Misérables Little Cosette 20th Century Pictures Richard Boleslawski
Condemned to Live Maria, the young girl Invincible Pictures Frank R. Strayer
Metropolitan Little girl in tea room 20th Century Fox Richard Boleslawski
1936 Show Boat Kim (as a child) Universal James Whale
Anthony Adverse Florence Udney Warner Bros. Mervyn LeRoy
A Woman Rebels Flora at age 9 RKO Mark Sandrich
Easy to Take Gwen Ferry Paramount Glenn Tryon
Rainbow on the River Lucille Layton RKO Kurt Neumann & George Sherman
1937 Slave Ship Christener at launching 20th Century Fox Tay Garnett
1938 Marie Antoinette Princesse Thérèse MGM W. S. Van Dyke
Barefoot Boy Julia Blaine Monogram Karl Brown
Just Around the Corner Gwendolyn 20th Century Fox Irving Cummings
Angels with Dirty Faces Laury (as a child) Warner Bros. Michael Curtiz
1939 Hidden Power Imogene Columbia Lewis D. Collins
1940 The Way of All Flesh Julie Kriza Paramount Louis King
All This, and Heaven Too Marianna van Horn Warner Bros. Anatole Litvak


  1. ^ "Robert E. Knowlden". Daily Herald. October 2, 1972. p. 4. Retrieved July 15, 2020.
  2. ^ a b c "Baby actress becomes star". San Francisco Examiner. April 26, 1931. p. 23. Retrieved July 9, 2020. - via Open access icon
  3. ^ "Salt Lake Society". Standard-Examiner. December 29, 1921. p. 24. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  4. ^ "Children Vie in Food Show Beauty Contest". Oakland Tribune. April 9, 1929. p. 40. Retrieved July 15, 2020.
  5. ^ a b "Knowlden's decade in Hollywood". Greensburg Daily News. February 26, 2015. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  6. ^ a b c d e f "Interview: Former Child Star Marilyn Knowlden on Working with the Greats of Classic Hollywood". Cinephiled. August 27, 2018. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  7. ^ a b c Pfingsten, Tom (September 11, 2011). "Fallbrook resident recalls child-actress days in autobiography". The San Diego Union-Tribune.
  8. ^ "Women Love Once". Official website. Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  9. ^ a b c d e "1930's actress talks movies". Township Journal. May 11, 2015. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  10. ^ "The 6th Academy Awards (1934) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved July 10, 2020.
  11. ^ "Kiddies invade Hollywood". San Francisco Examiner. July 8, 1934. p. 20. Retrieved July 15, 2020. - via Open access icon
  12. ^ "Praises Acting in Film from Hurst Novel". Chicago Tribune. January 2, 1935. p. 11. Retrieved July 12, 2020. - via Open access icon
  13. ^ "The 7th Academy Awards (1935) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved August 7, 2011.
  14. ^ "Librarian of Congress Adds 25 Films to National Film Registry". Library of Congress. Retrieved April 30, 2020.
  15. ^ "Child Will Get Role In 'David Copperfield'". The Baltimore Sun. September 30, 1934. p. 44. Retrieved July 10, 2020. - via Open access icon
  16. ^ "Going back to the good ol' days". North County Times. December 26, 2001. p. 17. Retrieved July 9, 2020. - via Open access icon
  17. ^ "Les Miserables". Official website. Retrieved July 10, 2020.
  18. ^ "The 9th Academy Awards (1937) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved July 10, 2020.
  19. ^ "Reviews of the New Films". Detroit Free Press. December 13, 1936. p. 98. Retrieved July 9, 2020. - via Open access icon
  20. ^ Neibaur, James L (October 3, 2014). James Cagney Films of the 1930s. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 174. ISBN 978-1442242197. Retrieved July 13, 2020.
  21. ^ a b "Former child star working on musicals in Fallbrook". North County Blade-Citizen. North County Times. December 8, 1989. p. 26. Retrieved July 15, 2020. - via Open access icon
  22. ^ "Miss Knowlden to be bride". Oakland Tribune. July 27, 1946. Retrieved May 1, 2014.
  23. ^ "AFRS China - Burma - India". Radio Heritage Foundation. Retrieved July 10, 2020.
  24. ^ "Towntalkers". Deseret News. January 5, 1948. p. 10. Retrieved July 10, 2020. - via Open access icon
  25. ^ "Heard it through the grapevine". The San Diego Union-Tribune. August 12, 2003. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  26. ^ "Anna Maria Pecchia". Winnipeg Free Press. June 19, 2007. Retrieved July 13, 2020.
  27. ^ "Original Play to Hit Boards". News-Pilot. April 11, 1962. p. 9. Retrieved July 15, 2020. - via Open access icon
  28. ^ "Cinecon 46 in pictures". Cinecon. September 2010. Retrieved July 10, 2020.
  29. ^ AFI Catalog-Marilyn Knowlden

General bibliography[edit]

  • Dixie Willson, Little Hollywood Stars, Akron, OH; New York: Saalfield Pub. Co., 1935. OCLC 17445181.
  • Marilyn Knowlden, Little Girl in Big Pictures: Autobiography of Marilyn Knowlden, Albany, Ga.: BearManor Media, 2011. OCLC 752332487.

External links[edit]