Her career as a child actress only lasted from 1931-1944, but Marilyn Knowlden has carried the memories for a lifetime.
“My parents enrolled me in a dance school when I was 3 and the teacher told them that one day I would be in the movies,” recalled Knowlden from her home in Orange County, Calif.
In 1931, when her attorney father took the family on a business trip from Oakland to Hollywood, he clearly gave some credence to the teacher’s prediction.
“For fun, he phoned up Paramount Studios and got an interview for me that day,” said Knowlden. “I was only 4 and the casting director told us it was a pity I wasn’t older because they needed an 8-year-old that week for a film, but that I was too young to remember the lines.”
Her father, however, disagreed.
“He told them I had a good memory and the next day I had a screen test,” she said.
The result was a part with 500 words of dialogue in “Women Love Once,” the first of six films during 1931, although she would be uncredited in “Wicked” and have her scene later cut from “Susan Lenox” which starred Gable and Garbo.
“Greta Garbo played my governess, but she also gave me some professional advice: ‘In Hollywood, don’t count on anything!’” recalled Knowlden.
As a child actor, young Marilyn’s movie characters were frequently paired with screen mothers who were leading actresses of the day including Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert, and Katharine Hepburn.
“A special relationship can develop with the actress who plays a child’s mother even if that bond is temporary,” she said. “Norma Shearer was a dear screen mother. When we would come back from lunch, she would have a little porcelain box on the set with a surprise in it for me.”
Hepburn was another favorite. In “A Woman Rebels,” Marilyn had to use a bow and arrow.
“She said she would give me a dollar if I could hit the bullseye,” said Knowlden. “I never did get my dollar. But I did get a nice autograph: ‘Dear Marilyn, hoping your archery will improve, affectionately, Katharine Hepburn.’ I still have that.”
A Hollywood veteran of 50 productions by age 18, Knowlden gave up acting for a simple reason: love.
“I met a returning serviceman, got married, and went to China with him where I worked for the armed forces radio service,” she said.
But Knowlden’s acting career wasn’t quite over. “When I was 69, I began working in regional theater. I’m 88 now and have been in 19 plays since, and also written scripts, lyrics and music.”
In 2011, she published her autobiography, “Little Girl in Big Pictures” (see www.marilynknowlden.com), detailing her life including on-screen Hollywood experiences.
But there were also special memories that occurred off camera such as meeting the Marx Brothers.
“I never worked with them, but did meet them when I was working on my first film,” she said. “The director took me over to the set where the four brothers were making ‘Monkey Business.’ Chico sat me down at the piano and taught me to play a few notes. We even played a duet together.”
Four years later, in the role of young Cosette in “Les Misérables,” Knowlden says fellow cast member Charles Laughton visited her set.
“He was wearing his hip length boots and I was wearing wooden shoes, and I taught him a little wooden shoe dance,” said Knowlden. “So I played piano with Chico Marx and danced with Charles Laughton – you can see why I loved my short Hollywood experience!”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 550 magazines and newspapers. Follow on Twitter @TinseltownTalks