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Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Kids (originally published 1/05)

There is an old saying in show business that one should never perform with children or animals. There simply is no way to compete with them for the audience's attention. With the release of this year's "Are We There Yet?," Ice Cube demonstrates his bravery (or foolhardiness) by sharing the screen with not one but two youngsters. If you enjoy watching young thespians at their scene-stealing best, look for these classic performances on home video.

Mary Badham as Scout and Philip Alford as Jem in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962). I'm not sure that anyone has ever gotten better performances out of young actors than director Robert Mulligan did in this outstanding adaptation of Harper Lee's novel. It is Scout, Jem's younger sister, who is the real focal point of the story. She is fascinated with the tales she's heard about Boo Radley, a monstrous presence in the town's folklore. Sadly, when her father, attorney Atticus Finch, defends a black man who has been wrongly charged with raping a white woman, Scout learns that it is the "good" people of the town who are its real monsters.

Brandon de Wilde as Joey in "Shane" (1953). George Stevens's classic western features Alan Ladd as Shane, the last of the great gunslingers. Joey's parents are homesteaders, struggling to carve a living out of the land. When Shane takes a stand with Joey's father against the intimidation tactics of local cattlemen, Joey comes to idolize the noble and capable gunfighter. I've found that viewers sometimes miss the point of this film. Despite the title, it's not really a story about Shane. It's about Joey. That's why Shane is just a bit too simon-pure and upstanding to be believable - because we're seeing him through Joey's worshipful eyes.

Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel in "The 400 Blows" (1959). French director Francois Truffaut's largely autobiographical account of young Antoine's turbulent family life culminates with his parents having him committed to a juvenile detention home. Nearly a half century later, this film remains the yardstick against which movies about troubled youth are measured. Leaud was so good in the role that Truffaut asked him to play the part again and again down through the years. The result was something unique in the history of film: a series of five films spread out over 19 years in which the same actor plays the same role during successive stages of the character's life. If you see all five films, you can watch both Antoine and Leaud grow up.

Hayley Mills and Kathy Bostock in "Whistle Down the Wind" (1961). On a small Lancashire farm, a group of children discover a bearded man hiding in their barn, weak with hunger and fatigue. When asked his name, he is only able to mutter "Jesus." Mistaking his expletive for an answer, they believe that he really is Jesus. After all, they've been taught in Sunday school that Jesus rose from the dead and is with them always. This was screenwriter Bryan Forbes's debut as a director. He does an exceptional job of maintaining a child's point of view as the youngsters conspire to keep "Jesus" out of the clutches of the adults so that he won't have to be sacrificed again. Hayley Mills, daughter of actor John Mills, is excellent in the role of Kathy. Of course, she did have one distinct advantage going in. Her mother, Mary Hayley Bell, wrote the book on which the film was based.

Jackie Coogan as the title character in "The Kid" (1921). With his first feature length comedy, Charlie Chaplin really rolled the dice. In addition to experimenting with long form comedy at a time when comic short subjects were the norm, he mixed the comedy to a daring degree with scenes that were sentimental to the point of being tear-jerking. And on top of that, he shared center stage with a child actor. But what a child actor he was. Coogan lit up the screen as the orphaned child who is found and cared for by Charlie the tramp. As usual, Chaplin knew exactly what he was doing.

And, of course, we can't forget Judy Garland's magnificent performance as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). But you knew that already.

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