Even if you love old movies, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of Cora Sue Collins. And that’s a shame, because the 87-year-old former child star is a living history of classic Hollywood.
Collins acted in nearly 50 films between 1932 and 1945, performing with some of the biggest stars of the era. She worked at MGM, Universal, Paramount, Warner Bros., Fox, Columbia, Samuel Goldwyn, Selznick, Republic, and Monogram for directors like Michael Curtiz, Victor Fleming, and Rouben Mamoulian (twice). She even appeared in one of the first live action films produced using the three-strip Technicolor process: THE SPECTACLE MAKER (1934)
And she did it all before her 18th birthday.
On the eve of the recent TCM Film Festival in Hollywood, Collins held court for a group of adoring classic film fans by the pool at the historic Roosevelt Hotel. For more than an hour, the sassy 87-year-old chatted with movie historian and former TCM researcher Woolsey Ackerman and showed off mementos from her career – including an autograph book presented to her on her seventh birthday by fellow MGM contractee May Robson, who was turning 70.
“Louis B. Mayer gave us a joint birthday party,” Collins remembered, while looking at a publicity shot of her younger self with Robson and Jean Harlow (who was in production on CHINA SEAS with Clark Gable). “He didn’t issue invitations; it was a command performance!”
Collins had seen the photo for the first time in 80 years and her joy was infectious. Soon fans were scanning the pages of her scrapbook, ecstatically announing the legendary character actors who signed it: “Freddie Bartholomew! Una Merkel! Franklin Pangborn!”
To the average person, those names are meaningless. But for the enlightened few lucky enough to be in attendance that night, it was as if Collins had opened a portal to the past. This was likely the closest any of us will ever get to the MGM Lot in 1935, at least until Rod Taylor comes back with that time machine.
Collins talked about moving to California in 1930 with her mother and sister after her parents divorced. There she was discovered on a Hollywood street corner, invited to audition at Universal, and won her first role, beating out another child actress whose name you might recognize: Judy Garland.
“Judy was one of the superstars of our era,” Collins said. “And she was a good friend.”
As the event continued, she reminisced about being written into MGM’s TREASURE ISLAND (1934) at the insistence of studio chief Mayer, playing the daughter of THIN MAN co-stars Myrna Loy and William Powell in EVELYN PRENTICE (1934), developing a crush on star Robert Taylor while making MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1935), and losing the role of Becky in THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER (1938) because she outgrew the actor cast as Tom. She ended up playing Amy Lawrence in the Technicolor production, and got to wear all the costumes that had been designed for her. So everything worked out in the end.
Through it all Collins kept a level head, apparently avoiding the difficulties that befell many child actors of the era and continue to do so today.
“I was so lucky to get to know all of these people,” she said of her classic film colleagues. “They were my friends.”
But Collins was not an official guest at TCM Film Fest – odd, considering that the event celebrated “History According to Hollywood” and QUEEN CHRISTINA (in which she appears as the title character as a child) was an opening night selection.
“That’s why we invited her to speak,” Kelly Kitchens, moderator of the Going to the TCM Film Fest forum on Facebook and host of the event, told me in an email. “We wanted Cora Sue to know that classic film fans still care about her and acknowledge her contributions to movie history.”
And Kitchens and her group are taking their efforts to honor Collins one step further: they’re mailing cards and letters to the actress in honor of her 88th birthday on April 19, and inviting other film fans to do the same.
“We always talk about how we wish classic Hollywood stars were still with us,” Kitchens said. “Here’s one who is. And we want her to know that we remember her, and that we thank her for her contributions to an art form that gives us so much joy.”
8149 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Please write FOR CORA SUE on the envelope.
And while you’re at it, why not send a letter to TCM asking them to invite Collins to appear on air with Robert Osborne introducing an evening of films in which she plays classic Hollywood icons as children, like QUEEN CHRISTINA (as the young Garbo), SMILIN’ THROUGH (Norma Shearer), TORCH SINGER (Claudette Colbert), THE DARK ANGEL (Merle Oberon), and CARAVAN (Loretta Young).
“I played everybody as a child,” Collins said. “I played them all.”
Thanks to Woolsey Ackerman for his help with this article, and to Kelly Kitchens and Cora Sue Collins for allowing me to shoot video of the event and post it here. An earlier version of this article indicated that Collins played Charles Boyer’s character as a child in CARAVAN (1934), as IMDB asserts. Through Woolsey, Collins tells me that she actually portrayed Loretta Young’s character. “I really don’t remember ever dressing as a boy” she said.