During the second half of the 1930s, Freddie Bartholomew epitomized the British male child star, professional and well-mannered to a fault, and was the second most popular child actor in movies after Shirley Temple. His own life, however, was nearly as troubled and, in some respects, more so, as those of many of the characters that he played. The son of an alcoholic mother who gave him up to her sister, he thrived in the home and care of his aunt (and adopted mother) Cissy and became a professional actor at the age of three. He'd already made two British feature films, Fascination (1930) and Lily Christine (1932), when MGM brought him to America in 1934 for its lavishly produced adaptation of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. This became his first American starring vehicle and, although critics of the era weren't universally taken with his performance, thinking it too simpering and passive, albeit professional, audiences loved him in the movie.
Over the next five years, Bartholomew made an array of solid, often inspired dramatic films, usually in period settings, playing alongside some of the biggest stars in the history of cinema, including Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore, and Spencer Tracy. David O. Selznick, who had cast him in David Copperfield, made him the star of his first independent production, an adaptation of the book Little Lord Fauntleroy, which came to define Bartholomew's screen persona. The quality of his movies peaked with Captains Courageous and Kidnapped, but there were fine films around these, including an excellent adaptation of Tom Brown's Schooldays in 1940, made at RKO, during which Bartholomew first met and became friends with a young New York-born actor named James Lydon. Although Bartholomew was perfect for the role of Tom Brown, he couldn't play it because he wasn't under contract to RKO and Lydon was, but the fact that he was cast in the secondary part of Ned East didn't stop him from becoming a close friend of Lydon's and vice versa.
The decade of the 1940s was far less kind to Bartholomew, beginning with a change in audience taste: the coming of World War II reduced the appeal of the kind of costume films in which Bartholomew did his best work. Americans' associations with England shifted, from a fixation on its history and stories out of antiquity, to images of a country fending off Hitler's air force; Bartholomew and his image suddenly seemed quaintly irrelevant. Additionally, although he remained a skilled actor, he was less appealing on screen as a teenager than he had been as a boy. As his audience shrank, the kinds of movies that Bartholomew was offered also declined; he spent the early '40s at Columbia making low-budget, quickly shot B-movie dramas like Cadets on Parade and Naval Academy, both with James Lydon, and by 1943, he was starring with ex-members of the Dead End Kids in a 70-minute action-thriller called Junior Army. Against this backdrop, a series of personal tragedies ensued: after Bartholomew became famous, his birth mother, who had been out of his life materially and legally since before his third birthday, was persuaded by people she met in the course of drinking her way through the lower depths of British society to go to court several times, both in England and America, to try and seize a piece of his earnings for herself; he was protected by the so-called "Coogan Law," which was supposed to prevent parents from stealing the earnings of child performers, but every time she filed suit, he was forced to expend money from the trust fund defending against her, and after a half-dozen or more times, his trust was very much depleted; in 1944, at the age of 20, Bartholomew was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Force, assigned as an aircraft mechanic, and while doing repairs that year on a bomber engine, he fell from a scaffold and broke his back. He spent a year in traction at a G.I. hospital and was given a medical discharge in 1945, seemingly recovered; unknown to himself and all but a tiny handful of those closest to him, however, he had been damaged psychologically by the injury and the recovery period.
He tried to resume his career with the low-budget PRC feature The Town Went Wild, never realizing that he was deeply mentally ill. When that film failed to revive his movie career he turned to the stage, and his one effort at performing in a play, in Los Angeles, was ignored by everyone but the critics, who hated it; his mental condition was exacerbated by the tone and venom of their reviews. Worse still, he ended up marrying the publicist for the production, a Russian immigrant who was trying to escape deportation and needed the protection of the American citizenship that Bartholomew had been granted through his military service. At one point, with all but a tiny bit of his money spent, the couple was living in a car parked on the streets of Brooklyn. It was in those bad years that he made another attempt at film work, playing himself in Sepia Cinderella in 1947.
At the outset of the 1950s, he finally began to put his life back together, getting treatment for his condition and getting a job at Benton & Bowles, one of the top advertising agencies in New York, as a producer and director of television soap operas (in those days, the sponsors had a very direct hand in the actual making of the soaps). He also made one final big-screen appearance, portraying a priest in Edgar G. Ulmer's St. Benny the Dip, a strange, whimsical drama shot on the Lower East Side of New York. His life took another upswing when he divorced his first wife once he was on his feet again financially. Bartholomew later married and had a family, divorced, went through a bout of alcoholism, beat that, and married a third time. The marriage to his third wife, Elizabeth, lasted for the rest of his life. In his final years, Bartholomew could finally enjoy thinking about his movie career, something that he'd been unable to do for decades. He'd remained friends with James Lydon even in the bad years, and in his sixties he started to see old friends such as Jackie Cooper, Gene Reynolds, and Jane Withers again. Suffering from emphysema, he retired from television work in 1991, but that same year Bartholomew did a segment as a host and narrator in a cable television special on the history of MGM. It was the world's last look at the former top child star -- he died in early 1992 -- and, ironically enough, by that time even his British accent, so much a part of his image as a boy, was long gone.