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.