Friday, February 12, 2010

Child Stars: Jackie Cooper

Between Jackie Coogan's turn in Charlie Chaplin's 1921 comedy classic, The Kid, and the advent of box office phenomenon Shirley Temple in the early 1930s, no child star was bigger or better than "America's Boy," Jackie Cooper.

Born in 1922, Cooper broke into movies at the age of seven, working in the Our Gang comedies at the Hal Roach Studios for $50 a week. Cooper became a star just two years later when he landed the lead role in Skippy, a film version of the day's most famous comic strip. (So popular was the strip, in fact, that Skippy brand peanut butter was named for it—or was it? Strip creator Percy Crosby filed suit and won a decision in the U.S. Patent Court, yet seventy-six years later, Skippy is still my peanut butter of choice.)

Skippy—the movie not the peanut butter—was the one where Cooper's uncle, director Norman Taurog, famously threatened to shoot Cooper's dog if the boy didn't cry on cue, then sent a production assistant outside with a gun loaded with blanks. Cooper heard the shot and predictably cried buckets. Only nine years old at the time, he's still the youngest actor to be nominated for an Oscar in a lead role.

Like most of us, he slept through the ceremony, although in his case, in Oscar-winner Marie Dressler's lap. "I was much more interested in not having to go to school that day than I was in the ceremony," he later admitted.

Cooper was even better a year later in the award-winning boxing movie, The Champ. Directed by King Vidor, The Champ is an unabashed tearjerker of the first water and turned Cooper and co-star Wallace Beery into the unlikeliest of screen teams. The pair made four feature-length movies together between 1931 and 1935.

Beery won an Oscar playing an alcoholic, over-the- hill boxer with delusions of grandeur, the kind of guy who wins a horse for his son in a crap game, then promptly loses it back again—twice! When he's not gambling, he's hungover in a fleabag hotel room over a saloon, haunted by what might have been and fueled by pipe dreams of another shot at the title. Cooper is the champ's son, who even at nine years of age is a classic enabler. He adores his father but has been disappointed too many times to lie to himself anymore, even as he lies to the Champ.

Cooper more than holds his own in his scenes with the more experienced Beery, for example, in an early scene when fight promoters call his father a drunk and a "palooka." Eyes glistening with a mixture of rage, disappointment and humiliation, Cooper holds his defiant pose for a moment, then his shoulders slump and he turns away.

"You don't believe what they said about me being drunk the night I lost the championship, do ya, Dink."

"No," says Cooper, slump shouldered, not looking at his father, and starting to clean up after him like he always does.

It's a formula that has served Hollywood well, right up to and including Mickey Rourke's 2008 comeback in The Wrestler, and won Frances Marion an Oscar for the screenplay, her second.

Cooper himself was rather dismissive of most of his early screen roles. "Very often on some of this stuff when I'd have to go to work. I'd just give the script a cursory glance. I had no training, and I was a quick study, so nobody knew how involved or not involved I was. But I look at that stuff now and I can see I wasn't involved, and I wasn't very good."

Cooper and Beery made three more films together, including Treasure Island. "They kept me in short pants as long as they could," Cooper said of his days as a child actor, "until they were shaving the hair on my legs because it was beginning to photograph."

Ironically, because of his own experiences, Cooper grew up opposed to children working full-time as actors. "No amount of rationalization, no excuses, can make up for what a kid loses—what I lost—when a normal childhood is abandoned for a movie career.

His 1981 autobiography was entitled Please Don't Shoot My Dog.

Cooper left Hollywood during World War II, serving in the United States Navy where he attained the rank of Captain. After the war, the transition from child star to adult performer was difficult for Cooper, but he eventually wound up in television, both as an actor and as a director. As the latter, he won two Emmys for directing episodes of MASH (one of the funny ones) and The White Shadow. Maybe his most famous movie role after childhood was that of Daily Planet editor Perry White in four Superman movies between 1978 and 1987.

Cooper retired in 1989. He has four children and lives in California.


thingy said...

God, what an awful thing to do to a child.

I do remember him always crying, crying.

I'm not sure if they have still figured out the best way to combine a so called normal life and acting, when so young.

I think we should look at the parents of these vulnerable young people and find out what their motives are.

Look at how many young actors have led destructive lives.

Still haven't figured it out, in my opinion.

thingy said...

Sorry, I rambled.

Mythical Monkey said...

Obviously it was pretty traumatic if fifty years later he named his autobiography Please Don't Shoot My Dog. Jackie Cooper said later he lost a lot of respect for his uncle that day. Can't blame him. You'd have to be a real bastard to make a kid think you'd shot his dog. But then I suspect most directors are barely human to begin with ...

Anonymous said...

I saw the 1934 Treasure Island version just last Saturday night for the first time. Cooper was great. It is my favorite now, says I and bless my soul but the tall ships and waterfront sets were a wonder. I'd love to get some more background on the making of that movie and whether those were real ships or sets.

Michael D

Mythical Monkey said...

I'm with you. I love the movies of that era -- there's not an ounce of cynicism or ironic detachment in them. The older I get, the more ironic detachment feels like a head start on being dead. Not for me. At least not any more.

As far as I can tell from my reading, they filmed Treasure Island on the backlot at MGM. Probably had a sailing ship in a big water tank or something, but otherwise it's all special effects and rear projection. Chalk one up to Victor "Gone With The Wind" Fleming's expertise as a director.

Side story, by the way. Apparently Louis B. Mayer, who hadn't read the book, was miffed at the downer ending and the fact that Jackie Cooper shed none of his trademark tears. So they brought Cooper and Wallace Beery back to shoot a two-and-a-half page scene to satisfy Mayer. Should have taken one day. Well, Beery was not happy about being called back in to be essentially a supporting actor in Cooper's scene, so he'd show up late, immediately take a break to go the bathroom, take long lunches, blow his lines -- basically every delaying tactic he could think of. Ended up taking a week to do one day's work.

And yet the two of them had a real chemistry on screen.

PhilArtist said...

God be with him. Those early films were powerful even if he thought they weren't that good. He had that same sad face all his life that showed so much emotion even when he played Perry White.