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Thursday, April 27, 2006



Child Star Supreme --- Jackie Coogan

Jackie Coogan is the only motion picture star I’m aware of who actively participated in a lynching. Perhaps there were others, but after all, this is not something you would find in official studio bios. Jackie was also the first international child phenomenon. You might even go beyond that and call him a religious figure. No one of our generation can possibly comprehend the level of stardom this kid enjoyed (and by all accounts, he really did enjoy it, even if the whole thing did come crashing down later). Jackie rang the opening bell for an age of child worship which would utterly transform the way in which society viewed its young. The fact he was idolized and pampered on the public stage while being systematically robbed and exploited at home was an irony that would galvanize a nation when those shocking headlines broke on April 11, 1938. In his heyday, Jackie was an adorable puppet for a set of vaudeville parents from Hell who’d somehow lucked into siring the most remarkable money machine the screen had known up to that time. The mother was called Lillian. She silenced a crowded banquet hall once when she referred to herself as "the goose that laid the golden egg." Some joke, huh? The father was Jack, Sr. He was a vaude vet gone to seed with a line of cruel practical jokes and the usual baggage that went with the biz --- liquor, gambling, reckless spending. With role models like these, what chance did Jackie ever have?



Charlie Chaplin should have gotten a piece of the action, because he sure enough invented Jackie Coogan. In fact, it was Charlie’s Kid character that J.C. would continue to play, with only slight variation, for the rest of his career as a child star, even down to the costume. It’s a testament to Chaplin’s genius that the public would be willing to continue buying what was essentially his product so long after he stopped personally manufacturing it. Opportunist producers like Sol Lesser (he of the much later Tarzan
pics for RKO) snapped up Jackie as soon as The Kid made the six-year old a worldwide sensation, and from there it was just a matter of recycling all the stuff that had worked in the Chaplin show, namely comedy, pathos, beleaguered child shtick --- whatever would keep the train on track. Some say Jackie represented the plight of war orphans. Others put forth a theory that merchandising, at least as it’s directed toward kids, was born with Jackie Coogan. Still more will say that when we embraced Jackie, we finally shuffled off that quaint Victorian concept about children being seen and not heard, etc. If you want to throw in notions about Jackie’s popularity being borne of increased leisure time resulting from the machine age and the availability of labor saving devices, you can go ahead and apply for an Ivy League Master’s program and eventually start your own Jackie Coogan Cultural Studies Department at Yale!




They found out quick you couldn’t take Jackie out in public. Lillian carried him along to a department store two-for-one and wound up with three thousand crazed shoppers swarming over the hapless child. It took police intervention to extricate them. By the time he signed with Metro in 1923, Jackie (or I should say his parents) were scoring $1.35 million a year. A lot of that came from product endorsements. In those days, they had Jackie toys and dolls up the wazoo. His cherubic face graced song sheet covers you could look at while banging out I’m Just A Lonely Little Kid on the upright piano. Jackie hung out with Doug Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Babe Ruth --- all the biggest names. They were thrilled to be seen with him. Dad kept ruder company, and it was these that really influenced the boy. Jack, Sr. brought his son along for drinking bouts with Bill Fields, Ben Turpin, Roscoe Arbuckle
--- nobody’s idea of fit company for a growing lad. Wicked Uncle Bill gave Jackie a crash course in the use of profanities, which the child would later apply in more polite conversation, causing no end of embarrassment for studio publicists. The lowdown parental house of cards finally collapsed when Lillian took up furtive canoodling with one Arthur Bernstein, who’d lately become business manager for the Jackie Coogan Corporation, itself little more than a clearing house to siphon off Jackie’s earnings for the parent's own use and gratification. While these bejeweled parasites drove fancy roadsters and hovered over roulette wheels, Jackie worked twelve-hour days, six-day weeks. Even after the movie thing faded, they had him hustling from a music hall stage over in England, where big money could still be had for star names, even those on the wane. The awkward age dealt a growth spurt that transformed Jackie into a Tom Sawyer that 1930 audiences barely recognized, and from there it would just be a matter of time before he would he finally realize what Mom and Dad had done to him.

Jackie’s parents knew from nothing about a college education, but it seemed a reasonably good way to harness the young man’s excess energies, so it was off to Santa Clara University, where the most alarming episode of Jackie’s life, and the one most completely hidden from his public, would take place. The year was 1933, and carefree Jackie was majoring in alcoholic studies and advanced cheerleading when he made friends with a popular local youth from a prominent Santa Clara family, Brooke Hart. During this era of sensational kidnappings, the public’s outrage was daily renewed by horrific incidents of abduction and murder (the Lindbergh case still fresh in collective memories). It was against this background that Brooke Hart was taken by a pair of local nincompoops, unceremoniously beaten to death and thrown into a river before a ransom could be collected, a botched job down the line, but one which awakened mob frenzy that culminated in both men being taken out of their cells and hanged in the public square before a cheering crowd of 10,000 Santa Clara witnesses. Although he wasn’t photographed at the scene, there were those who recognized Jackie preparing the noose and lending an enthusiastic assist to the deadly enterprise. Although Jackie would never mention it during his lifetime (no one was ever prosecuted in connection with the incident), the truth of his involvement would finally reveal itself in an excellent "true crime" book, Swift Justice, which was published in 1992. Jackie’s own situation went from bad to worse when his father crashed the brand new Ford coupe he’d just given Jackie for his twenty-first birthday, killing himself and three passengers. The only survivor of the horrific 1935 crash was Jackie. His next crash would come in 1938, and that’s when he finally sued his mother and now stepfather --- only to find they’d converted all his fortune and left him stony. A bitter Coogan later told interviewers he’d netted only $35,000 from the ordeal, out of the four million he’d earned as a child actor.



The single most enduring image of Jackie Coogan is the one he shared with Charlie Chaplin in The Kid. When Jackie went broke (the first of many such occasions), a sympathetic Chaplin spotted him ten G’s. Who says Charlie was stingy? That’s Jackie and his expensively tailored parents on the Metro lot --- watch-chain, spats, and fur courtesy the kid. Jackie wasn’t the title character in The Rag Man, but it seems he was always dressed in them. Audiences preferred him in ragamuffin attire and circumstances for most of his shows, but Metro tried something different for two shown here in trade ads --- Long Live The King and Little Robinson Crusoe. Both are out of circulation today, though it’s rumored Warners preserved some Metro Coogans, but won't run them because of rights issues. Part of Jackie’s settlement with the crook parents gave him rights to negatives of these features. Is it possible his estate owns them yet (he died in 1984)? Maybe a meeting of minds between Warners and the Coogan family can put some of Jackie’s starring vehicles back in circulation. My online copyright search couldn’t turn up any reference to them. Orphan movies, just like most of Jackie’s roles. This exhibitor ad with Jackie in military garb came toward the end of his starring career. The Bugle Call and Buttons were both profitable, but talkies and adolescence, not to mention Louis Mayer’s antipathy, combined to scuttle him. Tom Sawyer at Paramount was a brand new Jackie, seen here with Mitzi Green and Junior Durkin, a close friend who would later die in that infamous wreck that killed Jack, Sr. Newlyweds Betty Grable and Jackie Coogan are whooping it up in College Swing. When someone asked her years later about the failed marriage to Jackie, Betty paid moving tribute when she said, "Listen honey, Coogan taught me more tricks than a whore learns in a whorehouse." You go, Jack!! Finally we have a couple of down-on-their-luck kid stars teaming up to pay the rent --- the Jackies Coogan and Cooper
in Kilroy Was Here, a flea-bitten Monogram special they did in 1947. Coogan would have a comeback of sorts as Uncle Fester in The Addam’s Family, but the once beautiful boy hated playing it grotesque. The stardom of his youth was now so remote, he couldn’t even persuade his grown daughter of how big he’d once been. What a life this guy had. By far the best bio is the one by Diana Serra Cary (a former child star herself) called Jackie Coogan --- The World’s Boy King, and it’s a terrific read.

4 Comments:

Blogger Booksteve said...

My favorite piece on your site to date. Great visuals, little known information and a nice summary of somebody I thought I kind of knew but really didn't. Thanks.

6:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wonder if his life would have really been any better if he did get all that money anyway.

7:46 AM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Wow, excellent piece. I knew about his family stealing all his money, but had no idea about the lynching, the Betty Grable quote, etc. Great research and presentation!

5:00 PM  
Blogger convict 13 said...

I watched Jack Coogan Sr in Roscoe Arbuckle's "Backstage" the other day and I must say he was impressive.

10:48 PM  

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