Two child actors, and a ‘what not to do’ of film directing

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The story of two of cinema’s first prominent child actors, and the unpleasant treatment they both received in their younger years.

After starting his career as a child actor, Norman Taurog climbed his way through the prop department and editing bay to become a director of 180 feature films. By the time he was 32, Taurog became the youngest ever winner of the Best Director Oscar back in 1931 – a record he kept until Damien Chazelle won with La La Land.

The film that won Taurog his Oscar was Skippy, an adaptation of Percy Crosby’s long-running and influential comic strip about a mischievous kid in the big city. It’s not widely discussed any longer, and I haven’t seen it in something like 30 years, but Skippy was definitely a big deal in its day. Among the screenwriters were Joseph L Mankiewicz and Norman Z McLeod, notable directors in their own right, and its then nine-year old star, Jackie Cooper, remains the youngest ever nominee for the Best Actor Academy Award.

What reputation Skippy has these days rests almost entirely on Cooper and his performance. The story goes that there were three crying scenes in the film, and that these bold shows of emotion are the crux of why this film attracted so many plaudits for the actor and director.

But getting Cooper to cry believably was allegedly quite the task. The first technique tried to get Cooper to cry was simply asking him. According to the 1987 book Hollywood Anecdotes, Cooper’s grandmother was on set with him, and she plainly implored him to “be a good boy and cry.” When this didn’t work, Taurog lost his patience with the kid – either for show or for real, it’s not clear which – and yelled insults at him. It was only when Taurog dressed another child actor in the Skippy costume, by way of threatening Cooper with a replacement, that actual tears were forthcoming.

The second crying scene was to feature Cooper and a dog. In order to milk the poor lad for tears this time, Taurog reportedly had a security man take the animal away. “The policeman’s got your dog,” he said to Cooper. “He’s taken your dog and he’s going to kill it.” This wasn’t quite enough, so he had a pistol fired off set. This convinced Cooper that the dog had been executed, and so he (quite understandably) cried.

If any of this is true, it doesn’t reflect well on Taurog. I’d certainly like to think a former child actor would have known better than to treat his young cast so roughly. Perhaps it’s all a myth. The end of the Skippy story certainly nudges it into moral fable territory.

Because what happened next flips everything on its head. Taurog was married to Cooper’s aunt, making the boy’s mother, Lillian, his sister in-law. She was on set for the film’s third and final crying scene, and thank heavens she was because she did the simple, decent thing that the director should have done in the beginning: she took little Jackie Cooper to one side and discussed the emotions in the scene, went over his lines, and rehearsed the subtext in a way that the boy could understand.

After speaking with his mother, Cooper went back before the camera and cried the way an actor should. That is to say, he played make believe.

As Laurence Olivier later said to Dustin Hoffman, that die-hard disciple of The Method, “why don’t you just try acting?”

The dark mirror to Jackie Cooper’s story is that of his near-namesake, Jackie Coogan. Coogan was also a child actor, made famous after his show-stopping turn in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. Coincidentally, his brother Robert had appeared in Skippy with Cooper.

Coogan came of age in 1935, and believed that, at 21, he was about to come into possession of the money he’d earned as a child actor. His father had very responsibly put the money aside and protected it. Things had been done the right way for decades.

But just ten months before this, Coogan and his father had been in a car crash. Jackie Coogan survived, but the other four people in the vehicle, including his father, all died. It was in the few intervening months that Coogan’s mother and her new husband managed to blow all of Coogan’s earnings on diamonds, fancy cars and furs.

Coogan sued his mother for squandering his money. This ultimately led to the California Child Actor’s Bill, known as the Coogan Act. Still applicable, this law protects a portion of a child performer’s earnings for when they reach the age of majority.

When Coogan went penniless to Charlie Chaplin the actor is said to have handed over a cheque for a thousand dollars, no questions asked: some directors seem to have treated their young stars rather better than others.

Many years later, Coogan came back to fame with the role of Uncle Fester in the original TV version of The Addams Family. He also appeared in an Elvis movie called Girl Happy but this was one of the few not directed by Norman Taurog, which denies this story one more odd coincidence to go out on…


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