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Jackie Coogan and the Fall of Hollywood’s Youngster Stars

Jackie Coogan and the Fall of Hollywood’s Youngster Stars

2024-02-05 19:39:42

Charlie Chaplin’s first full-length function movie, The Child (1921), stays one of many nice masterpieces of silent cinema. It was an bold, dangerous venture; business professionals have been cynical about his ambition to mix heartfelt pathos with slapstick comedy. Chaplin, nonetheless, was undeterred and the movie grew to become a worldwide hit, with a lot reward being given to his twin efficiency with Jackie Coogan, who was 5 years previous on the time of capturing. The boy’s in a single day success was instantly adopted by one other starring position as a lovable waif in Oliver Twist (1922), the place he gave a scene-stealing efficiency alongside Lon Chaney as Fagin. Together with his performing profession blossoming, it grew to become frequent to identify Coogan’s likeness on pencil instances, coasters, lunch bins and dolls. These profitable endorsements and movie roles would earn him hundreds of thousands.

However he was nonetheless a toddler and so these riches must wait within the succesful arms of his mother and father, who doubled as his enterprise managers, till he turned 21. Three years earlier than Coogan was set to inherit his fortune, he was the only real survivor of a horrific automobile crash in San Diego which claimed the lives of 4 individuals, together with his father who till then had been liable for his son’s funds. This accountability shifted over to his stepfather, Arthur Bernstein, and mom, Lillian. When his twenty first birthday lastly arrived, Coogan was confronted with a soul-crushing revelation – he had unwittingly funded Arthur and Lillian’s lavish existence as they squandered his earnings on Rolls Royces, costly garments and jewelry. ‘The legislation is on our aspect’, Bernstein was quoted in 1938 by TIME journal, ‘legal professionals inform his mom and me that each greenback a child earns earlier than he’s 21 belongs to his mother and father.’ Coogan sued them, and the case led to the incarnation of the California Youngster Actors’ Invoice, often known as the Coogan Legislation. Requiring 15 per cent of their earnings to be stored apart in a belief fund, this was, in principle, meant to guard different youngster actors from falling sufferer to fiscally irresponsible guardians.

Jackie Coogan and Charlie Chaplin. Pubicity photograph for The Kid, 1921. J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs, University of Washington. Public Domain.
Jackie Coogan and Charlie Chaplin. Publicity {photograph} for The Child, 1921. J. Willis Sayre Assortment of Theatrical Pictures, College of Washington. Public Area.

However as Coogan’s feminine counterpart Diana Serra Cary, previously often known as ‘Child Peggy’, would observe, this legislation did shockingly little when put into apply. ‘Dad and mom and larcenous managers nonetheless discovered methods to rob an unprotected minor’s belief’, she wrote in her biography of her former rival, Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King. Cary even recollects an ungainly cellphone dialog together with her mom in the course of the time of the Coogan trial, who abruptly snapped at her, ‘I suppose now you’re on the brink of do the identical factor to your father and me?’ Certainly, most of Cary’s earnings from over 150 brief comedies and three feature-length movies had been wasted earlier than she turned ten years previous. Whereas Cary wouldn’t pursue authorized motion, she discovered her calling as a author, establishing herself as a revered movie historian who additionally advocated for the rights of kid actors. She grew to become a member of A Minor Consideration, a non-profit help group for youngsters within the leisure business, based in 1990 by Paul Petersen. Petersen achieved fame on The Donna Reed Present within the Fifties, and was prompted to take motion by the suicide of his up to date, Rusty Hamer, who performed the wisecracking son in Make Room For Daddy. Cary wrote admiringly of Petersen’s efforts to plot a recent revision of the Coogan Legislation that will deal with the myriad of loopholes which had hindered its effectiveness for many years. These have been lastly rectified in 2000, when it was made clear that earnings by youngsters within the leisure business have been their property solely, not their mother and father’.

However these 60 years of inaction resulted in Jackie Coogan’s authentic predicament being repeated again and again. Judy Garland’s mom bypassed restrictions by requesting to be paid a stipend from her personal daughter’s wage. Shirley Temple, ‘America’s Sweetheart’ who was the number-one box-office draw for 4 years operating, discovered most of her revenue depleted by the point she inherited it. A slew of kid actors for the reason that Eighties, together with Jena Malone and Corey Feldman, sought emancipation from their mother and father whom they accused of mismanaging their funds and racking up sizable money owed. In some instances, this association was amicable, though usually made within the curiosity of skirting youngster labour legal guidelines which place a restrict on working hours. Such authorized loopholes have led to requires a brand new revision to the Coogan Legislation to deal with the shortage of authorized protections for on-line ‘youngster influencers’.

The opposite impact of those loopholes is that the sheer variety of youngster entertainers failed by the business has produced the idea of the ‘washed-up Hollywood youngster star’, which stereotypes their struggling as hapless kids who ‘ruined their lives’, or grew to become ‘unrecognisable’ in maturity after they misplaced their fresh-faced innocence.

Jackie Coogan skilled the earliest iteration of the stereotype when, in 1964, he earned the position of the comically ghoulish Uncle Fester within the sitcom The Addams Household. Whereas he got here to benefit from the return of an attentive viewers, his daughter remembers him returning dwelling at some point in tears, lamenting: ‘I was probably the most stunning youngster on the earth, and now I’m a hideous monster.’ In Cary’s biography of Coogan, she remembers how he usually spoke of early Hollywood in idyllic phrases, even turning into a ‘tireless cheerleader’ for youngster stardom, regardless of his personal poor therapy. Maybe he longed to return to a time when he was unaware of the business’s failings. Whereas there was a substantial amount of sympathy for Coogan within the press in the course of the litigation, studio executives have been appalled by what they considered as ungratefulness. Louis B. Mayer as soon as raged at Coogan in his workplace at MGM, ‘no red-blooded American boy ever sues his personal mom!’

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It appears bitterly ironic that Coogan’s star-making position could be in a movie which explored themes of unconditional belief in protecting grownup figures. Coogan’s ‘Child’ finds solace in his adoptive father, Chaplin’s ‘Tramp’, who regardless of being underneath no obligation to look after him does so purely as a result of he cares deeply concerning the boy’s wellbeing. Chaplin, for his half, supported Coogan by giving him $1,000 when he grew to become destitute in the course of the authorized battle. Across the similar time, they met on the set of Chaplin’s newest movie, the place Coogan admitted that he had by no means watched the whole lot of The Child (he fell asleep on the premiere). Filming was instantly stopped for the day; Coogan was led right into a projection room the place he may lastly watch the image in full, as Chaplin performed the organ himself to accompany it.


Ellen Walker is a contract author and illustrator, and a PhD researcher on the Royal School of Artwork in London.

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