Tuesday, November 17, 2009
By Wood Soanes
April 10, 1932
Child actors have always been poison to me. It’s not that the young ones are so obnoxious themselves, although that is pretty generally the case, but invariably there is a stage mother or stage father in the offing.
Mind you, I don’t object in the least to child actors in their proper environment. I can go to a Maypole fete at a school and enjoy every minute of it; I can, and frequently do, watch Christmas pageants with satisfaction; and I have seen numerous school plays that kept me entertained.
But take the child away from children’s entertainment and clamp him on the stage in his vacation time, or plant him in Hollywood to burden the screen with his immature sophistication, and I begin to have a friendly feeling for the bull that loses his temper when he sees a red umbrella.
We were sitting in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lunch room one noon not so long ago – an old friend from the publicity department and I – when he jogged my elbow with a: “There’s Jackie Cooper; I’ll go bring him over!” I nearly swallowed my fish-bone in my eagerness to restrain him. Indigestion is bad enough without courting trouble.
The last time a child actor had entered my line of vision it was here in the office and Frank Newman was the culprit who dragged him or her – I have, happily, forgotten the name – in for an interview. I was excessively polite and the child was quite odious, and my subsequent remarks to Brother Newman put a permanent wave in his hair and cured him of practical jokes.
Well, anyway, young Cooper sat down quite close to me in the dining room and had a glass of milk with Wallace Beery, who was eating his customary stevedore’s lunch and exercising his lungs in bull-like bellows, They were at work on “The Champ” preparing to do the Tia Juana scenes and every so often young Cooper’s treble was matched by Beery’s baritone or what-have-you.
Luncheon was over, I was standing alone in front of the studio barber shop which adjoins, for no known reason, the café, when Beery and Cooper came bowling out of the door. And, as it is probably easy for you to believe, there is no escaping Beery when he makes up his mind about something. Nothing would do but that I meet his diminutive pal.
Cooper and I had quite a chat and I am pleased to make an amendment to an old opinion: “All child actors are odious – and occasionally you find an exception that proves the rule.” Cooper may be marked down as a shining exception. He is one veteran Hollywood child actor who has escaped from the experience unscathed.
It isn’t easy to interview Master Cooper for he is much the same off the screen as on it. That is to say, he is a real boy with the normal interests of a real boy. If you can get the subject around to football, baseball or aviation, you have a chance of getting some responses. Otherwise you simply have an interested listener.
But try to talk the movies and Cooper’s mind begins to drift away. He’s still standing there, and still listening, but his mind is somewhere else, probably on that new glove he saw in a Hollywood boulevard sports shop and which he would very much like to own. He had just turned eight when I saw him and the men on the set had given him a surprise birthday party, and better yet, he was going to Tia Juana.
“I get a kick out of it,” he said laconically. “I’ll get a chance to sleep on a train – for the first time in my life.”
“Then you like to travel” I suggested.
“Oh, I dunno,” replied the child star.
“Wouldn’t you like to see all the places you’ve studied about in geography?”
“I hate geography.”
“Well, how about arithmetic?”
“I hate that, too.”
“Aw, now” – this from Beery, who was back on the job with a fresh package of cigarettes – “What’ll people think if you talk like that?” Jackie had drifted off to the railing on which a number of current magazines were spread to catch the eye of passing actors, and Beery continued with the interview.
“He had an awful job with the multiplication table,” Beery laughed, “but I think he got that straightened out. You see he’s crazy over aviation and that gave me an idea; ‘Think of planes!’ I told him. ‘Suppose you see four in the air. Now imagine there are three times that many – how many are there?’ You’d be surprised how quick he caught on.”
This eight-year-old made his debut when he was five. A youngster was required for a Lloyd Hamilton comedy at Educational and Jackie got the job. It was just a small part and he did it well enough to satisfy his bosses and get more odd jobs.
By the time “Movietone Follies” and “Sunny Side Up" had been made he was a rather seasoned trouper and Hal Roach took him for the “Our Gang” comedies. He began to come into prominence in “Donovan’s Kid” and when “Skippy” was launched he was sold to the world. “Sooky” followed and a short time after I talked with him, he achieved real fame in “The Champ.”
He was born in Los Angeles and in answer to some rapid questions when he rejoined Beery and myself, he admitted that he doesn’t care much about travel, he likes to read adventure stories, he doesn’t think much of piano lessons, is fond of dogs and horses and likes to play with tools and is looking forward to the day when he gets into manual training class.
When he grows up, however, he wants to be either an actor or a writer, granting that he can be an aviator like the beloved Wally, on the side. Right now acting would seem to be his forte for his directors tell me that he has a definite gift for “catching an idea.” The directors explain the scene to Jackie. He learns the lines, and after that there’s nothing to worry about.
“Well,” he explained in that slow speech of his, in answer to a question, “I dunno. I just try to think like the fellow the director is telling me about.”
If all of Hollywood’s actors could master that formula the work of the directors would be reduced by half.