Jackie Coogan was the first major child movie star. No child, except Shirly Temple, has so captivated American movie goers. With his signature Dutch-boy haircut, big brown eyes and appealing personality, the public went crazy for Jackie Coogan. He
was literally an overnight success, thanks to the guidance and exposure from Charlie
Chaplin. After Chaplin, Jackie proved he could hold his own. He was a terrific actor
with the uncanny ability to cry copious tears on cue or raise the roof with his hilarious antics. It was not mere platitudes when the fan magazines proclaimed him as "The Greatest Boy Actor in the World." Jackie had the gift of touching the emotions of his audiences and the practiced professionalism of a seasoned performer. He was the first child star to achieve such a magnitude of super stardom. His shabby treatment by his parents was to give rise to the "Coogan Law" to protect future child stars.
Born Jack Leslie Coogan on October 24, 1914 in Los Angeles. He was the son
of vaudevillians and became the best loved of all the child silent stars during the 1920s. He became an international legend as silent films had no language barrier to overcome. His first screen appearance was in Skinner's Baby (1917) at 18 months of age. His father was a successful song and dance man in Vaudeville.
He was a regular attraction at age 4 in an Annette Kellerman revue when an
impressed Charlie Chaplin caught the act in Los Angeles. He used Jackie in the two
reeler "A Days Pleasure" (1919) to get him used to the camera and movie making. He
then made him the co-star of his first feature length film, The Kid (1921).
Looking back, Chaplin wrote, "What attracted me to the boy was a whimsical, wistful
quality, a genuineness of feeling. Jackie later wrote, "Chaplin created a whole picture around me and became the best playmate any kid could have. When we weren't
shooting the film we were having fun playing hide-and-seek, hopscotch, or sometimes
baseball." The bright eyed little ragamuffin in a tattered cap and oversized trousers won the
hearts of movie audiences from the start. His career as an international child star was phenomenal from the start and his every move was reported in the world press. He
was nicely dressed by his parents. I saw one still of him at 6 in a great sailor suit. He appeared dressed as a little Dutch girl in the movie A Boy in Flanders (1924). He was received by such diverse institutions as the League of Nations and the Pope. Some time in the 1920s, I'd say about 1925 he had an audience with the Pope. He
was outfitted in the most ridiculous sissy suit with short pants and still wore long curls. (Notable as he was quite bald as an adult.) Amazingly, Jackie remained a very
unaffected child. Even the most cynical reporters had to admit he was unspoiled and
honest. At the time there were no restrictions on how children were handled. Jackie's salary was among Hollywood's highest: he received a $0.5 million bonus
just for switching from First National to Metro, with a contract calling for wages of $1 million plus a percentage of the profits in 2 years. His parents gave him a $6.25 weekly allowance. His popularity waned as he grew up. The turning point was probably
symbolized in a news making hair-cutting ceremony at 12, when the famous rumpled
bob was shorn to the clicking of cameras, and MGM promptly seized the opportunity
to produce Johnny Get Your Hair Cut (1927), which showed Jackie before and
after the big event. It was to be his last role as a child star which is a little strange as he still looked rather boyish. He made no movies in either 1928 or 1929. He made a brief screen comeback in Tom Sawyer (1930), his first talkie, and in
Huckleberry Finn (1931) in which he still looked boyish even though he was 16
and 17 years old respectively.
Jackie was best known for his bangs. At the times bangs were worn by girls and
young boys. Jackie continued wearing bangs beyond the age that boys normally wore
them. His parents hoped to continue the length of his career by dressing him clothes
that gave him a childish look. This was not uncommon for child actors and prodigies at
Jackie was also dressed in much fancier clothes than normally worn by American
boys. Like his hair styles, he continued wearing very juvenile clothes past the age that this was common in America.
A HBC reader in Italy writes us, "I am a researcher from Turin, North Italy. I need to investigate a matter: the meeting between Jackie Coogan and Benito Mussolini and the audience with which occurred in Rome during the 1920s, I think 1924. Do you know the exact date of these meetings?" HBC does not, but hopefully one of our readers will know.
Jackie seems to have taken several trips to Europe. I don't know how many or have the precise dates. These trips would have been taken by ocean liner. We notice a 1929 crossing on a Frech ocean liner. Movie stars at the time were international figures, especially American movie stars because Hollywood was already such a dominant part of the movie industry. Until the late 1920s, filns were silent. This meant that films could be easily prepared for foreign audiences by simply changing the captions. We assume tht Jackie was a recognized star in Europe because of his films, especially the films made with Chaplin.
Jackie Coogan used his fame for philanthropic causes, perhaps the first Hollywood star to do so. Jackie took up the cause of the Armenian, Greek, and others war orphans in the Near East--Near East Relief Fund (NERF). The Turks carries out the terrible Armenian Genocide under cover of World War I. After the War, a war between Turkey and Greece created more refugees. Jackie promoted the Near East Relief. We are not sure whose idea this was. Perhaps the studio suggested it. Or perhaps NERF contacted Jackie, given that he was noted for playing orphan waifs so this was his way of helping real orphans. He toured throughout the United States and Europe in on a 'Children's Crusade' to raise funds. Coogan also met many mayors and was given the keys to many cities. He He was received with much pagentry in the various cities he visited. A Detroit source reports, "Child star Jackie Coogan came to Detroit in 1926 in support of Near East Relief. He got to ride a carriage driven by Sheba the Elephant. He also got to hug Mayor John C. Lodge." Jackie managed to rause some $1 million in clothing, food, and other supplies. This of course would be much nore in modern dollars. Jackie was honored by officials in America, Greece, and Rome as well as representatives of the Armenian people. He was received by the Pope in Rome abd honored by the League of Nations.
By the mid 1930s, Jackie was all but forgotten. His popularity sagged as
adolescence took over. In 1935, the same year he was to receive the estimated $4
million he had earned as a child star, he was injured in an automobile accident that took the life of his father and fellow child actor Junior Durkin. While Jackie was a model child, his parents were not. His mother and stepfather were in no hurry to part with his money. Jackie married starlet Betty Grable in 1937 and found himself unable to support her. He filed suit in 1938, but eventually received only about $125,000. The whole incident led to the passage of a law, know as the Coogan Act, to prevent such abuses.
Jackie enlisted in the Army during World War II and was decorated for his service in Burma. He played various character parts as an adult, most notably Uncle Fester on the TV series The Adams Family--a far cry from his child roles.
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