Little Jackie Cooper, frozen in time as the Depression era’s favorite on-screen blond male moppet, died at age 88 on May 3rd. A survivor of childhood superstardom, he would go on to become a two-time Emmy Award-winning director of episodic television. And he still holds the record as the youngest Best Actor Oscar nominee of all time, for his title-role performance in Norman Taurog’s Skippy (1931), which was soon followed by another mega-hit, King Vidor’s The Champ (1931), which won Wallace Beery a Best Actor Oscar. (Cooper lost his Oscar to Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul.) What those two films share, and what made audiences love them so much, was their unabashed sentimentality. Before Margaret O’Brien came along, Cooper was the king of the kiddie criers, wailing over pets or parents. He wasn’t a particularly good actor, prone to excessive pouting and a forcing of those famous tears, but audiences clearly loved his combination of toughness and emotionality, of scrappiness and adorability. Most of his 30s vehicles are pretty hard to sit through today because they are so strenously manipulative and so shamelessly sure of their effects. The Champ is a real weeper, kind of a male version of Stella Dallas (also directed by Vidor). Cooper reigned until Shirley Temple’s emergence in 1934 and her dominance as the key child star of the latter half of the decade. Though Cooper prevailed in the pre-Code era, his films were mostly hokum (after all, he was a child), though The Bowery (1933), also with Beery, was pretty racy stuff for a kid to be running through.
Though you may remember him primarily, again with Beery, in Treasure Island (1934), I like Cooper best in Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James (1940), a picture he made well after his box-office glory days. It’s not that he suddenly became a nuanced and interesting young actor, but he did get rid of his bag of tricks, realizing quite sensibly that an 18-year-old couldn’t get away with the self-conscious gimmicks of a seasoned 10-year-old. The film is a sequel to the very popular and highly entertaining Jesse James (1939), which starred Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda as the James brothers. With Power’s Jesse killed off, the sequel focuses on Fonda’s Frank and his mission of revenge on his brother’s killers. The first picture, directed by Henry King, is conventional and superficial and utterly commercial-minded, whereas the sequel is a much more offbeat and stimulating movie, never feeling like a churned-out sequel (notably in its anti-racism and pro-feminism stances). Fonda has an incredibly powerful presence, able to be so quiet and contained without ever appearing dull or monotonous. His strong stoicism, impeccable honesty, and effortless ease draw us to him time and again, holding us with a firm yet unforced grip. Cooper plays his teen sidekick. The beauty of what Cooper does lies in what he doesn’t do. Gone is his overemoting; gone is the pouting; gone is his obviousness. Cooper gives a simple, straightforward performance.
With its thrilling Technicolor, gorgeous riding scenes, plotting that rarely feels routine, and a screen debut from lovely Gene Tierney, The Return of Frank James is hardly remembered by anyone as a Jackie Cooper movie. But it should be. After all, he has a death scene and does not pull out all the stops. Maybe working with the masterfully restrained Fonda rubbed off on Cooper. So, if you’re in the mood to revisit this childhood sensation, skip Skippy and the other usual suspects and familiarize yourself with Jackie Cooper, promising young teenager.