When Jackie hit pubescence, his box office draws declined, he re-invented himself la hard, masculine boys’ book hero. He spent hundreds of hours at the gym, becoming an expert boxer, wrestler, and swimmer. Movie magazines published photos of him in boxing trunks or skimpy swimsuits, displaying a hard-packed muscularity that made adult beefcake star John Garfield look downright scrawny. Boys and men rarely appeared shirtless on camera in the 1930s, so instead Jackie wore tight dark-colored t-shirts that accentuated his v-shaped torso and mountainous biceps.
In Gangster’s Boy (1938), Jackie plays Larry Kelly, a whiz-kid valedictorian, a letterman in every sport, yet also a fun-loving regular fella: he drives a jalopy covered with graffiti, plays the drums in a swing band, and litters his speech with goofy expressions like “Who do you think you are? Anyhow?”
He is stunningly attractive, so thoroughly desired by the guys, gals, teachers, and townsfolk that they always look like they want to rip his clothes off and ravish him on the spot, but he is devoted to his long-term “particular friend,” Bill Davis (future Broadway star Tommy Wonder). “We’ll always be together,” Larry exclaims in a tender moment, and indeed after their high school graduation they plan to enroll at West Point together.
When Larry stars dating a girl, Bill seems to resent the competition: every time Larry swoops in for a kiss, he finds some excuse to interrupt them. He claims that pictures of girls are not allowed in cadets’ lockers at West Point: “You’re not supposed to waste time thinking about girls. . .you’ve got important things to think about!” This may or not be true, but Larry does not challenge him.
The somewhat strained homoromance is further interrupted when Larry’s father, Knuckles, returns from an extended “business trip” up the river and confesses that he is actually a reformed gangster, just released from prison (perhaps the name “Knuckles” should have provided a clue).
When the townsfolk discover the terrible secret, they turn into slathering bigots. No gangster’s son has the right to sully their town: they kick Larry out of the nightclub where he’s performing, refuse to applaud after his valedictory speech, and forbid their children from seeing him. On the night of the Big Dance, Bill and his sister both sneak out of the house to see Larry, positioning themselves both as “dates,” as competitors for his affection. But then the sister is forgotten, and the rest of the movie is traditional homoromance.