Nov 10, 2012

Gangster's Boy: Jackie Cooper Falls in Love

Born September 15th, 1922, the blond, pug-faced Jackie Cooper (left, with Freddie Bartholomew and Mickey Rooney) was the Ricky Schroder of his generation.  He got his start in Skippy, an adaptation of the comic strip about kids and dogs and the lunacy of adult society.  Jackie’s ability to shed realistic tears on cue (augmented by authoritarian directing: Taurog threatened to shoot his dog if he failed to deliver) won him a Best Actor Oscar nomination and catapulted him into the ranks of Hollywood royalty.  Sooky, The Champ, When a Fellow Needs a Friend, and Treasure Island followed, all box-office toppers.  By 1934 Jackie had his own fan magazine, half a dozen Big-Little book titles, and enough advertising tie-ins to shame Little Orphan Annie.








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.








But even with a stunning boys’ book physique, he had become so thoroughly promoted as vulnerable, sensitive, and clingy that audiences simply wouldn’t accept him as tough, not even tough as a fa├žade to hide a sensitive soul, so he was still asked to make with the waterworks in every picture.  And his pictures always featured homoromance, sometimes with heterosexual competition.

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.

Driving home from the Big Dance, they accidentally hit and injure a small child.  Bill was at the wheel, but Larry claims responsibility, recognizing that an arrest for reckless driving will ruin either of their chances of being admitted to West Point.  But Bill is unwilling to let Larry sacrifice his career.


They posture and argue about who will take the blame until the judge uncovers the truth and exonerates them both, intoning that they have “learned a lot about friendship.”  But really it is the adults who have learned a lot. Larry and Bill already knew that they were ready to fight and die for each other, that their bond far transcended any momentary flirtation with girls.  Instead of a heteronormative clinch, the movie ends with the boys gazing at each other with eye-shimmering affection.

Within the Hollywood community, there was considerable speculation that the teenage Jackie’s sensitivity and his many friendships with girls signified that he was gay.  Whispered “anecdotes” had Jackie and former costar Wallace Beery caught with their pants down, and once at a nightclub, brash blue comedian Milton Berle spotlighted him as a “fag”, to gales of humiliating laughter.  These jokes and rumors apparently had a profound effect on Jackie.  In his later years, in spite of his otherwise liberal politics, he has made some mildly homophobic statements,  and he has never formed a close friendship with a man, perhaps out of a fear of what masculine intimacy might signify.