Jan 3, 2018

Junior Durkin and Henry Willson: Hollywood's First Gay Romance

When 15-year old New York boy Trent Durkin was contracted by Paramount Pictures, his name was changed to "Junior" to make him seem more wholesome and All-American. 

The ploy worked: Tom Sawyer (1930) was the #1 box office hit of 1930, in part because of the palpable buddy-bond between Tom (16-year old Jackie Coogan) and rascallion Huck Finn (15-year old Junior Durkin).  

Huckleberry Finn followed (1931).

Then Hell's House (1932),  in which a boy (Junior) is framed for bootlegging and sent to juvenile hall, where he falls in love with the younger Shorty (Junior Coughlan).  

And Man Hunt (1933), in which a junior detective (Junior) and his boyfriend (Arthur Vinton) solve a murder.

Before World War II, boys were expected to become interested in girls at the end of adolescence, not at the beginning, leaving adolescent actors free to star in amazingly overt "two boys in love" or "boy in love with older man" movies.

But Junior wasn't just acting.  In 1933, the 18-year old met 22-year old Henry Willson at a gay bar on Sunset Strip.  Willson had just arrived from Pennsylvania, and was writing for movie magazines.  The two became lovers, and when Willson became a talent agent for the Joyce and Pollimer Agency, he hired Junior.

Or maybe he hired Junior before they became lovers.  Accounts vary.

Willson got Junior to leave Paramount for some meatier roles, such as Ready for Love (1934) and Little Men (1934), and suggested that he go back to Trent: a tough, masculine, single-syllable name.  He appeared in Chasing Yesterday (1935) as Trent.

On May 4, 1935, Junior was killed in an automobile accident near a ranch owned by his friend Jackie Coogan's family in San Diego.  He was 19 years old.  Jackie's father and three other people died in the accident as well.  Jackie survived to become a major box office draw, and near the end of his career, Uncle Fester on The Addams Family.

Henry Willson went on to become an important talent agent, creating the beefcake fad of the 1950s by signing on innumerable hunks and changing their names to something tough, masculine, and single-syllable: Rock, Doug, Chad, Nick, Van.  Most were gay or gay-friendly, and many knew their way around a casting couch.

There's a Jackie Coogan hookup story on Gay Celebrity Dating Stories.

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