Trigger Warning: The following references child abuse.
It isn’t unheard of for child actors to get nominated for the Academy Awards. Heck, it isn’t even unheard of for a child actor to win an Oscar: tatum o’neal took home the award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for papermoon in 1973 when she was just ten years old. Twenty years later, 11-year-old Anna Paquin won in the same category for her work on The Piano. Indeed, from O’Neal to Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, many kids over the years have wowed the Academy with their raw talent and precocious acting skills. But when it comes to the story of the youngest Oscar nominee ever, Jackie Cooperthere was just so far that talent alone could take him…
Jackie Cooper’s boyish charm and innocent brand of charisma in Norman Taurog‘s skippy sure captivates viewers to this day, making the Little Rascals-like movie one of the most loved in the history of kids’ cinema. Likewise, Cooper went on to enjoy a long career as an actor, appearing in films that range from the 1931 melodrama. The Champ to 1978’s Superman. But though he never left movie sets behind, Cooper eventually came to resent his time as a child star, during which he became so famous and loved that the media dubbed him “America’s boy”. Part of what caused him to resent it certainly has to do with what happened on the set of skippyon which little Jackie was bullied until he cried for not just one, but two scenes.
What Happened on the Set of ‘Skippy’?
Based on the successful comic strips of the same name by Percy Crosby, skippy was adapted to the screen by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Norman Z McLeodand sam mintz. The movie was directed by Norman Taurog, who, at the time, was married to Jackie Cooper’s aunt. Cooper, who had already been making the rounds in Hollywood since he was a three-year-old boy, in the Silent Age, was then selected to play the role of a relatively well-off child who strikes up a friendship with a kid from the nearby shantytown. The central plot of the film has the headline Skippy trying to help his friend Sooky (robert cogan) retrieve his dog from a cruel neighbor that is threatening to kill the animal over a broken window. Sadly, the kids fail to get Sooky’s pet back, which, of course, leads to a lot of celluloid tears. skippy ends with Sooky getting a new, licensed dog from her wealthier friend, and Skippy’s father, Dr. Skinner (willard robertson), delivering a good beating to the mean Mr. Nubbins (donald haines).
Add to the dead dog the fact that Dr. Skinner doesn’t initially see his son’s friendship with poorer kids with good eyes and the overall poverty of the United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression, and you have a movie that is certainly going to wring a few tears out of you. Sure, skippy is full of wonder and childlike shenanigans, but it is also quite sad. Thus, it is no wonder that its script required its actors to produce a few tears from time to time. And that’s where little Jackie Cooper’s problems started.
Child actors have been a part of Hollywood ever since the early days of cinema. However, that doesn’t mean that their rights have always been respected. Back in 1931, kids acting in the movies weren’t even entitled to the money they made: the California Child Actor’s Bill, which safeguards part of the money earned by a child star until they are of age, wouldn’t be passed until 1939 So when Cooper couldn’t bring himself to cry on command for his scenes, director Norman Taurog found a creative and cruel way of getting him to do as he was told.
According to the 1987 book Hollywood AnecdotesCooper had a total of three crying scenes on skippy. When he couldn’t cry for the first one, his grandmother, who was accompanying him on set, pleaded with him to just be a good boy and cry already. This, of course, didn’t work. And so Taurog proceeded to yell at his star / nephew of him and dressed up another actor in Skippy’s outfit, implying that he would get Cooper replaced. As expected, this sure got the little boy crying. However, the worst was yet to come.
In the second crying scene, Cooper shared the stage with a dog. When he failed to produce tears, Taurog had a security guard take the animal from the set and told Jackie that the police were going to kill his dog. To make it all extra believable, he even had a gunshot off-set. Again, as expected, this got tears streaming from Cooper’s eyes on him. It was all very nasty and, quite frankly, unnecessary: for his third crying scene, Cooper merely had a chat with his mother de él in which she explained to him his characters’ motivations de ella. Simply imagining how grief-stricken Skippy was feeling in that scene was enough to get the young actor to cry.
Jackie Cooper’s ‘Skippy’ Experience Took a Toll on Him
Proving once again that mistreating child actors wasn’t exactly that big a deal in the 1930s, Norman Taurog took home the Oscar for Best Director in 1931, beating competitors clarence brown (A Free Soul), Joseph von Sternberg (Morocco), lewis milestone (The Front Page), and wesley ruggles (Cimarron). Mankiewicz and Mintz, however, ended up losing Best Adapted Screenplay to Howard Estabrook‘s take on Edna Ferber‘s Cimarron. Ruggles’ Western also beat skippy in the Best Picture category. The other nominees were East Lynne, Trader Hornand The Front Page.
but skippy‘s greatest mark on the history of the Academy is Jackie Cooper’s nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role at the tender age of nine years old. Up to this day, Cooper remains the youngest Oscar nominee ever. But the ordeal he went through on the set of skippy wasn’t enough to earn him the prize: in a race against Adolphe Menjou (The Front Page), Fredric March (The Royal Family of Broadway), lionel barrymore (A Free Soul), and Richard Dix (Cimarron), Cooper didn’t emerge victorious. Barrymore was the one to leave the ceremony with a statuette in his hands. Still, when you’re just nine years old and up against the likes of Lionel Barrymore, it is an honor just to be nominated.
However, honor did nothing to erase the traumatizing experience of working on skippy from Jackie Cooper’s brain. The day that Taurog threatened to get his dog killed, in particular, had such an impact on the child actor that it even inspired the title of his autobiography of him, nearly half-century later: published in 1981, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog was written by Cooper alongside Dick Kleiner. In an excerpt from the book published by the LA Times As part of Cooper’s 2011 obituary, the actor recalls crying so hard that it became too much for the scene, forcing Taurog to calm him down. He also laments having lost so much of his childhood from him working on film sets. “Later, people tried to rationalize to me that I had gained more than I lost by being a child star”, wrote Cooper. “But no amount of rationalization, no excuses, can make up for what a kid loses — what I lost — when a normal childhood is abandoned for an early movie career.”