Jackie Coogan and the Fall of Hollywood’s Child Stars
Hollywood adored child stars like Jackie Coogan and Diana Serra Cary, but failed to protect them
Charlie Chaplin’s first full-length feature film, The Kid (1921), remains one of the great masterpieces of silent cinema. It was an ambitious, risky project; industry professionals were cynical about his ambition to combine heartfelt pathos with slapstick comedy. Chaplin, however, was undeterred and the film became a worldwide hit, with much praise being given to his dual performance with Jackie Coogan, who was five years old at the time of shooting. The boy’s overnight success was immediately followed by another starring role as a lovable waif in Oliver Twist (1922), where he gave a scene-stealing performance alongside Lon Chaney as Fagin. With his acting career blossoming, it became common to spot Coogan’s likeness on pencil cases, coasters, lunch boxes and dolls. These lucrative endorsements and film roles would earn him millions.
But he was still a child and so these riches would have to wait in the capable hands of his parents, who doubled as his business managers, until he turned 21. Three years before Coogan was set to inherit his fortune, he was the sole survivor of a horrific car crash in San Diego which claimed the lives of four people, including his father who until then had been responsible for his son’s finances. This responsibility shifted over to his stepfather, Arthur Bernstein, and mother, Lillian. When his 21st birthday finally arrived, Coogan was confronted with a soul-crushing revelation – he had unwittingly funded Arthur and Lillian’s lavish lifestyles as they squandered his earnings on Rolls Royces, expensive clothes and jewellery. ‘The law is on our side’, Bernstein was quoted in 1938 by TIME magazine, ‘lawyers tell his mother and me that every dollar a kid earns before he is 21 belongs to his parents.’ Coogan sued them, and the case led to the incarnation of the California Child Actors’ Bill, also known as the Coogan Law. Requiring 15 per cent of their earnings to be kept aside in a trust fund, this was, in theory, meant to protect other child actors from falling victim to fiscally irresponsible guardians.
But as Coogan’s female counterpart Diana Serra Cary, formerly known as ‘Baby Peggy’, would observe, this law did shockingly little when put into practice. ‘Parents and larcenous managers still found ways to rob an unprotected minor’s trust’, she wrote in her biography of her former rival, Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King. Cary even recalls an awkward phone conversation with her mother during the time of the Coogan trial, who abruptly snapped at her, ‘I suppose now you’re getting ready to do the same thing to your father and me?’ Indeed, most of Cary’s earnings from over 150 short comedies and three feature-length films had been wasted before she turned ten years old. While Cary would not pursue legal action, she found her calling as a writer, establishing herself as a respected film historian who also advocated for the rights of child actors. She became a member of A Minor Consideration, a non-profit support group for children in the entertainment industry, founded in 1990 by Paul Petersen. Petersen achieved fame on The Donna Reed Show in the 1950s, and was prompted to take action by the suicide of his contemporary, Rusty Hamer, who played the wisecracking son in Make Room For Daddy. Cary wrote admiringly of Petersen’s efforts to devise a fresh revision of the Coogan Law that would address the myriad of loopholes which had hindered its effectiveness for decades. These were finally rectified in 2000, when it was made clear that earnings by children in the entertainment industry were their property only, not their parents’.
But those 60 years of inaction resulted in Jackie Coogan’s original predicament being repeated time and again. Judy Garland’s mother bypassed restrictions by requesting to be paid a stipend from her own daughter’s salary. Shirley Temple, ‘America’s Sweetheart’ who was the number-one box-office draw for four years running, found most of her income depleted by the time she inherited it. A slew of child actors since the 1980s, including Jena Malone and Corey Feldman, sought emancipation from their parents whom they accused of mismanaging their funds and racking up sizable debts. In some cases, this arrangement was amicable, although often made in the interest of skirting child labour laws which place a limit on working hours. Such legal loopholes have led to calls for a new revision to the Coogan Law to address the lack of legal protections for online ‘child influencers’.
The other effect of these loopholes is that the sheer number of child entertainers failed by the industry has produced the concept of the ‘washed-up Hollywood child star’, which stereotypes their suffering as hapless youngsters who ‘ruined their lives’, or became ‘unrecognisable’ in adulthood when they lost their fresh-faced innocence.
Jackie Coogan experienced the earliest iteration of the stereotype when, in 1964, he earned the role of the comically ghoulish Uncle Fester in the sitcom The Addams Family. While he came to enjoy the return of an attentive audience, his daughter remembers him returning home one day in tears, lamenting: ‘I used to be the most beautiful child in the world, and now I’m a hideous monster.’ In Cary’s biography of Coogan, she remembers how he often spoke of early Hollywood in idyllic terms, even becoming a ‘tireless cheerleader’ for child stardom, despite his own poor treatment. Perhaps he longed to return to a time when he was unaware of the industry’s failings. While there was a great deal of sympathy for Coogan in the press during the litigation, studio executives were appalled by what they viewed as ungratefulness. Louis B. Mayer once raged at Coogan in his office at MGM, ‘no red-blooded American boy ever sues his own mother!’
It seems bitterly ironic that Coogan’s star-making role would be in a film which explored themes of unconditional trust in protective adult figures. Coogan’s ‘Kid’ finds solace in his adoptive father, Chaplin’s ‘Tramp’, who despite being under no obligation to care for him does so purely because he cares deeply about the boy’s wellbeing. Chaplin, for his part, supported Coogan by giving him $1,000 when he became destitute during the legal battle. Around the same time, they met on the set of Chaplin’s latest film, where Coogan admitted that he had never watched the entirety of The Kid (he fell asleep at the premiere). Filming was immediately stopped for the day; Coogan was led into a projection room where he could finally watch the picture in full, as Chaplin played the organ himself to accompany it.
Ellen Walker is a freelance writer and illustrator, and a PhD researcher at the Royal College of Art in London.