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

Jackie Coogan signing a contract with MGM vice president Nicholas Schenck, with his parents looking on, 1925. Evertt Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

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