Rest in Peace, Jackie Cooper, who died in a Los Angeles hospital on Tuesday at age 88. Headlines most often recall Cooper today as Perry White in the Superman franchise of movies as well as his being an Emmy Award winning director, but as I mentioned the last time I'd written about Cooper I'll always remember him first and foremost as a child star. It seems somewhat ironic that the boomer generation of my parents better remember those later accomplishments, but many like myself, a little too young to clearly recall the 1970's, choose to remember the earlier Jackie Cooper, the one of my grandparents' generation.
A member of Our Gang for a brief time, Cooper would become the youngest person ever nominated for an Academy Award for his part in Skippy (1931), before appearing in a pair of classics alongside Wallace Beery in The Champ (1931) and Treasure Island (1934). It speaks to Jackie Cooper's talent and longevity that all of those early accomplishments that I just described were only to be the first phase of a long career that left him with those multiple legacies mentioned above.
Along those lines I decided to honor my memory of Cooper as child actor tonight with a 1930's era feature and wound up at the Internet Archive where they had a few public domain titles I hadn't seen before.
I went with the earliest, Peck's Bad Boy (1934), starring Jackie as part of the perfect father-son combo with a former major star of the silent screen, Thomas Meighan, in his final film. Life is perfect for Jackie's Bill Peck and his dad, Henry, the subject of the boy's prize winning composition, "My Father." His mother having passed on, Bill lives in a big house with his father, their cook, Martha (Gertrude Howard), and Elmer, their lovable mutt. Old time story spinner Duffy (O.P Heggie) lives near by and takes on the dual role of Bill's pal and Henry's handyman. Bill gets in his share trouble, nothing too bad though, just enough to prove he doesn't have "lace pants on him," as his Dad says at a dinner.
That all changes with the arrival of Aunt Lilly (Dorothy Peterson) and her boy, Horace (Jackie Searl), who've fallen on hard times. It doesn't take too long to see that the pair are going to mean trouble for Bill, especially after the major revelation that Bill was adopted, info the viewer learns several scenes before it's revealed to the boy himself. As Peck's Bad Boy proceeds not only Horace, but Lily, who really ought to know better, begin to torment young Bill going so far as to even take his room away from him and eventually drive Bill from the home where he takes refuge with Duffy. All the while Bill's father, Henry, is oblivious to Lily and Horace's devious little tricks, that is until after the morning Bill has run away begins with Martha kicking Lily out of her kitchen and threatening to quit. From there everything comes together as we build to the expected happy ending.
Jackie Cooper puts his all into the Sol Lesser Production, perhaps getting a little too syrupy at the start when everything is a-ok with him and his old man, but then slowly realizing that his previously perfect world is crumbling throughout escalating interactions with Aunt Lily and Horace. Jackie excels at the little things, such as his idea of tagging Horace with the tougher sounding moniker of Butch before they even meet. During their first few interactions he refers to his cousin as Butch before catching himself leaving co-star Jackie Searl to ask him if he had a stuttering problem. Cooper's eyes light up at Duffy's stories, he takes on a competitive demeanor with the other boys of The Excelsior Club, and he clams up when it comes time to tattle on Horace, not wanting to be a squealor. And, of course, Jackie Cooper cries when the time is right, and the opportunity is certainly there in Peck's Bad Boy! Why he even takes a full slap on the cheek from Gertrude Howard's Aunt Lily, a smack that leaves him rubbing his cheek throughout a dramatic heart to heart with Thomas Meighan a moment later.
Peck's Bad Boy surely isn't Jackie Cooper's most famous childhood effort, but it is one in which he gets to show us everything he has for the camera during the peak time of his career. Sol Lesser borrowed Cooper by arrangement with MGM for work on this project, one he'd planned on since 1931. Even though Peck's Bad Boy is available to view online at no cost it currently only has 30 votes on the IMDb, where it's doing pretty well with a 7.2/10 rating. Be sure to check out Peck's Bad Boy while it's up on the Internet Archive.