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Jackie Cooper stars as the title character in Skippy (1931), the film that made him a household name as well as the youngest person (at age 9) to ever be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor. The recipient of four Academy Award nominations total including Best Picture, the film follows the adventures of Skippy, the mischievous son of a well-to-do doctor whose specialty is finding loopholes in his father's strict instructions. When Skippy befriends Sooky (Robert Coogan), a boy from the wrong side of the tracks whose unlicensed dog has been taken away by the dogcatcher, Skippy joins forces with Sooky to raise the money to free the beloved pet. Meanwhile Skippy's father (Willard Robertson) conspires to tear down the shantytown in which Skippy's new friend lives.
Skippy was based on a popular comic strip of the same name that first appeared in Life magazine in 1923 and later branched out into newspaper syndication through 1945. During its heyday, the Skippy character was a sensation, inspiring numerous merchandising tie-in products including books, dolls, trading cards, candy and games as well as a commemorative postage stamp as recently as 1997. With the immense popularity of the Skippy comic at the time, expectations were very high when Paramount announced that it would be making a live action film version. All eyes would be on the young boy chosen to play Skippy.
Child actor Jackie Cooper had been under contract for a couple of years to producer Hal Roach and had appeared in several of his Our Gang shorts when Paramount began casting for Skippy. Cooper was taken to a cattle call audition for the film where he tried out for the lead role among hundreds of other talented children. Cooper landed the role, but had to be loaned out from Hal Roach Studios to Paramount in order to make the film.
According to Cooper, Victor Schertzinger was originally slated to direct Skippy but for unknown reasons was quickly replaced by Norman Taurog (Boys Town ). Taurog was Cooper's uncle at the time by marriage: he had married Cooper's Aunt Julie three years earlier.
Cooper found his uncle Norman Taurog to be a good director, but at the same time a frightening and intimidating presence. At home, Cooper was taught to respect his uncle no matter what. "They would tell me that I must do his bidding, obey him totally on the set, because he was the director and also because he was my uncle," said Cooper in his 1981 autobiography Please Don't Shoot My Dog.
For the young Cooper, the set of Skippy should have been a dream come true, but it quickly turned into an anxiety-ridden nightmare. "When we started working," said Cooper, "I did what I was told. My grandmother was with me on the set. If I got it right, I was a good boy. If I didn't, she'd slap me."
There were three crying scenes in Skippy where Cooper was expected to shed real tears on cue. The first one, according to Cooper, came at the end of a long day when everyone was exhausted. "Taurog told everybody on the set to be quiet, to let me concentrate on my work," said Cooper. "My grandmother said, 'Be a good boy and cry.' They waited. I tried. No tears. Taurog had a temper...He peered over his glasses, and that -- all the kids on the picture had come to recognize -- was a bad sign. This day he peered, and he screamed, and he hollered. He shouted that it had been a mistake for him to have hired me (I knew I had been hired first, but I wasn't about to dispute him), and he called me a 'lousy ham actor.'...and he told his assistant to start getting the standby kid ready to replace me. I suppose all of that tirade was designed to make me unhappy, so I would burst into good, usable tears. Instead, it made me angry, rather than unhappy. Angry kids don't cry."
It didn't take long for another child to be led onto the set, dressed as Skippy and ready to shoot the scene. "The idea that they would give my part to any other boy was enough to make me very sad very quickly," said Cooper. "I came apart at the tear ducts. I really cried for Uncle Norman. They rushed me into the scene, and I did it, and then they gave me an ice cream cone, and Uncle Norman said I was a fine actor, and my grandmother said I was a good boy."
With two other crying scenes coming up, Cooper began to get anxious. "By then I understood how they had tricked me the first time," said Cooper, "and I was sure that they were going to try to trick me again, So I determined that when the time came, I would cry by myself. Of course, when the time came, I couldn't. Dry-eyed, I faced their wrath."
Taurog, according to Cooper, "vented his wrath" on Cooper's dog, which had been with him on the set. Taurog threatened to take the dog to the pound. However, if Cooper could cry on cue, then maybe he would be able to rescue the dog in time to save it from certain death. "I smelled a rat," recalled Cooper in his autobiography. "This was the trick they were trying to use to get me to cry. I didn't dare risk a smile, but inwardly I congratulated myself for being too smart for them. This one wasn't going to work."
Unfortunately, Cooper's bluff was called when his grandmother took his dog off the set and told him it was being sent to the pound. That infuriated Cooper enough that he started throwing anything he could get his hands on. Taurog told him to stop it or else he was going to get the security guard to shoot the dog. "I said he didn't have the guts," recalled Cooper. "Norman nodded to the security guard. I saw him draw his gun out of the holster and watched him as he went in the same direction my grandmother had gone with my dog. The set was deathly still. I couldn't see them. Then I heard a single shot. It echoed a moment. Then total silence. I could visualize my dog, bloody from that one awful shot. I began sobbing. So hysterically that it was almost too much for the scene. Norman had to quiet me down by saying that perhaps my dog had survived the shot, that if I hurried and calmed down a little and did the scene the way he wanted, we would go see if my dog was still alive. So I did the scene as best I could. Later, of course, I found my dog totally unharmed, and Norman and [Grandmother] and the security guard grinned at each other, proud of the little trick they had pulled."
The incident unsurprisingly left Cooper quite distraught and stressed knowing that there was still one more crying scene left to do. "I was very worried about it because I now knew, from past experience, that I probably would not be able to cry on my own, and I knew that they would once again do something terrible to me so I would cry," said Cooper. "What would it be this time? I tried to think of all the bad things they might try. As the dreaded day drew closer, I became more and more frightened."
When the day came for Cooper to shoot the third and final crying scene, his mother accompanied him to the set instead of his grandmother. "When it came time to do the scene," said Cooper, "my mother did something nobody else had thought of doing before. She explained the scene to me. She told me what had happened to Skippy and why he was crying. We went over all the lines together, and we took the scene apart and discussed it completely. It was a scene in which I was supposed to be praying and crying, for a little friend, and she dissected the scene and my emotions. She never talked down to me. As we talked about Skippy and his friend and all that, I began to cry because now I knew and I sympathized and I cried honest tears. Still crying, I went out and took my place, and it was all done in one take. And most people who remember Skippy at all remember that scene the clearest."
Audiences loved Skippy and the film became a big hit, making little Jackie Cooper a star in the process. The New York Times called Cooper "an unusually clever child actor" and said, "This youthful player gives a truly remarkable portrayal in a film that is endowed with wholesome amusement and affecting tenderness." Variety called the film "moving" and singled out Cooper for praise. "Cooper's playing could not be improved upon," it said. "He does everything well, never camera-conscious and never suggesting it's only a picture."
Skippy received four Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Cooper), Best Director (Taurog) and Best Adapted Screenplay. While Cooper lost the Oscar® to worthy opponent Lionel Barrymore, his Uncle Norman ended up winning for Best Director.
The popularity of Skippy was such that a sequel called Sooky (1931) was rushed into production a few months later with most of the same cast and crew, including Jackie Cooper as Skippy and director Norman Taurog. However, the sequel fell short of the original's success and no further Skippy films were made.
Producer: Louis D. Lighton
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Norman Z. McLeod, Sam Mintz (writer); Don Marquis (additional dialogue); Percy Crosby (comic strip)
Cinematography: Karl Struss
Music: John Leipold (uncredited)
Cast: Jackie Cooper (Skippy), Robert Coogan (Sooky), Mitzi Green (Eloise), Jackie Searl (Sidney), Willard Robertson (Doctor Skinner), Enid Bennett (Mrs. Skinner), Donald Haines (Harley Nubbins), Helen Jerome Eddy (Mrs. Wayne).
by Andrea Passafiume