It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jackie Coogan single-handedly introduced the concept of a ‘child star’, but when he made his (uncredited) silver screen debut aged just 18 months old (Skinner’s Baby, 1916), few could have predicted the impact or implications of his career. The film that turned Jackie into a global superstar was Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, released in 1921 when Jackie was just seven years old. Widely considered Chaplin’s most personal and emotionally poignant film, it placed Coogan firmly in the limelight; a natural mimic, he could copy everything Chaplin showed him and was the perfect co-star.
Coogan was born into a theatrical family. His father was a vaudeville performer, his mother an actor and dancer. Following that uncredited celluloid appearance, he performed in theatres and, aged five, began touring with his parents. Chaplin discovered Coogan at one of these shows and (with the initial concept for The Kid already in his mind) cast the precocious young actor in a brief role in A Day’s Pleasure (1919). As The Kid, Coogan almost upstaged Chaplin through his impeccable sense of timing, his wide-eyed emotion, and his particular blend of street urchin attitude and natural charm. The film was a huge hit across the globe, but even this incredible, early success was tainted when Coogan’s parents complained that, despite the box-office revenue, they had received nothing.
Reports suggest that Chaplin wasn’t a fan of Mrs Coogan, whom he considered to be forthright and pushy, but apparently he offered to secure a role for Jackie’s father at the First National studio at an inflated salary. Other films followed swiftly – Peck’s Bad Boy, Oliver Twist, Little Robinson Crusoe, The Rag Man – confirming that Jackie’s star was firmly in the ascent.
Although there were other child stars, magazines and audiences couldn’t get enough of the young actor, and the studios pushed his promotion with seemingly endless interviews and photo shoots. An early ambassador for celebrity philanthropy, Jackie’s spearheaded a ‘Children’s Crusade’ for the Near East Relief (1924). The appeal asked children across America to support a million dollar shipload of foodstuffs for the Near East’s orphans. There’s some wonderful archive footage of Coogan’s visit to Detroit that also includes a carriage ride with Sheba the elephant.
In association with the NER, Coogan embarked on a grand ‘European Tour’ (accompanied by his father and mother), celebrated his tenth birthday in Geneva, greeted presidents and met the reigning Pope – but according to The Guardian, he remained “simple and unaffected”, just like a hundred other nice little boys who have not the misfortune to be screen stars of world renown’.
Despite his youth, Jackie was making millions, and was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. In 1923, Coogan’s parents signed a deal with MGM studios, agreeing to a now legendary, lucrative contract that included a profit stake in all Jackie’s films, a not-inconsiderable signing bonus and a $22,000 weekly salary. But Jackie paid a harsh price for his early success. His early talkies (including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, both released in the early 1930’s) failed to attain the success of his early films, Coogan struggled to make the (then unrecognised) transition from child to adult star and, in May 1936, his father and a close friend died in a car accident in which Jackie was also injured.
Four years later, in 1938, Coogan asked his mother (who had remarried Arthur Bernstein, Coogan’s former business manager) for his portion of his movie earnings. When she refused to hand them over he sued her and his stepfather, claiming he had only received $6 a week until he was 21, when he was ‘gifted’ an additional $1,000, but despite his Coogan was only awarded $250, 000 (after legal fees) of the $400, 000 he believed he was owed. According to Life magazine Jackie’s mother said, ‘no promises were ever made to give Jackie anything…every dollar a kid earns before he is 21 belongs to his parents.’
The landmark case wasn’t financially successful for Jackie, but it focused attention on the treatment of child stars; the resultant Child Actors Bill (or Coogan Law) was designed to protect their income and assets. The court case marked Coogan’s transition into adulthood, both publicly and privately, a transition further cemented by his marriage and subsequent divorce to Betty Grable. Coogan struggled to find film roles and increasingly moved into television series appearances, including Cowboy G-Men, Playhouse 90 and, perhaps most famously of all, as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family during the 1960’s.