Sep 7, 2010

Four Things I Learned from Jackie Cooper’s Autobiography

I recently got a screaming deal on a copy of Please Don’t Shoot My Dog: The Autobiography of Jackie Cooper. Though I had only seen him in The Champ (1931) and a few Little Rascals shorts, I’d always wanted to learn more about Cooper. I knew that he had built a successful, lasting career in Hollywood—both in front of and behind the camera--and I hoped that meant that he had a happier story to tell than the typical child star.

While Cooper did have the inevitable difficulties associated with working young and dealing with the pressures of stardom, not to mention some nasty family troubles, his story is for the most part an even balance between the bitter and the sweet. Having a handful of good mentors and a loving, intelligent mother did much to point him in the right direction.

Since I’d always envisioned a little boy whenever I thought of Cooper, I was surprised to read about some of the big boy things he was up to after his initial rise to fame. Here are the tidbits I found most interesting about his post-childhood life:

1. He had quite a way with the ladies.
For some reason, the former star of Skippy was irresistible to women. I had no idea that this book with the weepy child on the front would be so racy. From a slightly older neighbor across the street who gave him “lessons” as a tween, to a secret, bizarre affair with Joan Crawford when he was seventeen—this guy had no trouble sowing his oats. This is not to say he was a womanizer, he counts his girlfriends and wives as the most significant friendships in his life. Judy Garland was his first love, and he enjoyed a close, but chaste teenage romance with fellow former child actor Bonita Granville.

2. and 3. He was the star of two successful television comedies,
The People's Choice and Hennesey—though he didn’t care much for either of them. Cooper didn’t ever seem to hurt for work, but he had high standards for himself, and struggled to find meaningful projects. He was particularly chagrined to play second fiddle to a wisecracking Bassett Hound in The People’s Choice (I don’t think it was that bad. The dog wasn’t even in every scene.):


Hennesey was a Navy comedy--which was appropriate for Cooper because he'd worn the uniform for real during the war. I couldn't find a clip but here’s a slideshow with scenes from the show and pictures of its stars—the jaunty tune is the theme song:


4. He was an accomplished drum player.
Cooper enjoyed the escape of playing music, and he dabbled in drumming for years. During World War II, he played in a USO band and as a civilian, he was deemed worthy enough to jam with several nightclub combos. Here he accompanies singer/dancer Dagmar in a 1953 episode of the explosively popular Buick-Berle Show:


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  1. You have me interested in this book -- Jackie Cooper was such an adorable little kid. Wasn't he the one who was in The Champ with Wallace Beery (?) and Beery was - well - not a nice guy? I couldn't help but laugh about his experience with Joan Crawford when he was only 17. Crawford really got around with the men from what I understand. But 17? Shame on you, Joan! Thanks for an interesting review of Cooper's book.

  2. P.S. I noticed you have my old blog on your list. It's defunct. My blog now is I call it ClassicBecky's Film and Literary Review. Come and visit. If I weren't so disorganized, your blog would be on my list already. I'll correct that mistake soon!

  3. Very neat! And so strange about Joan Crawford. She really did sleep with everybody didn't she. I'm very much enamored with the fact that Jackie had a chaste romance with Bonita Granville. Oh if that were turned into a movie! How wonderful :-)

  4. ClassicBecky--well, Jackie sort of came on to Joan, but she definitely didn't resist. You've got to read it, it's the most bizarre part of the book. Thanks for letting me know about your link. I really need to update my blogroll

    Raquelle--I know, I love the Granville romance. She was his confidant and I find that so sweet. I'd heard about the Crawford affair before, but from the way Cooper tells it, it was equally unsettling and satisfying.

  5. From a slightly older neighbor across the street who gave him “lessons” as a tween, to a secret, bizarre affair with Joan Crawford when he was seventeen—this guy had no trouble sowing his oats.

    Joan Crawford had an affair with a 17 year-old?

  6. Yep, he had to sneak out of his house to go meet her because he was still living with his parents. Not shocking for Hollywood. I mean, Natalie Wood had an affair with Nicholas Ray when she was sixteen. But it is certainly weird to imagine those two together.