Friday, May 28, 2010

Chaplin and Fester

I just used my new search box and found that I have been remiss in my duties, and have not yet mentioned Charles Chaplin.  Chaplin is recognized as one of the greatest film makers of all time.

I am just finishing a re-read of Charlie Chaplin by John McCabe.  It is considered one of the best Chaplin biographies, mainly because McCabe is so thorough in his research.  As a matter of fact, it is much more accurate than Chaplin's own autobiography.  McCabe is careful to explain the differences in Chaplin's memories and what actually happened in his life.

I met Jack (as he was called) back in the 1980s while in the Sons of the Desert.  He was the founder of the group, and he was also the authorized biographer of Stan Laurel.  Stan helped him as he (and others) formed the SoD, with some ideas and suggestions. 

Jack was always friendly and very easy to talk to, and extremely knowledgeable.  His wife was Rosina Lawrence, who was an actress with Hal Roach, and appeared in several L&H films, as well as Our Gang and others.

The book got me thinking about how bit actors become stars, but in this case, how a star became a bit actor.  Of course I am referring to Jackie Coogan.  Coogan's first big hit was The Kid.  It is a silent Chaplin film released in 1921, with Coogan in the title role.  It is my opinion that Coogan was the real star of the film, with Chaplin playing a big supporting part.  You simply can't take your eyes off the Kid, he is so wonderful in this movie.

I would imagine that the trade news of the time would have predicted Jackie Coogan would go on the become a big movie star.  He made over $4,000,000 as a child actor in the 1920s, which is a huge amount of money.  Sadly, his mother and step-father refused to give him his money when he grew up.  He sued them and was awarded only $126,000 in 1939.  The public was angry about this, so California eventually passed the Coogan Act to protect the income of child actors by requiring a trust fund for them.

Coogan's career wound down after that and he became a guest star on many television shows, ending up as a bit actor.  His biggest part as an adult was as Uncle Fester on the original "Addams Family" on TV.  I remember him later playing villains and other characters on other TV shows.  You can only wonder what the turn of fate will deal. 

BTW, if you decide to purchase any silent films, try to find them with a good musical score.  Bad music from a cheap copy can really detract from what could be a truly great film.  Many of the old silent films are now in the public domain, which means anyone with a copy can dupe it and sell it.  In many cases that means they add whatever free music they can find.  Good luck.

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