Academic journal article Thymos

Tough Guys, Tattle-Tales, and Tears Hollywood Defines the American Boy, 1930-1934

Academic journal article Thymos

Tough Guys, Tattle-Tales, and Tears Hollywood Defines the American Boy, 1930-1934

Article excerpt

This essay examines the portrayals of boys in American film, especially Jackie Cooper, during the "pre-code" period of Hollywood sound films, roughly 1930-1934. With the Great Depression cutting movie attendance, studios explored social taboos to entice audiences. As a result, childhood concerns, including issues of adoption, strained parental (especially father-son) relationships, or failing before one's peers, were themes that threatened boys' identities.


In 1931, reporters from a motion picture fan magazine scored a scoop on child star Jackie Cooper. Asked what he thought of the Depression, Cooper responded that it was "fine" and, concerning the stratosphere, he shrugged, "I don't like them poet guys. I like football players." Forty years later, Cooper recalled the incident, stating, "I can't believe that even [then], I could be so dumb." However, with hindsight, he acknowledged that the interview had confirmed to the public that Jackie Cooper was "a regular kid. There was nothing sissy or uppity about Jackie Cooper. He was, after all, America's Boy" (Cooper, 1981, p. 84).

Cooper's ascent as a contender for the title of "America's Boy" was timely. The previous title-holder, Jackie Coogan, was outgrowing the part after ruling filmdom during the 1920s, portraying mostly orphaned urchins (Cary, 2003). However, as Jazz Age speakeasies gave way to jaded hard times in the Great Depression, America's Boy would also mirror the shifting social and economic troubles. Like Coogan's woebegone waifs, his successor also had a consistent screen persona. From 1930 to 1934, the kid to watch was Jackie Cooper.

Cooper's heyday coincided with the "pre-code" years of American cinema. From 1930 to 1934, lax censorship allowed studios to explore the wilds of America's culrural consciousness to unearth social grit for the silver screen, resulting in loosened social restraints. Various forms of popular entertainment reflected the transformation of masculinity throughout the early twentieth century (Kasson, 2002; Kimmel, 2011), and movies likewise provided powerful visualizations for mass audiences. Some scholars have analyzed the depiction of masculinity in film since the medium's inception, but stop short at the transition to talkies (Gerstner, 2006; May, 1983; Studiar, 1996). Others have examined pre-code Hollywood at length but have concentrated on the more licentious imagery of adult-oriented spice and vice (Doherty, 1993; LaSaIIe, 2000; Vieria, 2003). More recently, scholars have examined childhood and youth in American film; Thomas Doherty has written about Hollywood's juvenile cycle that drove troubled teenagers in 1950s American containment culture (1988), Jeffrey P. Dennis has examined same-sex desire in post-war youth culture (2006), and Murray Pomerance and Frances Ga te ward focus on the late twentieth century, when the golden age of motion pictures has long since tarnished (2005). Dennis has also written on Jackie Cooper and company as depicted in classic cinema, but his study concentrates on boys after the onset of puberty, either as older teenagers or young adults after the code's implementation (2010). The period before, the pre-code era, remains ripe for a precursory examination.

Jackie Cooper's movie characters never knew the desperation of other boys of the era, "wild boys" on the road searching for work. Nevertheless, the Great Depression shadows his films. Skippy (Paramount, 1931), based on Percy Crosby's comic strip, features Shantytown, a deplorable dystopia composed of makeshift shacks that may seem familiar to "Hoover ville" residents or Bonus Army veterans. In The Champ (MGM, 1931), the hero is a has-been boxer who sells out his son's visiting rights to the boy's mother for two hundred dollars. "A fella's got alotta bad breaks, when things are tough," he grumbles. "Why, he'd do things he won't do when everything's flush." In Peck's Bad Boy (Fox, 1934), economic necessity forces a woman and her son to move in with her brother-in-law. …

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