Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Rant #333: Happy Birthday, Jackie

Jackie Cooper is 88 years old today.

I know that some of you may not know who Jackie Cooper is, but to my generation, this guy was certainly one of our earliest stars, the guy we watched on TV every day as a member of the Little Rascals in the Our Gang comedies.

Sure, those short films were made decades before we were born, and weren't even new when many of our parents were born. But to a kid like me, Jackie Cooper was it.

He starred in the series during the first series of talkies. The Our Gang comedies began in the 1920s as silent features, but by 1930, when sound was being added to film, the Hal Roach Studios followed suit, and gave a voice to those kids that the kids of the 1920s adored.

Cooper was in the series with the first group of kids that became recognizable on TV years later: Farina Hoskins, Chubby Chaney, and although not a kid, who can forget the shorts with Miss Crabtree, the comely teacher who Cooper and all the other boys were in love with?

When TV was searching for material to put on the air to satiate little kids during the medium's earliest days, they dug up the Rascals, and in the 1950s, they were resurrected for a new generation of kids like me. Although not much seen on the air since the 1980s, their films are readily available on home video, and I have to say, when I watch one, I still laugh until I cry.

Spanky, Alfalfa and the others would soon join the series, but those films with Cooper are truly special, showing a youthful innocence that is almost foreign on screen today.

And Cooper was extremely talented, Oscar nominated as a kid for his role in the film "Skippy." He went on to an interesting career as an adult, starring in movies and television shows (remember "The People's Choice" with the talking dog?) through the 1960s. He also became a studio executive with Screen Gems in the mid 1960s, and his battles with one act that came his way, the Monkees, are legendary.

He also starred in the Superman movies of the 1970s and 1980s as Perry White. And he also became a well regarded director.

Although the Our Gang or Little Rascals "curse" is often over-stated, Cooper skirted well beyond any supposed curse and became a versatile "Jackie" of all trades in Hollywood.

There aren't too many of the Rascals left: Cooper, Dickie Moore, Jean Darling, and Robert Blake are just a few of the handful of those kid actors who are still around today.

But Jackie Cooper was probably the best of them all, and today, I want to wish him a happy birthday, and many, many more!

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