Fascinating movie

Young San Bernardino students got their first chance at movie stardom in 1931 – San Bernardino Sun

A letter from the schools was sent to San Bernardino parents in January 1931, but it was not about little Billy or Maria misbehaving in class.

In fact, to some it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – little Billy and Maria were invited to appear in a movie to be filmed in their neighborhood.

Sixth Street just west of Mt. Vernon Avenue in San Bernardino was to be transformed into Shantytown, a poor neighborhood where Paramount Studios planned to film “Skippy.” The studio needed 40 to 100 young people, aged 6 to 12, as extras for a few days.

The studio would pay each child $3 a day and provide teachers with the opportunity to continue their education between shoots. Children authorized by parents to participate were interviewed by Paramount workers, although not all were selected.

In those difficult early days of the Great Depression, the money must have been a boon to parents willing to accept the studio’s request. It may also have loaded a few scene moms-to-be who saw this as a big deal breaker for their child’s future.

“Skippy” featured 8-year-old Jackie Cooper, who had recently starred in the “Our Gang” film series. It was based in part on the popular “Skippy” comic strip drawn by Percy Crosby, focusing on a feisty youngster dealing with the usual youthful issues of those tough days.

6-year-old Robert Coogan made his film debut, brother of the more famous Jackie Coogan, already a successful child star and who went on to play Uncle Fester from the TV series “Addams Family”.

For the local kids, all the hubbub among the more than 100 studio employees wasn’t always very exciting.

“They spent the majority of the time in a large bus and tents studying their daily lessons under the supervision of a teacher hired specifically to instruct them,” The Sun reported on January 29.

The children received packed lunches while the two stars – Jackie and Robert – went to lunch at the California Hotel, where they were staying during filming.

And despite their age, the two young stars were free to be interviewed by journalists on site.

“How do you like being a movie actor?” young Robert was interviewed by United Press correspondent Duane Hennessy. “I prefer to play,” he said.

“But don’t you want to be a big star like (brother Jackie)?”

“Let it be,” said Coogan, who played “Sooky” in the film.

On January 31, Los Angeles Record columnist Belman Morin described Robert’s stubbornness, saying he’d rather just play with the dogs in the movie.

“But you can’t now,” said director Norman Taurog. “We need you in the next scene. Wait until lunchtime when you’re not working.

The young Robert – already displaying an arrogance so inherent in the acting profession – replied: “You wait for lunchtime when I’m not acting”, writes Morin, then he “goes off with haughtiness to each step “.

Jackie also bumped into the head of Taurog, who was her uncle. Taurog was upset that he couldn’t get a real response from Jackie in a touching scene involving a dog.

The director told a worker to pull the dog off the set and shoot him in order to get Jackie the right emotion. After a shot rang out, Taurog filmed the scene and got an honest and shocked response from his young actor. It turned out the dog wasn’t hurt, but Jackie reportedly held this incident against Taurog for years.

Taurog also encountered some resistance from neighbors. It was one of the first sound films, and music from a neighboring house constantly interrupted filming.

He asked an associate to tell the owner to turn off the music, but returned to report, “The lady, she wants money, lots of money, to stop,” he told Taurog. “She says she has the right to play (the radio) and she will.”

Realizing he was beaten, Taurog sent him $5 – a considerable sum at the time – allowing filming to resume quietly, The Sun reported on January 30.

“Skippy” finally overcame filming issues and debuted on April 3 to overwhelmingly positive responses from audiences. That afternoon, a matinee full of children enjoyed the film at the Fox Theater in San Bernardino.

The film was such a hit that it spawned a sequel, “Sooky”, with Jackie and Robert reprising their previous roles. San Bernardino was again the location for the film, which also included local school children as extras, in October 1931.

The Sun reported on October 3 that the studio was spending more than $5,000 in San Bernardino on “Sooky”, hiring local painters, construction workers and extras for adults and children.

While filming “Sooky,” Jackie got into another argument with her uncle on another stage where he was supposed to cry at the right time.

“Now listen, Jackie. You don’t give me your real stuff,” Taurog said. “You’re just trying to be an actor and put on a big stage. That’s not how you worked in ‘Skippy.’”

“Well, that’s how I do it at MGM,” he said, referring to a previous film role. “And they think it’s great.”

“Sooky” didn’t win any awards, but “Skippy” was nominated for Best Picture of 1931-32. Jackie has become the youngest Oscar nominee as a lead actor. Taurog – perhaps honored to have endured so much from its young actors – received the Best Director Oscar.

San Bernardino briefly became a veritable cinema capital, during the filming of “Sooky”. At the same time, the Santa Fe station was used for another film, “Shanghai Express”, starring Marlene Dietrich.

The most unusual aspect of this shoot was director Josef von Sternberg bringing in 250 Chinese actors by train on Oct. 12 for the station scenes, The Sun reported. “Shanghai Express” was also nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

Joe Blackstock writes about the history of the Inland Empire. He can be reached at [email protected] or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out some of our columns from the past at Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IEHistory.