In the Shadow of Hollywood: The Story of a Child Star

Coogan's Law: The Struggle and Legacy of a Child Star

8 mins read

Born into the bright lights of vaudeville, Jackie Coogan had stardom thrust upon him at a tender age. Chaplin’s iconic film “The Kid” (1921) launched him into the stratosphere, solidifying his status as a beloved child star. His charming naiveté and comedic timing captivated audiences, leading to roles in “Oliver Twist” (1922) and countless endorsements. He was the face on merchandise, the darling of the silver screen, and a fortune in the making.

However, the wealth generated by his talent remained out of reach until his 21st birthday. Tragically, a car accident took his father’s life three years prior, leaving his mother and stepfather, Arthur Bernstein, in control of his finances. By the time he reached legal adulthood, his dreams of financial independence were shattered. The millions he had earned had mysteriously vanished, consumed by Bernstein and his mother’s extravagant lifestyle.

“The law is on our side,” Bernstein infamously declared to TIME magazine in 1938, justifying his actions by stating that a child’s earnings belonged to their parents. This sparked outrage and ignited Coogan’s fight for justice. His lawsuit not only brought him a fraction of his rightful earnings but also led to the landmark California Child Actors’ Bill, also known as the Coogan Law. This law mandated that 15% of a child actor’s earnings be placed in a trust fund, safeguarding them from financial exploitation.

Jackie Coogan’s story serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the vulnerability of child stars and the importance of legal protections. While his talent brought joy to millions, his personal journey was marked by exploitation and heartbreak. He left behind a legacy not just of cinematic charm but also of a law that continues to protect young performers from falling victim to the same fate.

While Diana Serra Cary’s experience adds valuable context, consider weaving it more tightly into the narrative about Coogan. Perhaps highlight similarities or differences in their struggles with financial exploitation.

Striking Reality: Coogan’s Law Falls Short

Coogan’s female colleague Diana Serra Cary, formerly known as “Baby Peggy”, had observed that in practice this law was shockingly ineffective. “Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King,” she wrote in a biography of her former rival, “Parents and thieving executives continued to find ways to defraud the trust of a vulnerable child.” Cary even recalls an awkward phone call with his mother during the Coogan trial. “I suppose you are now preparing to do the same thing to your father and me?” his mother suddenly scolded him. Indeed, most of Cary’s earnings from more than 150 comedy shorts and three feature films were squandered before he was ten.

Although Cary chose not to pursue legal action, he discovered his talent as a writer. He positioned himself as a respected film historian and advocate for the rights of child actors. In 1990 he became a member of A Minor Consideration, a non-profit advocacy group for children in the entertainment industry founded by Paul Petersen. Petersen had gained fame in the 1950s on The Donna Reed Show and was spurred to action by the suicide of his contemporary Rusty Hamer, who played the brilliant son in Make Room For Daddy. Cary wrote admiringly of Petersen’s efforts to draft a new revision of Coogan’s Law that would close the numerous loopholes that had undermined its effectiveness for decades. These were finally corrected in 2000, when it was clarified that the earnings of children working in the entertainment industry belonged solely to them and not to their parents.

But these 60 years of inactivity led to Jackie Coogan’s original condition being repeated over and over again. Judy Garland’s mother escaped the restrictions by taking a salary from her own daughter’s salary. “America’s Sweetheart” Shirley Temple, the box office winner four years in a row, saw much of her inherited income depleted. Since the 1980s, a number of child actors, including Jena Malone and Corey Feldman, have sought independence from their parents, who they claim mismanaged their money and accumulated significant debts. In some cases, while this arrangement was amicable, it was often in an effort to circumvent child labor laws that set limits on working hours. Such legal loopholes have led to calls for a new revision of the Coogan Act to address the lack of legal protection for online “child influencers”.

In the Shadow of Hollywood: The Story of a Child Star 1

Bitter Stereotypes and Complex Relationships

Another effect of these gaps is that countless failed child artists have given rise to the stereotype of the “burnt-out Hollywood starlet”. This stereotype simplifies their suffering as unlucky youngsters who “ruined their lives” or who, having lost their fresh innocence, become “unrecognizable” in adulthood.

Jackie Coogan experienced the earliest example of this stereotype in 1964 when he was cast as the eccentric Uncle Fester in the comedy series “The Addams Family”. Although he relished returning to an attention-grabbing audience, his daughter remembers him returning home in tears one day after saying something like: “I was the most beautiful boy in the world, and now I’m a horrible monster.” Cary’s biography of Coogan recounts that despite his mistreatment, Coogan often described early Hollywood as a fairy-tale place and even became a “tireless advocate” for child stardom. Perhaps he longed to return to a time when the industry was unaware of its shortcomings.

Although there was a great deal of sympathy for him in the newspaper during the trials, studio executives were appalled by what they saw as his “ungrateful” behavior. Louis B. Mayer once angrily told Coogan in his office at MGM: “No noble American boy would sue his own mother!”

A Bitter Irony: The Gap Between Trust and Truth

It seems a bitter irony that Jackie Coogan’s breakout role is in a movie about unconditional trust in protective adults. Coogan’s “The Kid” finds solace in Chaplin’s “Tramp” character, who takes care of him out of concern for his well-being, even though he doesn’t have to. Chaplin also supported Coogan, who struggled with poverty during his legal battle, by giving him 1,000 dollars.

Around the same time, the two meet on the set of Chaplin’s new movie. Coogan confesses that he never saw “The Kid” in its entirety (he fell asleep at the premiere). Chaplin immediately stops filming and takes Coogan to a projection room where he can watch the movie from beginning to end with his own piano accompaniment.

michael Stepansky

Conducts studies in the field of political sciences.
Creates their articles by scanning media

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