A letter from schools was sent to San Bernardino parents in January 1931, but it wasn’t about little Billy or Maria misbehaving in class.
In fact, for some it seemed an opportunity of a lifetime – little Billy and Maria were invited to appear in a motion picture 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 required 40 to 100 youngsters, ages 6 to 12, as background extras for a few days.
The studio would pay each child $3 a day and provide teachers to continue their studies between filming. Kids allowed by parents to participate were interviewed by Paramount workers, though not all were selected.
In those early difficult days of the Great Depression, the money must have been a godsend for parents willing to agree to the studio’s request. It may have also charged up a few would-be stage mothers who saw this as a big break toward their child’s future.
“Skippy” starred 8-year-old Jackie Cooper, who had recently played 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 youth issues of those difficult days.
Making his film debut was 6-year-old Robert Coogan, brother of the more famous Jackie Coogan, already a successful child star and who later played Uncle Fester of the TV “Addams Family.”
For the local kids, all the hubbub amid the more than 100 studio personnel wasn’t always very exciting.
“They spent the majority of the time in a big motor bus and tents studying their daily lessons under the supervision of a teacher engaged especially to instruct them,” reported the Sun on Jan. 29.
The kids got box lunches at noon while the two stars – Jackie and Robert – went off for lunch at the California Hotel, where they were housed during the filming.
And despite their age, the two young stars were free to be interviewed by reporters on the scene.
“How do you like being a movie actor?” young Robert was asked by United Press correspondent Duane Hennessy. “I’d rather play,” he said.
“But don’t you want to be a big star like (brother Jackie)?”
“Let him have it,” said Coogan, who played “Sooky” in the film.
Los Angeles Record columnist Belman Morin on Jan. 31 described Robert’s stubbornness as he said he’d rather just play with the dogs in the film.
“But you can’t now,” said director Norman Taurog. “We need you in the next scene. Wait until lunch-time when you’re not working.”
Young Robert – already exhibiting an arrogance so much a part of being an actor – replied, “You wait until lunch-time when I’m not playing,” wrote Morin, and then he “walked away with hauteur in every step.”
Jackie also butted heads with Taurog, who was his uncle. Taurog was unhappy he couldn’t get a genuine response from Jackie in a touching scene involving a dog.
The director told a worker to take the dog off the set and shoot him in order to get the right emotion out of Jackie. 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 harmed, but reportedly Jackie held that incident against Taurog for years.
Taurog also got some resistance from neighbors. This was one of the early sound motion pictures, and music from a nearby house constantly interrupted filming.
He had an associate tell the homeowner to shut off the music, but he returned to report, “The lady, she wants money, a lot of money, to stop,” he told Taurog. “She says she has a right to play (the radio) and she’s gonna do it.”
Realizing he was beaten, Taurog sent her $5 – no small sum in those days – enabling filming to quietly resume, reported the Sun on Jan. 30.
“Skippy” ultimately overcame filming issues and debuted on April 3 to very positive responses by audiences. That afternoon a packed matinee of kids enjoyed the film at San Bernardino’s Fox Theater.
The film was such a success that it spawned a sequel, “Sooky,” with Jackie and Robert reprising their earlier roles. San Bernardino was again the location for the movie, which also included local school kids as extras, in October 1931.
Fontana News Roomreported Oct. 3 that the studio was spending more than $5,000 in San Bernardino for “Sooky,” hiring local painters, construction workers, and adult and child extras.
While filming “Sooky,” Jackie got into another row with his uncle over yet another scene where he was supposed to cry on cue.
“Now listen, Jackie. You aren’t giving me your real stuff,” Taurog said. “You’re just trying to be an actor and put over a big scene. That isn’t the way you worked in ‘Skippy.’ ”
“Well, that’s the way I do it over at MGM,” he said, referring to an earlier film role. “And they think it’s swell.”
“Sooky” won no awards, but “Skippy” was nominated for the best film for 1931-32. Jackie became the youngest nominee for an Oscar as lead actor. Taurog – perhaps honored for enduring so much from his young actors – received the Oscar for best director.
San Bernardino briefly became a real movie capital, while “Sooky” was being shot. At the same time, the Santa Fe train station was used for another film, “Shanghai Express,” starring Marlene Dietrich.
The most unusual aspect of that filming was director Josef von Sternberg bringing in 250 Chinese actors by train on Oct. 12 for the scenes at the train station, reported the Sun. “Shanghai Express” was also nominated for an Oscar for best picture.
Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history. He can be reached at email@example.com or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out some of our columns of the past at Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IEHistory.