There are two roles which I will always remember Jackie Cooper for. First, of course, is the role he played in many of the Our Gang shorts. He was kind of the clean-cut, but tough kid…and he was the one with the crush on his teacher, Miss Crabtree. The second role I remember him for is playing Perry White in the Superman films. Today’s film features Cooper at age 16. Too old to be a part of Our Gang, but now the leader of a different sort of gang in 1937’s “Boy of the Streets.”
Cooper plays Chuck Brennan, leader of a gang of teens in an Irish New York neighborhood. These guys spend their time pulling pranks on the cops, calling in false alarms and such. Actually, they get the lone black member of their gang, the younger Spike (Paul White), to do most of the dirty work on the pranks.
Home life is not all that great for Chuck. He lives with his parents (Marjorie Main and Guy Usher) in a small tenement building. Chuck idolizes his dad, though the man seems to have no real job. Ma’s real job seems to be telling her husband that he’s no good. In the same building, there also lives a young lady named Norah (Maureen O’Connor) who Chuck has eyes for. But Norah’s mom is sick with tuberculosis and ends up getting hauled off to a sanitarium. Having always been enthralled with Norah’s singing voice, Chuck decides to help her get a job singing in a club. But this nearly gets Norah in big trouble since she’s “under age.” The ladies from the Children’s Aid Society even show up, but good-natured neighborhood cop Rourke (Robert E. O’Connor) helps out, convincing them to come back later. The new owner of the tenement, Julie Stone (Kathleen Burke), soon decides to help Norah out by paying to send her to a private school rather than face going to an orphanage.
Of course, this doesn’t thrill Chuck. His anger over losing the girl he loves to private school helps fuel the fire when a rival gang shows up on their turf. A rumble soon breaks out between the two gangs. During the fight, Chuck tangles with the other gang’s leader in the middle of the street. When a truck comes barreling toward them, Spike jumps into the street to push Chuck out of the way. The vehicle ends up striking Spike, killing him.
Now, struck with grief, Chuck decides he needs to make something of himself. But, unable to get a job and still too young for the military, he ends up being brought into organized crime, under the leadership of a smooth talker named Blackie Davis (Matty Fain). Chuck really thinks he’s made it now, but that’s put to the test when his new gangster pals tangle with the neighborhood cops who always took it easy on Chuck and his boys.
In a way, “Boy of the Streets” represents a natural progression for Jackie Cooper. His character in the Our Gang films, though not as much of a hoodlum as Chuck is, was always sort of the leader of the gang (this was in the days before Spanky, folks). So, he’s kind of playing a grittier version of his old character, and he does a great job with it. Cooper was a fine actor all throughout his career. To this day, he is the youngest person ever nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award (for “Skippy” at age 9).
It’s Cooper’s performance that really makes this film work. Truth be told, much of the rest of the film is pretty clichéd. You can practically go through the checklist…Irish slum, no good father, angry mother, innocent love interest, “hey yous mugs” type dialogue…it’s all there. But Cooper’s performance anchors it all and had me completely on board. The only element of the story that was really an annoyance was the side story of the tenement owner, Miss Stone. She’s a rich woman who inherits the building from an uncle and is determined to fix the place up. On her first visit she ends up being treated like an evil slumlord by the doctor (Gordon Elliott) treating Norah’s mother. Of course, a romance starts to brew between these two characters who really have no place in this story.
I hesitate at calling “Boy of the Streets” a gritty story, but it is in a way…for 1937. It’s the sort of story we’ve seen many times before, but Jackie Cooper makes it worth it.