Skippy (1931, Norman Taurog)

Sourced from a Percy Crosby comic strip whose influence is now outweighed by its relative obscurity, this mostly forgotten Paramount production was a smash hit in its time. Alternately shrill and maudlin but not altogether bad, it’s an appropriately flat and outsized vision of childhood in the Great Depression: lemonade stands, bullies, local kiddie variety shows, and eventually some semblance of a story circulating around a streetwise kid known as Skippy and his equally shrill and unnerving little pals. For that we must add a little dog who’s been sent to the pound, and an antagonist: Skippy’s froot loop of a paranoid germophobe father, the wealthy Dr. Skinner (Willard Robertson), whose hardened exterior of course hides a melting heart of some gooey thing or another, but right up to then he convincingly wields the icy black hand of death, as a comic strip hero in Skippy’s eventual wake would put it.

Norman Taurog somewhat improbably received an Academy Award for directing this; never perceived as anything but a competent workhorse, he was never much of a stylist. But the reasons for the accolade become clear once you see the film. A former child actor himself, he is excellent at gleaning good, realistic performances from the large cast of tykes in the film. Moreover, for such an early sound picture and a relatively simple children’s film circa 1931, this featuers an unusual amount of tricky and interesting camera movement. Likely inspired by the possibilities of the comic format, Taurog conceives large, elaborate tracking shots across sidewalks, traverses in and out of three-dimensional space, and generally makes Skippy’s neighborhood breathe with geometry and vividness. Plus, anything that keeps that Oscar out of Wesley Ruggles’ hands is quite all right with me.

Though the film is certainly simple-minded and a little idealized, it hasn’t become particularly antiquated. If anything, it would probably still be a fun introduction to black & white movies for younger kids — at least as much so as far more juvenile serials like the Little Rascals series or hoary literary adaptations like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (same director!) that, for all their faults, must have had a similar effect on me in the early ’90s. The truth is that being a kid is still universal, and Skippy’s emotional struggles with bedtime, bathtime, tooth-brushing, rescuing animals, etc. are presented in bold strokes that don’t condescend. Taurog and screenwriters Joseph L. Mankiewicz (! yes, really), Norman McLeod and Sam Mintz are wise to keep the boy’s world realistic and charmingly scrappy, and firmly out of the realm of pure slapstick. The only obstacle to this film finding an audience is probably the awful condition it’s in — not that Paramount is sitting on a goldmine or anything, but there’s probably an opportunity here at least.

Having said that, I can hear the fallout now: a lot of modern parents would look at this film and object to its Depression-era left-wing undertones — that’s in spite of creator Crosby being so ardently conservative that the resulting discomfort from his readership and editors forced him into retirement in the ’40s, sending his life into a sad downward spiral. But suspicion of government “handouts” doesn’t carry much weight in this product of the year before FDR’s election, so Skippy’s asshole father has it out for the local poors in Shantytown, which seems to be occupied by the only loving people in Skippy’s life. His philosophy, having read one too many Upton Sinclair exposes, is that Shantytown is riddled with disease and squalor and must be eradicated from the globe, cute dogs and Skippy’s perpetually “unclean” friend Sooky and all. The good doctor’s heartlessness is counteracted finally with a touch of compassion for your fellow man — all that pinko-commie stuff. I deal with parents of young children; no way they’d go in for that stuff. These people complain about Rainbow Fish.

Kind of refreshing though, right? I mean, class compassion isn’t such a bad message. Skippy tells the ugly truth about the actual nature of young kids, too, in which guise it functions as a horror film. Typically, the more tiresome movies about kids tend to try and get mileage out of their “cuteness” — and make no mistake, there’s quite a bit of that here — but in this case, such diabolical dross is offset by a fucking ton of footage of children being annoying as all hell, just like they are in real life. (I could do without the multiple reels of footage of Sooky crying, but it makes its point and is all too familiar.)

In sum, the film is altogether forgettable, but young kids will likely appreciate its pluck and its hints of a sense of juvenile justice and comeuppance. Adults may be glad for its accidental provision of free birth control. And they also may get a kick out of seeing young Jackie Cooper, soon to become one of the first famous child stars in American sound film. He’s really terrific here, a performance apparently wrought via emotional terrorism by Taurog, who at one point told the boy that his actual dog had been shot to get him to cry. Cooper never forgave him. Taurog never won another Oscar. As in Shantytown, justice finds a way.

[As implied above, this film is only available via back channels — currently buried on Youtube. As such, I had to use publicity stills instead of screencaps.]

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