My pathway in to the fascinating career of Frankie Darro (Frank Johnson Jr, 1917-1976) came from learning that he had provided the voice of the bad influence/juvenile delinquent/ incipient ass Lampwick in Walt Disney’s Pinnocchio (1940). On the flip side, he was the body (not the voice) of Robbie the Robot in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956). Initially a child star, he later specialized in playing tough adolescents in B movies (including the Bowery Boys series), and later as an adult (standing 5’3″), lots of jockeys, caddies, and similar roles. He also worked as a stunt man.
Darrow was born into a circus family, The Flying Johnsons, trapeze artists and wire walkers with the Sells Floto Circus. His folks broke up when he was five; his film career began when was six. In 1924 he was the title character in Half-a-Dollar Bill, directed by W.S. Van Dyke, with Anna Q. Nilsson and Raymond Hatton. It was only his second movie. His dozens of films during the silent era included the original screen version of Edna Ferber’s So Big (1924) with Colleen Moore, Kiki (1926) with Norma Talmadge, Flesh and the Devil (1926) with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, Long Pants (1927) with Harry Langdon, and lead roles in pictures like Little Mickey Grogan (1927) and The Circus Kid (1928), the latter with Poodles Hanneford, Joe E. Brown, and Helene Costello.
He was 12 or 13 when sound came in, and small for his age, so he intitally fared very well. He was third billed in The Rainbow Man (1929) with Eddie Dowling and Marian Nixon, and was in such classics as The Public Enemy (1931) with Cagney and Harlow, The Mad Genius (1931) with Barrymore, Three on a Match (1932), The Mayor of Hell (1933), Tugboat Annie (1933) with Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery, William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933), Burn ‘Em Up Barnes (1934) with Jack Mulhall, and Little Men (1934).
Darro appeared in dozens of westerns in the silent and early talkie eras. One of his best remembered is The Phantom Empire serial (1935) with Gene Autry. His riding skills and size made him very castable as jockeys, and recall that racetrack pictures were an entire genre during the studio era. You can see him in such roles in The Big Race (1933), Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill (1934), Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936), Racing Blood (1936), the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races (1937), Saratoga (1937), Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937), That’s My Man (1947), Heart of Virginia (1948), Capra’s Riding High (1950), The Pride of Maryland (1951) and Racing Blood (1954).
Darro’s casting as Lampwick in Pinnochio was an outgrowth of the fact that he starred in several juvenile delinquent pictures at this point in his career, usually in B movies for minor studios like Monogram. These included Born to Fight (1936), Young Dynamite (1937), Reformatory (1938), Juvenile Court (1938), Wanted by the Police (1938), Tough Kid (1938), Boys Reformatory (1939), Chasing Trouble (1940), and On the Spot (1940). His characters usually had Irish names like O’Brien, Kelly, Ryan, O’Reilly or O’Malley.
Starting with Irish Luck (1939), Mantan Moreland became Darro’s sidekick for a series of pictures through Let’s Go Collegiate (1941). The serial Junior G Men of the Air (1942) was his last film work prior to World War Two.
Darro served in the Navy Hospital Corps during the war, where he caught malaria, the lingering effects of which would harm his future film career. He returned to Monogram Studios after the war and was cast in ensembles (rather than the types of starring roles he had once enjoyed) in a series called The Teen Agers starring big band singer Freddie Stewart from 1946 to 1948. He also appeared in four Bowery Boys comedies: Angels Alley (1948), Trouble Makers (1948), Fighting Fools (1949) and Hold That Baby (1949). He was also Leo Gorcey’s stunt double on Blues Busters (1950).
It was during this period that Darro became a problem drinker, a development attributed to his malaria symtoms. Starting in the ’50s he worked mostly as a stunt man and bit player, and opened a bar he called “Try Later” — after what casting agents had begun telling him. His most notable credit from his later years was a recurring role (in drag) as Maw Kadiddlehopper on The Red Skelton Show (1955-69). You can catch him in bit parts in movies like Pat and Mike (1952), The Carpetbaggers (1964), and Jerry Lewis’s The Disorderly Orderly (1964) and Hook Line and Sinker (1969), as well as TV shows like Peter Gunn, Bat Masterson, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Jack Benny Program, and Perry Mason. His final role was in an independent picture called Fugitive Lovers (1975), in which he plays a character called Lester the Drunk. He died of a heart attack a few months later.
Darro’s daughter Darlene maintains a terrific website in his honor; discover it here. There is also John Gloske’s 2008 book Tough Kid: The Life and Films of Frankie Darro.
To learn more about show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.