The Brief Candle of Junior Durkin

The sad tale of Trent “Junior” Durkin (1915-1935) is normally told in the form of a footnote to Jackie Coogan’s life. Today, we’ll let Junior be the star.

Durkin was the son of an Atlantic City hotel owner, although his father was out of the picture when he was quite small. His mother was the proverbial stage mom, putting Junior and sisters Grace (1908-1991) and Gertrude (1911-1970) into shows as soon as they could sit up. As quite a young child, Durkin was in local productions of The Squaw Man, Poppy, The Blue Bird, and Floradora, as well as Dagmar, starring Nazimova. In 1923, when he was 8 years old he took his first bow on Broadway in The Lady with Mary Nash. Then came a 1926 production of H.M.S. Pinafore and a comedy called Courage (1928), in which Gertrude also appeared. Around this time, Gertrude and Junior had a double kiddie act in vaudeville, and underook a tour.

Courage played until mid-1929. In 1930, Junior’s mother Molly passed away and the guardianship of the kids passed to their agent. At this point, with talkies now going great guns, they hied them out to Hollywood. Junior was immediately cast in the musical Recaptured Love (1930), followed by the 1930 Richard Arlen western The Santa Fe Trail, which also featured child star Mitzi Green. He is best known today for playing Huckleberry Finn opposite Jackie Coogan’s Tom Sawyer in Tom Sawyer (1930) and Huckleberry Finn (1931). Another fairly well remembered picture is the 1934 adaptation of Louis May Alcott’s Little Men, also featuring Ralph Morgan, Frankie Darro, Dickie Moore, Richard Quine, and Hattie McDaniel.

Next came Hell’s House (1932), a juvenile delinquent story featuring George O’Brien and Bette Davis. An incident during the filming of this picture added to Durkin’s fame in a less positive way. There was a scene where the young (and then comely) Davis embraced and caressed young Durkin. As will happen, the boy had a biological reaction to her attentions in the area of his lap, and this was so pronounced that it was visible onscreen in a shot that was cut from the film. Unfortunately, the footage was shown at a party to Durkin’s great embarrassment, and later circulated at Hollywood stag parties for a time.

After Man Hunt (1933), Durkin appeared at the Pasadena Playhouse in a play called Growing Pains (1933) which then moved to Broadway. He then returned to Hollywood to appear in Big Hearted Herbert (1934), Ready for Love (1934), and the aforemetioned Little Men (1934).

By 1935, things were changing. Now pushing 20, he was billing himself as Trent Durkin (Trent was his middle name. He had previously also billed himself as Bernard Durkin as well; Durkin was the first name of himself and his father, hence “Junior”). He appeared as Trent Durkin in Chasing Yesterday (1935), an adaptation of an Anatole France novel, starring Anne Shirley. His next film was to be the all-star 1935 adaptation of O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!

But then fate intervened. He went on a hunting vacation with the Coogans near the Coogan Ranch. Jack Coogan Sr was at the wheel of Jackie’s speedy new auto on a treacherous road when he swerved to avoid a car from the other direction. The Coogan’s car went down a steep embankment, flipping seven times and killing everyone inside but Jackie. Thus ended a very promising career for Durkin, who was clearly poised for great things.

The Durkin sisters and father (who naturally came out of the woodwork for a payday, as they always do) sued Coogan for a half million dollars. But, as is well known, Jackie had been cleaned out by his parents by that time. He had no money to fork over even if the case had had merit. As for the sisters, Grace was to appear in ten films between 1932 and 1937, including Cleopatra (1934) with Claudette Colbert. She retired after the movie The 13th Man (1937) married an actor named William Henry. Around the same time, Gertrude married minor screen star James Ellison (1910-1993), who appeared in Zenobia (1939), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and a large number of westerns.

For much more on Junior Durkin, see this convoluted but very informative blogpost.

And for more on vaudeville history, where Junior Durkin got his start, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,