The Tragic Trajectory of Our Gang’s Scotty Beckett

I have no idea how Scotty Beckett (1929-1968) has fallen through the Travalanche cracks. He is surely one of the Little Rascals I knew about first, but I’ve not mentioned him at all, despite having done posts on nearly all of the others by now. Scotty was one of the few kids in the Our Gang franchise to rival Spanky and Darla for cuteness, with those huge eyes, and that adorable character touch of the crooked, backwards baseball cap. Further, like Alfalfa, Froggy, and others, he was one of the many who worked in the series to fall prey to the Little Rascals Curse.

Beckett was three when he appeared in his first film Gallant Lady (1934) with Ann Harding and fellow future Rascal Dickie Moore. Most of Beckett’s Our Gang shorts were made between 1934 and 1936, but a couple came as late as 1939. He was also in Hal Roach’s March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934). Beckett was still only six when he dropped out of the Our Gang series, but he had good reason to do so: he was cast, frequently, in major features. These included George White’s Scandals (1934), Stand Up and Cheer (1934), Anthony Adverse (1936), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Wells Fargo (1937), Marie Antoinette (1937, he had a heart breaking scene as the young Dauphin), My Favorite Wife (1940), Gold Rush Maisie (1940), Kings Row (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves (1944), The Climax (1944), The Jolson Story (1946, as Young Jolson).

Beckett was arrested for drunk driving in 1948, the first of his many brushes with the law. In 1949, he married pro tennis star Beverly Baker, but the union lasted less than a year. In 1951, he met actress Sunny Vickers, while both were appearing in the screen version of the comic strip Gasoline Alley, and the pair were married. By this time, he had already acquired a reputation for drinking and gambling, and not repaying his debts.

After a couple of lean years, Beckett was cast as a regular on the television show Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (1954). Then he was arrested for check kiting and for carrying a concealed weapon, and was fired from the show. He didn’t work at all in 1955, but by 1956 he was doing guest shots on tv again and appearing in films like Three for Jamie Dawn (1956) with Laraine Day, Ricardo Montalban, and June Havoc. Then he blew it again. In early 1957 he was arrested for possession of 250 tablets of speed. Four days after the arrest he smashed his car into a tree, with permanently crippling effects. He was unable to work in films any longer. His last role was a 1957 episode of The George Sanders Mystery Theatre. This was apparently too much for Vickers, who divorced him that year. In 1959 he was arrested again for drunk driving.

In 1961 Beckett married a woman named Margaret Sabo. The following year, in the depths of his drinking, he attempted to kill himself. He earned his living as a salesman, when he was able to work during these last years. In 1968 he checked himself into a medical facility after having been badly beaten by someone. He had been there only two days when he took his own life with an O.D. of barbiturates. He was only 38. (This was not recorded as the official cause of death. There may have been complicating factors, such as long term alcohol abuse, and injuries sustained in the beating).

Why do we come across so many stories like this? Naturally, alcoholism and addiction are often hereditary, but there are many unusual added factors in the cases of child stars. With so much time, from such a young age, being encouraged by all the adults in their lives to play “let’s pretend”, is it possible that many don’t learn to draw a firm boundary between fantasy and reality? Certainly the pressures can lead to drug abuse: the need to be energetic on demand, and then to rest in the few hours of allotted downtime. In Beckett’s case, his career was tied chonologically to the death of his father. His first performances were in the hospital where his father was laid up with an illness. Then the old man died just as Scotty was first being cast in movies. Surely he must have made a mental association connecting the two developments, with a meaning perhaps vague in his psyche, but one that may have produced guilt on some level. And then there’s the macho factor. A boy that sweet and cute, when he gets older, may have a strong need to break away from that, to prove his virility by trying to seem like a tough character.

I don’t claim that this is anything beyond arm chair speculation on my part, conducted across a great distance. That — and logic. When sad things happen, it feels healthy to try to figure out why and solve it, like a puzzle. It would be nice to think that kids can work in show business without becoming horribly damaged. But of course many do. Sometimes financial, personal and artistic success allows them to live long, happy lives. Sometimes they manage to wind up well adjusted because of parents who brought them up right. But some seem consigned to the driver’s seat of a slow motion car crash, and as a result, sometimes, a fast motion, literal one.

For more on Our Gang, please check out my 100th anniversary podcast episode here.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.