He was the voice of Lampwick in Walt Disney’s Pinnochio (1940), the bad boy who gets turned into a donkey on Pleasure Island, maybe the most upsetting scene in any Disney cartoon. He was one of two actors inside Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956), small enough to fit inside the costume. He played lots of jockeys and Dead End Kids and Bowery Boys, and he made scores of low-budget westerns. He was menaced by Boris Karloff in The Mad Genius (1931). He was a man in a leg cast hoisted up in his hospital bed in Blake Edwards’s The Perfect Furlough (1958) and he examined Cary Grant’s posterior in Edwards’s Operation Petticoat (1959). As an adorable, Jackie Coogan-like little boy, he got a laugh asking a woman to dance in Flesh and the Devil (1927) right before Greta Garbo waltzes away with John Gilbert. He was a son to Marie Dressler’s Tugboat Annie. On Red Skelton’s TV show in the 1950s, he did an old lady routine that routinely brought down the house. Frankie Darro had a long and varied career. And in 1933, in two films, Mayor of Hell and William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road, Darro is an actor with a capacity for greatness, if anyone had bothered to notice.
As Jimmy, a juvenile delinquent in Mayor of Hell, Darro is the “tough kid” that he so often played in later films, and he’s masterfully tough as he and his gang cause trouble, but the camera keeps catching him in silent moments of sensitivity; he’s both malevolent and righteous, a real anarchist, a young Cagney, a rebel. In Mayor of Hell, Darro doesn’t seem like an actor, or like he’s acting; he seems like a young person observed in times of intense stress. When he is caught and sent to reform school, Darro’s Jimmy is judged by adults and tries to keep a poker face, but his rich, dark eyes keep flickering with outraged dignity and hurt. Unable to stand the school anymore, Jimmy backhands the rotten warden and makes a flying leap over a barrier, so that Cagney himself, the putative star of the film, looks genuinely impressed.
Darro was the son of aerialists, and though he was afraid of heights, his father made him practice a high wire act when he was just a toddler; after that didn’t work out, Darro was pushed into movies to support his family. He was their meal ticket, and Darro felt the unfairness of that, but he kept on going and kept his own judgments about his lot in life to himself, just as Jimmy does in Mayor of Hell. After Jimmy is whipped down from a barbed wire fence, Cagney asks Darro if he’s alright, and Darro does a tiny shrug with his eyes to show his toughness, his imperviousness to pain. Mind over matter. Mayor of Hell is a measured, heavy film, and Darro is the still center of it, stealing it from Cagney with his severity, his moral outrage, and his anger, which radiates out of everything he does, especially when he’s standing still and trying not to give anything away.
In Wild Boys of the Road, Darro is Eddie, more of a recognizable bluff and hearty American boy of the 1930s, somebody who can say, “Aw gee whiz” with total sincerity. There are times when he sounds a little like Mickey Rooney, who was his classmate at The Lawlor Professional School, a place where child star family meal tickets were educated, so to speak. At a dance with his girl, Eddie pulls her close and plants a lingering kiss on her neck, and when he’s at home, he grabs himself a huge chunk of apple pie; he’s a sensualist who enjoys life. The Depression lands his father out of work, and when the father’s unemployment stretches far enough, Eddie sells his car to help out; when the man at the junkyard drives it away, Darro rubs his nose to keep from crying, a very original and touching gesture.
After this careful set-up, we see Eddie and his friend Tommy (Edwin Phillips) run away from home and ride the rails, and the film introduces a whole army of homeless boys and girls who fight against cops and officials and create their own community. Tommy loses his leg after a train runs it over, and Eddie steals an artificial leg for him, but it’s too big to fit; after the cops firehose the kids out of their community, Wellman makes a quick cut to this artificial leg lying in the mud, a brutal capper to the injustice on display in this picture. Darro gets a monologue at the end to a Roosevelt-like judge that ends on a note of defiance: “Jail can’t be any worse than the streets!” he cries, before collapsing. The film concludes on a New Deal pledge of hope, and Darro almost makes us believe this hope when he goes outside and does a bunch of back flips and then spins around on his head, an old vaudeville specialty and a cheering sight (as the old lady on Red Skelton’s show, Darro would sometimes break into these acrobatics for laughs). When he gets up, Darro does a “Ta Dah!” arm gesture at the camera, and this is enough to win anyone’s loyalty or faith.
The next year, in Frank Borzage’s major anti-war film No Greater Glory (1934), Darro played the taciturn, conquering head of a rival teenaged gang as if he’d just walked out of a Kenneth Anger movie; he wears a motorcycle-like cap on his head and makes only necessary movements, stalking around like a lithe, sexy cat and registering his growing respect for the puny, all-heart Nemecsek (George P. Breakston). As he got older, Darro often found himself still cast as teenagers, and he had a drinking problem that also limited the kinds of roles he could do as an older man; in his last credit, as a town drunk in Fugitive Lovers (1975), Darro is still mouthing off to cops and registering his “this isn’t fair” contempt. He died the following year of a heart attack, in a crummy little apartment not far from the Lawlor Professional School. If you look at Darro in Mayor of Hell and Wild Boys of the Road, it’s hard not to concoct “if only” scenarios for him, but when you can do back flips and spin on your head, the vicissitudes of a hard life and career fall away, and all you’re left with is Darro leaping to his feet and smiling over skills he never wanted but has decided to enjoy.
by Dan Callahan
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