Thursday, August 13, 2009

Trent Bernard Junior Durkin

July 2, 1915 - May 4, 1935
After someone dies, I think that you have a moral duty to show them and their memory respect. I stumbled across the story of Junior Durkin in researching Jackie Coogan. History has recorded four things/events about him.
Unfortunately, two of these are less desirable stories that have become integral to his biography, the third is his distinguished resume, the fourth is the story of the horrible wreck which killed him.
When Trent came to Hollywood in 1930 he was 15, within 5 years he made 13 films(and some of these were starring roles too; but more impressive is the fact that Trent was not under contract to any studio at the time; he had to go out and audition and win each and every role he got), making him one of the busiest and most successful actors in Hollywood.
His most famous roles:
Tom Sawyer(1930) w/Jackie Coogan, playing Huck Finn
Huck Finn(1931) w/Jackie Coogan, playing Huck Finn
Hell's House (1933) w/Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien
One reviewer said of his performance in Hell's House, "this gawky lad with an expressive face...dominates the screen whenever he is present." In fact, Junior Durkin was listed ahead of both his co-stars, Pat O'Brien and Bette Davis in the films credits. Leslie Halliwell in his "Who's Who in Movies", describes Junior as one of the four great child stars in Hollywood's infancy(Pre-1940 films); the others Judy Garland, Jackie Coogan and Junior Coughlin. Famed Hollywood Director Cecile B. DeMille personally cast Trent as the central character "Steve Smith" in his film, "This Day and Age", but a scheduling conflict prevented Trent from taking the role.

Trent is the perfect Huckleberry Finn.
The National Council of Teachers handbook to the Movies describes Junior's portrayal of Huckleberry Finn as "remarkably convincing".  It really is an amazing performance, one that of which Mark Twain would have been proud made even more impressive once you consider that was a Broadway actor and New Yorker(since he was 5), not a country kid discovered for the role like Claude Jarman in the Yearling(1944) or Brad Renfro in The Client (1994).

After watching Hell's House and his portrayal as Huck Finn, he seems, at least to me, a lot like Henry Fonda in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath". A quiet, gentle man(boy) who brought much more depth and character to his roles than anyone would have thought possible.

Trent Bernard "Junior" Durkin's Complete Filmography:
Little Men (1935) .......................Franz
Chasing Yesterday (1935) ........ Henry
Big-Hearted Herbert (1934) .... Junior
Ready for Love (1934) ........... Joey Burke
Man Hunt (1933) ......................Junior

Hell's House* (1932) ............... Jimmy Mason
Huckleberry Finn (1931) .... .....Huckleberry Finn
Conquering Horde, The (1931)
Tom Sawyer (1930) .... ............Huckleberry Finn
Santa Fe Trail, The (1930) .......Old Timer
Recaptured Love (1930) ........ Henry Parr
Fame (1930)
Law Rides West, The (1930)
*also known as "Juvenile Court"
Some Night(Harris Theatre, September 23,through October 5, 1918; uncredited, Cupid at age 2 1/2)
The Lady(Empire Theatre, December 4, 1923 through May 1924)
Poppy(The Apollo Theatre, Starring WC Fields, September 3, 1923- June 2, 1924)
HMS Pinafore(Century Theatre, April 6, through May 1926; Gilbert and Sullivan)
Courage(Ritz Theatre: October 8, 1928 through June 1929, 280 Performances)
Growing Pains(Ambassador Theatre, November 23 through December 31, 1933; 29 Performances)
The New York Times describes Courage(1928) star Janet Beecher's brilliant performance as Mrs. Colebrook which earned her 10 curtain calls and thunderous applause, then qualifies its praise by saying that "Junior Durkin" almost stole the show by his performance...

Trent had two sisters, Gertrude(d. 1970, married to Western Actor James Ellison 1937-1970) and Grace(July 17, 1914- November 26, 1991) All three kids began acting on the stage before the age of 5. There mother was Florence Edwards Durkin, who worked as a secretary at the Shubert Theatre Chain's Headquarters at 225 West 44th Street in New York City. Florence died in 1930, after a long illness(apparently having separated from their father some time before). For at least part of the time during her illness, Grace, Gertrude and "Junior" lived at St. Mary's Convent(Orphanage/School). By 1930, Trent, Grace and Gertrude were on their own.
From what little information I can find, it seems that their father was alive when Trent was killed, Gertrude, Grace and Dad sued Jack Coogan(Sr.)'s insurance company. Apparently their Dad was an actor; their mother may have been an actress before she became a secretary at the Shubert Theatre.
Gertrude, Grace and Junior were placed under the guardianship of Marian Gering, a Broadway and, later, a Hollywood Producer and spent much more time on the stage than being kids or a family. Though, even years later they were ferociously loyal to each other. I've seen Grace's family scrapbook in which she kept every press clipping about her brother. She loved him, that's obvious.
Unfortunately, Marian allowed 16-year-old Trent "Junior" to go to Los Angeles and stay with his Hollywood Agent, Henry Willson(Henry worked for Zeppo Marx's Talent Agency). Henry Willson was supposed to act as Junior's Guardian(in locus parentis: to protect a child while serving as a temporary parent) while he was in California. It didn't turn out to have been the best decision she could have made about her ward. Henry Willson's reputation for better or worse started with Trent "Junior" Durkin.
The second story is worse. Trent was invited to a party at Bette Davis's house during the filming of "Hell's House". Trent(and Bette) starred in this story about Boys in reform school. While watching rushes, Howard Higgin, the Director, discovered an embarrassing shot of Trent while being held, comforted and embraced by Bette Davis. He had the scene from the film developed so he could show it at to his friends and at parties. Everyone broke out laughing, except the 16-year-old. Trent was so humiliated that he ran out of the house crying.
Later the film made its way to the stag movie circuit. Just a humiliating moment, which should have been ignored and forgotten.
That story was told by Humphrey Bogart, who was at the party and said that he was so angry by the way Trent was treated that he said that he would never allow anything like that to occur in his presence again. And according to the book, Bogey said that if he ever ran across a young person with a crush on him, he would be sure to treat them with compassion and understanding. And that's what happened in 1944 when 44 year old, Bogie, met 20 year old "Baby"(Lauren Bacall/Betty Perske) while filming "To Have and Have Not".

But I end this post with one little story which tells you a lot about him. While appearing at The Pasadena Playhouse in 1934 in a production of "Growing Pains" produced by Arthur Lubin, Trent did a favor for his fellow cast members. The Pasadena Playhouse had a reputation for being a stop for actors on the way up or on the way down. Few of his fellow cast members had cars, so Trent volunteered to pick up five of his castmates(friends) who lived in Hollywood, Pasadena and LA and take them to the theatre and drop them off home everyday.
I think that any of us would give a friend a lift, but how many of us would go all over Los Angeles to pick up five people and give them a lift everyday? A Damn Good Friend would.
That isn't something anyone would repeat, but it certainly something his friends would remember when a few months later he was killed in a traffic accident.
Trent was scheduled to star in a Production of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness" when he got back from his vacation with the Coogans. He had also just signed a 7 year contract with RKO Studios. Trent Bernard "Junior" Durkin had everything going for him, except time.

Trent lies buried on the "Sunrise Slope" at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. I doubt that very many people visit his grave. More should, because few have ever shown more promise, in any field, than young Trent did.

One person did. Close friend, Anglo-American Actress, Screenwriter and Director, Ida Lupino attended Trent's funeral and chose to be buried a short distance away. She was a very close friend of Trent and his sisters, Grace and Gertrude. Ida would tell friends for years afterwards, that the day Junior died was one the worst days of her life and his death was a loss from which she never totally recovered.


John H said...

Great post, very informative.

Fred Von During said...

I spend many an hour studying what I can find on Internet Sites involving Movie Stars, usually little known stars, and without the information included here on "Junior Durkin" I would have had an unfulfilled search on a person who deserved more! My thanks...

David Elijah Nahmod said...

what a sad story. a waste of a great talent and a young life. I found two of his films, Hell House & Tom Sawyer, complete at You Tube--I'll be watching them and visiting his grave the next time I'm in LA.

Scott Vermillion said...

I discovered Trent "Junior" Durkin's story in a book I am reading about Henry Willson. What a sad story to hear about such a fine young actor dying just as his career was taking off. Thank you for your informative post!