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 five great child stars in Hollywood's infancy(Pre-1940 films); the others Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, 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 "Junior" Durkin and his best friend Jackie Coogan filming Tom Sawyer in 1930.

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  Mark Twain, himself, would have been proud of, made even more impressive once you consider that he was a Broadway actor(since he was 5),  and a New Yorker, not a country kid discovered by a talent scout at mass auditions in local schools in rural areas, like Claude Jarman in the Yearling(1944) or Brad Renfro in The Client (1994) who were both discovered in Tennessee.

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:

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...

Little Men (1935) .......................Franz
Chasing Yesterday (1935) ........ Henry
Big-Hearted Herbert (1934) .... Junior Kainess
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"

The Ritz Theatre(now called the Walter Kerr Theatre)

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(now the Walter Kerr Theatre): October 8, 1928 through June 1929, 280 Performances)
Growing Pains(Ambassador Theatre, November 23 through December 31, 1933; 29 Performances)

Growing up on the stage, Trent, Grace and Gertrude would run to visit and eat lunch with their mother at the Shubert Theatre.

Trent was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey on July 2, 1915. His father, Bernard, had become a hotel owner after a career on the stage. He had separated from his wife while Junior and his sisters were quite young. Trent had two sisters, Gertrude Durkin Ellison(1910- 1970, married to Western Actor James Ellison 1937-1970) and Grace Durkin Henry(July 17, 1914- November 26, 1991) All three kids began acting on the stage before the age of 5. There mother was "Molly" Florence Edwards Durkin(1893-1932), who worked as a secretary at the Shubert Theatre Chain's Headquarters at 225 West 44th Street in New York City.
Apparently Trent, Gertrude and Grace's Dad, was an actor with traveling companies; their mother was an actress on Broadway before she settled down after the children were born and became a secretary at the Shubert Theatre. Florence died in 1932, after a long debilitating fight against cancer(apparently being separated from their father because of his career in a traveling company. The hotel apparently lost in the Great Depression). For at least part of the time during her illness, Grace, Gertrude and "Junior" lived at St. Mary's Convent(Orphanage/School) in New York.
By 1930 with their Mom dying, Trent, Grace and Gertrude were on their own.

From what little information I can find, it seems that the kids were in touch with their father when Trent was killed, Gertrude, Grace and Dad sued Jackie Coogan's insurance company for negligence in Trent's death. The accusation was that Jack Coogan had been drinking(no indication of whether it was beer or something else) and was driving about 70 MPH on the winding roads east of San Diego, near Pine Valley, California, near where the Coogan Ranch was located.
Trent's family sued Jackie  because the car was his (an early present for Jackie's 21st birthday from his Dad) and his Dad was technically an employee of Jackie's Production Company.  By then Louis B. Mayer had squeezed Jack out of any real role at MGM as a Producer at the Studio(Jackie wasn't a cute kid any more, so he had nothing to lose).

If you look at the picture of the terrain around the Coogan Ranch, you will realize how really treacherous the roads were, especially at night. It is hard to tell exactly what happened but the prime factor has to be Jack's speed and the terrain.

"They were traveling west on the highway, when an automobile which JACKIE said he thought he could identify approached from the opposite direction, on the center line of the highway, and swerved over."
"The other machine forced the COOGAN car from the highway. It swerved into an eight-foot ditch." Dr. Westphal's statement of a conversation he had with Jackie right after the accident.

As the only survivor, Jackie's testimony carried a lot of weight with the Judge and the case was dismissed.

When Trent's body was found, he was face down in the creek at the bottom of an embankment. His skull had been fractured.  He and Jackie had been riding in the cars rumble seat. Jackie had either crouched down and or been forced down by the force of the accident, in panic he grabbed the footrest, which probably saved his life and certainly protected him from a more serious injuries(he had broken ribs), Trent had been thrown out of the car as it rolled over and over going down the embankment. Trent's death was probably immediate. Jackie's father was still alive when Jackie reached him, somehow Jackie was able to drag his father back up to the road, but he died shortly thereafter in his son's arms. Jackie also brought the other passengers up to the road. When he found Trent, he could tell that he was already dead.

Florence G.E. Durkin
L'Homme Dieu
1893 MKINS 1932
To Know Her Was To Love Her

From their mother's grave marker, Trent and his sisters re-interred her body in Forest Lawn Memorial Park. She is buried two rows above Trent and about 10 graves to the left of his.
With the passage of time it becomes harder to find out any information about Trent's early years. The Shubert Theatre has no record of his Mom working there(but you have to remember that 84 years ago), but for some reason, they did tell me that she was called Molly by her friends.  The translations from French roughly means what man proposes, God disposes, or our fates are not in our hands, they are in God's hands.
When their mother became too ill to take care of Gertrude, Grace and Junior, they were placed under the guardianship of Marian Gering, a Broadway and, later, a Hollywood Producer, who was a close friend of their mother. The kids spent much more time on the stage, than being kids or a family. Though that may be true, even years later, they were still 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 live with his Hollywood Agent, Henry Willson. Henry worked for Zeppo Marx's Talent Agency. Marian allowed Henry Willson 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 for her ward. Henry Willson's scandalous reputation for promoting young male actors, for a price, 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's natural reaction to being held, comforted and embraced by the beautiful Bette Davis. Every boy has been there and what happened to Trent was perfectly normal. It was Higgin's actions which were abnormal. Higgin had the scene cut from the rushes and developed so he could show and share it with his friends at parties. He brought it with him to the party at Bette's house and everyone broke out laughing when it was shown, 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 embarrassing and humiliating moment in the life of a teenage boy, which should have been ignored and forgotten.
That story was told by Humphrey Bogart, who was at the party. Bogie said that he was so angry by the way Trent was treated 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 while acting, he would be sure to treat them with respect, 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 Howard Hawks "To Have and Have Not".

The Pasadena Playhouse founded in 1917 is a historic performing arts venue located 39 S. El Molino Avenue in Pasadena, California. The 686-seat auditorium produces a variety of cultural and artistic events, professional shows, and community engagements each year. Wikipedia
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 cast mates(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 really nice guy and 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.

RKO was founded by Joe Kennedy(President Kennedy's father, merging Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater chains and Joseph P. Kennedy's Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) in 1928). Later it was purchased by Lucy and Desi Arnaz and turned into Desilu Studios(Desilu created I Love Lucy, Star Trek and Mission Impossible).

Cottonwood Creek, Pine Valley California

Pine Valley, CA John Coogan Sr. Other Killed, May 1935

Jackie Coogan hurt; auto plunges in ravine---kills father and three others.
(By The United Press)
San Diego, May 4. -- Four men were killed and JACKIE COOGAN, 20 year old former boy film star, was injured tonight when an automobile in which COOGAN and his party were returning from a hunting trip into Mexico plunged off the road at high speed into a creek bed on the El Centro Highway, fifty miles east of here.
The dead were:
JOHN L. COOGAN, SR., father of the former boy actor.
JUNIOR DURKIN, 19 year old motion picture actor.
CHARLES JONES, foreman of the COOGAN Ranch, near here.
ROBERT HORNER, 25, Hollywood film writer.
JACKIE COOGAN was reported not seriously injured.
The San Diego County coroner at Pine Valley, where the dead and injured were brought, said the automobile left the road on a curve, plunged over a bank, and rolled over four times before it came to a stop in the bottom of the creek.
JACKIE COOGAN, bruised and shocked at the death of his father, said the automobile left the road in attempting to dodge another machine. COOGAN, SR., was driving.
Jumped Out.
"I crouched down in the seat as the car turned end over end twice," Young COOGAN said. "Then I straightened up and jumped out. I saw the automobile turn over two or three more times."
JACKIE said he seized the foot rest in the rumble seat and held on, riding with the car end over end.
DURKIN, who had been in pictures since early childhood, was riding with him in the rumble seat.
Their friendship started when DURKIN played the title role in Huckleberry Finn, and JACKIE took the part of Tom Sawyer in the same film. The partnership was seated in death when DURKIN lost his grip and was hurtled from the rumble seat to fall dead in the rocky creek bed.
Father Dies Later.
JACKIE'S father died shortly after the car smashed into the rocks. JACKIE, dazed and bruised, and his fater were the only survivors of the accident when passersby first arrived.
The elder COOGAN died of his injuries with his famous son by his side. The younger COOGAN was brought to the Pine Valley store, where he received treatment, but was found not to be seriously injured.
Postmaster JAMES RUSSELL of Pine Valley called in a nearby priest to comfort JACKIE.
JACKIE'S mother, and PATRICIA ELLIS, pretty young actress who has ofter been seen with the young actor, chartered a special airplane to fly to San Diego. They planned to proceed by car to Pine Valley.
Has Chest Injury.
DR. H. G. WESTPHAL, Glendale physician who flew to the scene with JACKIE'S mother and MISS ELLIS, reported that JACKIE suffered a chest injury, including two injured ribs, possibly broken, cuts and bruises. An ambulance was dispatched to Pine Valley to bring him to San Diego.
"They were traveling west on the highway," DR. WESTPHAL said JACKIE told him, "when an automobile which JACKIE said he thought he could identify approached from the opposite direction, on the center line of the highway, and swerved over."
"The other machine forced the COOGAN car from the highway. It swerved into an eight-foot ditch."
"JACKIE and JUNIOR DURKIN were in the rumble seat. JACKIE saw the other car swerve toward them. COOGAN, SR., lost control. When the car left the road it cut five heavy posts, turned over five times and crashed into the rocks."
"All but JACKIE were thrown out as the car landed in the creek bed."
"Young COOGAN picked himself up and went first to the unconscious form of his father. He dragged his father up to the roadside, then brought all the rest up.
Flags Motorist.
"JACKIE flagged down M. E. MAGEE of El Centro, a passing motorist. MAGEE had to drive thirty miles to the nearest physician. Before that doctor arrived, all the critically injured except JACKIE'S father were dead."
"MR. COOGAN died in his son's arms a moment after the physician arrived."
Deputy Coroner DAVE GERSHEN of San Diego County said the COOGAN automobile was traveling at a high rate of speed, "seventy miles an hour, at least."
He said that it skidded 100 feet on the pavement, 125 feet after it struck the fence and then hurtled into the creek bed.
Planned Weekend Party.
JACKIE COOGAN had planned to have a number of Hollywood friends as weekend guests at his ranch.
Among others who had planned to go were PATRICIA ELLIS, TOBY WING, with whom JACKIE'S name has been associated romantically, both film actresses, and WILLIAM JANNEY, juvenile film actor.
JACKIE went down alone Thursday and was followed Friday by DURKIN, HORNER, DURKIN'S two sisters, GRACE and GERTRUDE, and PAULA STONE, daughter of FRED STONE.
The Fresno Bee Republican California 1935-05-05

 Terrain around the Coogan Ranch in the Cleveland National Forest. Note the twisting, treacherous road and the stream to the right of the picture.

Jackie Coogan's Roadster after the wreck, Jackie and Trent were in the Rumble/Jump Seat to the back.

Jackie and his Dad at the Coogan Ranch near San Diego. 
A couple of stories about Jack Coogan:
Former child star Dickie Moore relates the true story of what it was like to be a child star in Hollywood based on his own experiences and via contributions from Jackie Coogan, Natalie Wood, Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney and other famous child stars. Coogan tells the story of how during the filming of Old Clothes, in order to get Joan to cry during a big scene in the film, his father and producer of the film, Jack Coogan, had detectives follow her for two weeks and learn everything about her. The scene in question called for her to enter alone and come down the stairs and start to cry. Coogan ordered everyone off the set and then told Joan everything he'd found out about her. Horrified, she began to cry.
Jack was a producer at MGM and had a reputation as a lady's man via the casting couch. Joan had an incredibly tough childhood working in a laundry with her mother, barely surviving. Several sources report that she surrendered to Jack for the sake of her career, but swore that she would never allow that to happen again, once she made it.

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.

The saddest thing of all, if Trent is remembered today at all, it is in a small passage in some scandalous story or book about Henry Willson, or, quite possibly, merely as a footnote in that story.

He was much more than that. If you were to judge by the people who knew him, he was a good guy and a great friend. Not to mention an extraordinary actor. That seems to be a more appropriate way to remember him and certainly the way he deserves to be remembered.

 From FindaGrave

Some people 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 of the saddest days of her life and his death was a loss from which she and their friends never totally recovered. A couple of sources indicated that she avoided talking about Trent, if possible, because she would break down and cry if she did.

"Today, few people remember Durkin. One person who remembers him well is the now 94-year-old Diana Serra Cary. Once world famous as the child star Baby Peggy, Cary referred to Durkin's funeral as "the saddest event I have ever been a part of in my life."
In an interview with SFGN, Cary revealed a few surprising facts about Durkin. Shortly before he died, he was on the verge of major film stardom. In 1934, when she was 16 years old, Cary appeared with Durkin in the play “Growing Pains” at the legendary Pasadena Playhouse. The play became the basis for the Andy Hardy film series, which ultimately starred Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
"If things had worked out differently for Trent, he would very likely have ended up as one of MGM's biggest stars," Cary recalled. "Having starred as the lead in the original play, Trent would have had first crack at the part of Andy in the films which later made a huge popular star of Mickey Rooney."   SFGN Staff | David-Elijah Nahmod

Trent Durkin shortly before his death.

Trent's nephew, Durk Ellison created this page: Though he has since passed away, he was researching Trent and his family on several genealogy websites, leaving a footprint on the web. He moved to Finland after military service at the suggestion of one of his college professors.

When Trent, Grace and Gertrude arrived in Hollywood they formed an expatriates social group of former New Yorker Broadway Performers called the Puppets. Among its members were Ben Alexander, who went from child star to Joe Friday's partner in Dragnet, and  Anita Louise, before she became friends with Flicka, who was the head of the group. Their first party in Los Angeles was in honor of Junior, Grace and Gertrude at the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. A story written by Henry Willson did an expose about the group for in Movie Magazine and included this snippet:

 JUNIOR DURKIN swears this is
true, so don't blame me. The script
of Junior's picture called for him to
fall off a horse and lie in the sand
(supposedly injured) until someone
comes to his rescue. It was about the
fourteenth time the scene had been
shot this particular day, and Junior
was just about as black as he was
blue, when he suddenly felt a tickling
sensation in his right ear. An ant, no
less! The entire company stopped
work while the director tried, in vain,
to catch the dizzy ant with the corner
of his handkerchief. But no soap — or
rather, no ant. One of the extras,
struck by a bright idea — (sure, "ex-
tras" have ideas) — tore over to a
nearby cafe (they were on location),
secured a bowl of sugar, and while
Junior lay on the ground, the director
sprinkled little grains of sugar around
the edge of the actor's ear. This was
too much. The insect's sweet-tooth got
the better of her.


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!

darren burn Fan said...

What a wonderful tribute!

Jenny Kroll said...

Oh my gosh! I haven't even read all of this yet as this is my great uncle I never knew his name! I'm crying. I am his only American family besides my dad and Gertrude's son Dirk (named I imagjne after Junior-m) and my cousins who live in Finland.
Oh please call me and tell me how you found all this! I am so so so blessed but cannot read this right now as I literally am too choked up!

Thank you, wow.

Jenny Kroll said...

What is the name of this book? Thank you!

Zu said...

What a nice tribute story to a young man lost too soon

Muirmaiden said...

Sad story of a promising life cut short! What might have been.

Some state that Junior and Henry Willson were lovers and that they met at a gay bar when Junior was 18, but I think your information is correct. I am in no position to say what Junior's sexual orientation was, but I think he was naive and taken advantage of by Willson, who apparently had an eye for underage boys.

Whenever I watch "Tom Sawyer" and "Hell's House" I think of what a star he might have become. I know the tragedy affected Jackie Coogan for the rest of his life.