John Gloske. Tough Kid: The Life and Films of Frankie Darro. Lulu. 2008
Frankie Darro was born Frank Johnson, Jr. in 1917 and was raised by a traveling circus family. He learned aerial performing and juggling at a young age. His parents added him to the act by having him emerge and shouting to audiences, after his parent’s aerial act, “my father tanks you from the bottom of his heart, my mother thanks you from the bottom of her heart, and me, I thank you from my bottom, too.” A dance routine was later added.
In 1922, Frank’s mother was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown in Long Beach. Frank, Sr. took his son away from his became and became a stunt man and extra in movies as Frank Darro. The father put his five year old son, Frankie, over a studio fence once upon spotting director Raph Ince. Before studio guards could grab Frankie, he performed head spins and back flips. The tactic worked and Ince hired Frankie, reportedly claiming “let’s put this kid in a show.” Ince didn’t have a role for Frankie, yet he knew director Del Andrews did. “Judgment of the Storm”, released in 1924, was Frankie Darro’s first movie.
Darrow performed in at least 57 silent films from 1923 through 1929. Only six survive today, as many silent films saw the silver content on the film sold and the prints destroyed.
Darrow’s films were financially beneficial to his father. This was before a law was passed that protected children’s film earnings. Frankie’s mother sued for a share of his earnings, a fight that was in courts for years.
Darro filmed 26 Westerns with Tom Tyler, of which one remains today, for Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) owned by Joseph Kennedy. Kennedy’s company made low budget movies for under $30,000 for quick profits and so Kennedy could meet female actors. These films did well before rural audiences.
With the switch to talking movies becoming obvious, Kennedy sold a substantial interest in FBO to RCA in 1928. RCA and Kennedy then bought several vaudeville houses in urban areas so their films could appear in big cities. This new company was a $300 million corporation named RKO. Kennedy resigned from RKO.
Darro’s voice, made raspy from heavy cigarette smoking beginning at age 15, allowed him to make the switch to talking movies. Many silent film actors lacked the proper voices to make the transition. Darro was 5’3” which allowed him to play teenage roles into his twenties.
Darro appeared in “The Lightning Warrior” serial, receiving $2,000, which was double what he had earned in his previous serial. The dog in the serial, Rin Tin Tin, received $5,000. Subsequent film work followed, increasing his pay to $4,000. In 1934, his work a 12 chapter serial earned him $5,000.
Darro received second billing in “Little Men”, a sequel to the successful “Little Women”.
Darro appeared in nine Warner Brothers films between 1931 and 1935 even though he never had a studio contract. He appeared in “The Public Enemy” which was directed by William Wellman.
Darro appeared in several independent Westerns that starred Kermit Maynard and were produced by Talisman Studios. Talisman, lacking a distribution network that larger studios had, sold their films to several regional distributors. The regional distributors would rent the films out until the prints wore out, upon when they could buy more prints from Talisman,
Darro’s size and ability to ride a horse earned him roles as a jockey in numerous films. He appears as a jockey in “A Day at the Races” starring the Marx Brothers. Harpo Marx would remain a lifetime friend. Similarly, he was a jockey in “Saratoga”, the movie Jean Harlow was filming when she died. He also was a jockey in “Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry”, the first movie that teamed Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
Darrow provided a voice in the Disney cartoon movie “Pinocchio”.
When Darro turned 21, he learned his father had failed to save any of his earnings. Darro declined to sue his father for mismanaging his funds, as some other child stars did.
As an adult, Darro’s earnings from then on were his own. He starred in some Monogram Studio films with Mantan Moreland, a present day cult hero.
Darro was drafted to fight in World War II. Before he left, he worked for one day on Universal Studio’s Dead End Kinds serial “Junior G-Men of the Air”. Monogram Studies assured Darro his contract with them would remain when he returned. While in the Navy, he contracted malaria, which would recur throughout the rest of his life.
After the war, movie attendance declined. Returning soldiers and their families were moving to suburbs and away from where movie theaters were located. Many rural theaters closed. Television became a major competitor, increasing from 14,000 sets in 1947 to four million in 1950 to 31 million in 1954,
Darro appeared in Monogram’s “The Teen Agers” series of movie with producer Sam Katzman, Actor Paul Picerni noted the financial stinginess of Katzman who gave actors a pay check and a wardrobe check, yet only gave the, their pay checks. Picerni quotes Katzman as stating “if the actors don’t ask for their wardrobe checks, I save them until the end of the year, and then I cash them myself.”
Darro appeared in the Columbia Pictures serial “Chick Carter, Detective” which the author describes as being “slightly above the unwatchable”. The serial was meant to be based on the Nick Carter radio series and books yet the movie serial could not obtain copyright permission. The serial was an early example of movies with product placement with planned appearances of Royal Crown Cole and Capitol Records. The serial is noted for numerous comedic scenes between Darro and Noel Neill.
Darro made several films with the Bowery Boys beginning in 1947, returning him with some of the Dead End Kids he briefly worked with in 1942. He had the role of Jimmy, a cousin of Slip Mahoney, portrayed by Leo Gorcey. Later, for reasons unknown, his character’s name becomes Feathers. Then he had the role of Johnny Higgins.
Darro noted that the information provided in movie press books that studios provided were totally made-up. Press books lied in stating he carved wood figures during shoots and that he was a pilot who took cast and crew on flights. It was alcohol that kept many cast members such as Leo Gorcey busy inbetween shoots, although the press books never mentioned that.
Darro was hired to play a boxer when he was teamed again with Mickey Rooney in “Kid McCoy”. The gossip columns claim Darro became upset at Mickey Rooney and that Darro knocked him out in anger during a boxing sequence. Darro was cut from the film.
When filming a role as a jockey in “Heart of Virginia” in 1948, Darro was thrown by his horse and required knee surgery.
While movie roles became scarcer, Darro took employment selling men’s suits. Fans would arrive at the store just to watch him.
In 1959, columnist Army Archerd asked Darro for his advice for parents of child actors. His advice was “so if your little darling has terrific talent, let him develop it in a local theater and bide his time. Don’t bring him here because it’s 100 to 1 that he’ll never get a chance to use it.”
“Pride of the Maryland” released in 1951 was Darro’s last movie where he receive star billing above the movie title.
Director William Wellman, who has used Darro in a few movies prior, hired him for two movies in 1952. This was less than the 8 or 9 films he used to make. Plus, neither role was a starring or key supporting role.
In 1953, Darro received only one day of film work, in the movie “Siren of Bagdad”, where he performs a back flip and has one line.
Darro appeared in “Racing Blood” in 1954, a 75 minute movie that some critics claimed was too long. The film is noted for its use of Cine-color, a process where a movie was filmed in black and white and then dipped into color dye. Unfortunately, the dye cracked and fell off the film print.
Darro appeared in screenwriter and associate producer Edward Wood, Jr.’s move “The Lawless Rider” which reunited him with Noel Neill. He was paid $600 for that movie.
In 1955, Darro was unable to find any movie or TV work until he was hired to play the robot Robbie in “Forbidden Planet”. Unfortunately his drinking made him stumble and almost crash the robot, which was caught by stage hands, during his second day of shooting. Darro was fired and replaced by Frank Carpenter. It is noted the poor ventilation inside the 6’4”, 84 pound robot suit would cause even Carpenter to faint,
Producers fear unreliable actors and they worried that Darro’s drinking had made him unreliable. It was hard from then on for Darro to find film work. He won a small role in 1956 as a palace guard in Cecil De Mille’s color remake of “The Ten Commandments”. He also filmed two episodes of the TV series “Judge Roy Bean”. The practice then was to use the same cast in two different episodes yet never show them consecutively.
1957 brought only a bit part for Darro in the movie “A Tip on a Dead Jockey”.
1958 brought a title role for Darro in an episode of the TV series “Peter Gunn”, a Blake Edwards production. Blake Edwards then had Darro appear in his movie “Operation Petticoat”.
Darro did stunt work of back flips and a long jump doubling for actor Jimmy O’Dea in Walt Disney’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” in 1959. Also that year, Blake Edwards had Darro appear in an episode of the “Mr. Lucky” TV series. Darro’s last work for Blake Edwards was stunt double work in the 1961 movie “The Notorious Landlady”.
Darro did an episode of the TV show “Alfred Hitchock Presents: and one day’s work on the TV series “The Untouchables” in 1960.
Darro found no film work at all in 1961. 1962 brought work in another episode of “Alfred Hitchock Presents”.
Red Skelton hired Darro for sketch work on his TV show in 1962 with the condition Darro not show up drunk. Darro remained on the show until he did show up drunk in 1965 and he then was fired. Darro was brought back for one episode in 1968.
Darro had two lines in the 1964 Paramount movie “The Carpetbaggers”. That was his final movie dialogue. Jerry Lewis demanded Darro be in his film “Disorderly Orderly”. Darro performs a silent comedic role in that movie. Darro also filmed an episode of the TV show “Perry Mason” in 1964. In 1965, he did an episode of the TV show “The Addams Family”. In 1967, he did an episode of the TV show “The Guns of Will Sonnett”.
Jerry Lewis called Darro back for a silent bit part in the 1967 movie “Hook Line and Sinker”.
Mantan Moreland was performing USO shows. Moreland fell ill just before a USO tour in Vietnam and recommended Darro replace him. Darro accepted and did the tour.
The author John Gloske worked on a San Francisco TV show that presented public domain movies entitled “The Worst of Hollywood”. Darro was hired to host the show. Unfortunately, Darro showed up drunk and incoherent and had to be replaced.
Darro appeared in the 1974 TV movie “The Girl on the Late Late Show”. His role lasts 20 seconds. His last role was a few seconds in the film “Star Crash”.
Darro took pride when director William Wellman stated that Darro was his favorite actor, adding “there was only one thing wrong with Frankie…he never grew taller.”
Frankie Darro died in 1977 at age 59.