THE CONTENDER: Skippy (1931)
Number of Nominations: 4 – Picture, Actor (Jackie Cooper), Director (Norman Taurog), Writing, Adaptation (Joseph L. Mankiewicz & Sam Mintz)
Number of Wins: 1 (Director)
This week, Comic-Con International 2014 invades San Diego for another year. So I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at a Best Picture nominee with roots in the world of comics. The Dark Knight was famously passed over but I thought perhaps something based on a graphic novel, like Road To Perdition or A History Of Violence, might have snuck in.
In fact, only one movie based on a comic book, comic strip or graphic novel has ever been nominated for Best Picture and you need to go all the way back to 1931 to find it. Skippy was based on a comic strip by Percy Crosby than ran from 1923 to 1945. Today, it’s almost forgotten, save for the peanut butter that continues to bear its name. But its influence runs deep and can be felt in virtually every kid-centric comic strip that followed, from Peanuts to Dennis The Menace to Calvin And Hobbes. At its peak, the strip was wildly popular, inspiring books, scads of merchandise, and a radio show. A feature film was a no-brainer.
For the title role, Paramount nabbed young Jackie Cooper, who had been making a positive impression in Hal Roach’s Our Gang shorts. Indeed, Skippy often feels like an extended Our Gang episode with added pathos.
Skippy is a mischievous lad who, despite stern warnings from his doctor father (Willard Robertson), enjoys hanging out with the poor kids in Shantytown. He befriends a new boy, Sooky (Robert Coogan), whose mutt is soon captured by a cantankerous dog catcher. The bulk of the film consists of Skippy and Sooky’s attempts to raise the three dollars it’ll take to get Penny the dog out of lock-up.
Director Norman Taurog had a unique method of getting the performance he wanted out of young Cooper. When he refused to cry during a key scene, Taurog, who was also the boy’s uncle, told a crew member to take Cooper’s dog out and shoot him. The nine-year-old broke down sobbing and Taurog got the shot. Borderline child abuse aside, it worked. Cooper not only got a title for his 1982 memoir, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog, he scored an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, becoming the youngest person ever nominated in a leading category to this day. Taurog himself won the award for Best Director.
Despite all this, Skippy remains one of the most obscure films ever nominated for Best Picture. In fact, a glance at the complete list of 1930-31 nominees reveals a lineup shocking in its banality. The winner, Cimarron, is one of the most tedious Oscar winners you’ll ever punish yourself by sitting through (yes, it’s even more boring than The English Patient). The other nominees included The Front Page, which would be overshadowed a few years later by its remake, His Girl Friday; the adventure movie Trader Horn; and East Lynne, a melodrama I had never even heard of before starting to write this article.
What happened? Were these really the five best movies the Academy could find? If so, they weren’t looking very hard. Among the other films eligible but not nominated were such classics as Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, the gangster films Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich. I’m not saying Skippy is a bad movie. It’s cute and fairly charming. Jackie Cooper does give a remarkably confident performance for his age. But Best Picture material it is not.
Comics and graphic novels have long since gained the respect and admiration they were denied for so many years. But it’s remarkable that no film based on a comic has been nominated for Best Picture since Skippy. They’ve done well in other categories, primarily technical ones although several have garnered screenplay nominations, including American Splendor and Ghost World. But the Academy seems reluctant to invite them into the biggest category of them all. Frankly, I can’t say that I blame them.
Comics have grown up but with rare exceptions, the movies based upon them have not. For now, Hollywood seems content to milk the superhero genre for all its worth. Iron Man may boast Oscar-caliber visual effects but, as entertaining as it is, no one would take it seriously as a Best Picture candidate. The Dark Knight has come the closest, but even that was a flawed movie. Many felt it was unfairly overlooked at Oscar time but I think it received exactly what it deserved: lots of technical nominations and a posthumous salute to Heath Ledger.
There are hundreds of non-superhero comics just waiting to be adapted into feature films. The graphic journalism of Joe Sacco could provide the basis for an extraordinary war movie, while Eric Shanower’s Age Of Bronze could become an stunning epic in the vein of Gladiator. All it takes is the right filmmaker to connect with this raw material. One day, another movie based on a comic will receive a Best Picture nomination. When that day comes, I’ll be thinking about Skippy and I’ll be smiling.
Skippy has never been made available on DVD. It does turn up on TCM from time to time and Netflix has had it on their streaming service in the past, although it is currently unavailable. But the entire film is available in ten-minute segments on YouTube, which is how I watched it. If you’re curious, here’s part one to get you started.