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Frankie Darro - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

October 2005

Films starring Frankie Darro on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Today, the actor Frankie Darro is largely forgotten. Sci-fi know-it-alls might know that he was one of two men operating Robby the Robot in 1956's Forbidden Planet, there might even be some fans of early TV-comedy who know he was the Little Old Lady on the Red Skelton Show, and fans of early science fiction and Western might still remember him from Phantom Empire in 1935, playing alongside Gene Autry, whose first starring role this was. But while Autry was relatively new to the film business, Darro, at age 18, was already a veteran, having appeared in movies for 11 years ...

 

Frankie Darro was born Frank Johnson in 1917 to a couple of aerialists with the Sells Floto Circus known as the Flying Johnsons. As soon as Frankie was barely old enough to, father Johnson tried to train his son as an aerialist as well, but alas, young Frankie was afraid of heights - however his time with the circus trained him in quite a few other capacities he could use in stuntwork later on ...

 

In 1922, when the circus was out in California, Frankie's parents split up, and that was the end of the Flying Johnsons ... However, back then, in California the film business was booming, and young kids who could do their own stunts were in steady demand, and soon Frankie Johnson had a contract with Ince's film studio, his name was changed to Darro, and he played in films like Half-A-Dollar Bill (1924, directed by W.S.Van Dyke) and Judgement of the Storm (1924, Del Andrews), and in 1925 he even had a (small) role alongside Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown). Soon, Frankie found himself at FBO and was promoted to sidekick duties in a series of Tom Tyler Westerns [Tom Tyler bio - click here]. By the end of the silent era, Frankie had even made it to lead character in the films Little Mickey Grogan (1927, James Leo Meehan) and The Circus Kid (1928, George B.Seitz, Josiah Zuro).

 





Interestingly enough, Frankie seems to have disappeared withthe advent of sound film, as he didn't shoot any films in 1929 and 1930. In 1931 though he was back, in William A.Wellman's early gangster epos Public Enemy, chronicling the life of (fictional) gangsters Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods). Darro plays Edward Woods as a boy, with fellow kid actor Frank 'Junior' Coghlan playing a young James Cagney. 

A role alongside John Barrymore and a pre-star Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here] in The Mad Genius (1931, Michael Curtiz) soon followed, as well as 2 roles in socially engaging films in 1933, Mayor of Hell (1933, Archie Mayo) with James Cagney, which can be regarded as a precurser to the Dead End Kids flicks, and Wild Boys of the Road (1933, William A. Wellman), a bleak look at Depression Era America.

 

Soon though, Frankie found a niche of his own, playing in Mascot serials: In The Vanishing Legion (1931, Ford L. Beebe, B. Reeves Eason) and The Devil Horse (1932, Otto Brower) he co-starred with Harry Carey, The Lightning Warrior (1931, Benjamin H.Kline, Armand Schaefer) saw him alongside Rin Tin Tin, in The Wolf Dog (1933, Colbert Clark, Harry L.Fraser), Rin Tin Tin's less-talented son Rin Tin Tin jr was his partner, and in Laughing at Life (1933, Ford L.Beebe - one of the few Mascot features of its time), Frankie played second fiddle to Victor McLaglen, and so on ...

[For an article on Mascot, please click here.]

 

Frankie was of course perfect for the serials: He could do his own stunts and some acrobatics, ride with the best of them, and even showed some acting talent - he could burst into tears at the tip of a hat, and to exploit that talent, he is orphaned incredibly often in his movies and serials.

 



1935 saw probably Frankie Darro's most famous role, as the juvenile sidekick of Gene Autry in Phantom Empire (Otto Brower, B. Reeves Eason). Even though Frankie was 18 at the time, he had to play a boy around 12 years old, and does so quite convincingly - even if 12-year-old know-it-alls in general are quite a nuisance in films, and Frankie's character should be no exception.

 

Soon after finishing Phantom Empire though, Mascot [Mascot history - click here] merged with Monogram, Liberty, Majestic, Chesterfield/Invincible and the film developing outfit Consolidated Film Laboratories to form the new company Republic [Republic history - click here], and Frankie had to realize that for some reason, he was no longer in heavy demand ...

 




In 1936 however, Frankie Darro found work with Maurice Conn's Conn Pictures, where he finally, in a series of 6 pictures with Kane Richmond, where he, at age 19, was finally allowed to move away from playing daredevil kids and mature to more grown-up roles. The Conn-films however were no revelation, cheaply made thrillers invariably of the B-variety that somehow lacked the spark of Frankie's work with Mascot. Thus it was no great loss when Frankie's association with Conn Pictures came to an end in 1937, even if his first few films with second generation Monogram (shortly after the split from Republic) did not seem much more promising, initial titles like Wanted by the Police and Tough Kid (both 1938, Howard Bretherton) and Boys' Reformatory (1939, Howard Bretherton) were little more than your usual B-thrillers comparable to those produced by Conn. All that would change in 1939 though, but more about that a little further down ...

 



Besides his other screenwork, Frankie was also often seen playing jockeys (sometimes only in bit-parts) in films like Broadway Bill (1934, Frank Capra), The Payoff (1935, Robert Florey), Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936, H. Bruce Humberstone), or the Marx Brothers-vehicle A Day at the Races (1937, Sam Wood), a role that would also stick to Frankie throughout his career due to his riding talents and his characteristically (for a jockey) short stature.

 


It was in 1939 that Frankie really came to his own at Monogram in Irish Luck (Howard Bretherton), the first in a series that had Frankie teamed up with exceptional black comedian Mantan Moreland (click here for films from the Frankie and Mantan-series) [click here for a Mantan Moreland-biography]. All of the films are mystery-farces with Frankie and Mantan as a duo of unlikely amateur detectives, in which Frankie was allowed to show quite some talent for comedy, and above all, at age 22 he was finally allowed to play characters his own age. 

(In 1940 though, Darro made another kid appearance, so to say, when he voiced Lampwick, the naughty boy who got turned into a donkey, in Walt Disney's animated Pinocchio [Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen].)

 

With films like those from the Frankie and Mantan-series, Frankie could have easily made it to a recognizeable and bankable matinee-idol, but fate intervened, in the form of World War II, where Frankie did service with the Navy.

 





 

After the war, Frankie would return to America, and to Monogram, who, starting with Junior Prom (arthur Dreifuss) in 1946, gave Frankie a role in another series, The TeenAgers. and while The TeenAgers may in retrospect be groundbreaking in some respect, predating the teen-movies of the 1950's by quite some years - though the series itself was clearly inspired by the popular Archie-comics -, Frankie's career did not quite pick up where it has left off: First of all, Frankie's role in The TeenAgers was merely an important supporting character (mostly, he was sixth-billed on these films), and at age 29, and after having fought a regular war, he is back to playing ... a teenager.

 

Eventually, The TeenAgers too came to an end, and Frankie found himself pretty much out of demand. He did supporting duty on 4 Bowery Boys films - Angels' Alley (1948, William Beaudine), Trouble Makers (1948, Reginald Le Borg), Fighting Fools and Hold That Baby! (both 1949, Reginald Le Borg) -, again at Monogram, but by the late 1940's/ early 1950's, his filmroles got more infrequent, and smaller too, to a point that he wasn't even mentioned in the credits.

That by that time, Frankie was a heavy drinker, didn't help too much either, and even though Frankie tried to fight his alcoholism, he thought it a good idea to open his own bar, ironically titled Try Later - after the reply he was given most often when he was asking Central Casting for work.

 


In 1956, Frankie was chosen to be the actor inside Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956, Fred M. Wilcox), perhaps not a big role for a professional actor, as it merely involved moving around one big piece of (pseudo-)machinery, but it would provide food on the table. However, soon the machinery grew too heavy for Frankie to move, and he had to be replaced by someone else.

 

In the 1950's too, when Frankie was already known for his alcoholism, comedian Red Skelton, himself a reformed alcoholic, decided to give Frankie a chance to play the Little Old Lady on the Red Skelton Show, granted a silly role in drag, but Frankie was allowed to develop a few slapstick routines since the lady had to do more and more amazing and hilarious pratfalls ... however, due to his continuing drinking problems, Frankie was eventually removed from the show.

 

In the 1960's and 1970's, Frankie Darro's film roles grew even fewer and less important, mostly supporting work for television. It is a bitter irony that Frankie's very last role was that of a town drunk in the little known mystery Fugitive Lovers (John Carr) in 1975. 

Frankie's death from a heart attack on Christmas Day 1976 (at age 59) went by almost unnoticed.
 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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