Obituary: Jean Darling
Child star of the silent era who settled in Dublin and wrote stories as Aunty Poppy
Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30
Jean Darling, the actress, who has died aged 93, was the blonde child star of the Our Gang series of silent films in the late-1920s and was once described as "The Most Beautiful Little Girl in Pictures".
The popular series, which survived the shift from the silent era to the talkies, focused on the comic adventures of a group of poor neighbourhood children. They were the creation of the producer Hal Roach - the man who partnered Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy.
The wife of the assistant general manager of Roach's studio brought Jean to the attention of the producer after seeing her on the street with her mother in Hollywood. Jean had just celebrated her fourth birthday when she made Bring Home the Turkey (1927), the first of 35 Our Gang two-reel shorts.
"I thought I was a god," she recalled. "I was worshipped. That sort of thing could have destroyed me. I sometimes think the fact I was spared was just plain magic."
She was born Dorothy Jean LeVake in Santa Monica, California, on August 23, 1922. Her parents separated when she was still a baby, and afterwards her mother changed her daughter's name to Jean Darling.
Jean and fellow child star "Baby Peggy" Montgomery attended acting school in Hollywood together. "She was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen," Peggy said of Jean Darling. "She seemed to be everything the rest of us kids wanted to be... what's more she was funny and talented."
Jean Darling played a pivotal role in the Gang's mischief, but her screen presence could also be demure. After appearing in Bouncing Babies (1929), her last in the series, she went on a public appearance tour of the RKO/Orpheum theatres that lasted for two years. "For the briefest time I was the highest-paid blonde in Hollywood," she claimed.
"Only Jackie Coogan and Baby Peggy were earning more than we kids in the Our Gang series. Roach created movie stars and in turn, monsters... Hollywood turned innocent children into horrid mini-adults and some of us had tragic ends. The sad thing was when we all grew up, nobody wanted us to work in pictures any more."
Often pushed by their parents, Jean Darling's contemporaries demanded more money, chauffeur-driven cars and French maids.
"In the end many turned to drink and drugs. Some died penniless. I was one of the fortunate ones," she said.
Her Our Gang films included Baby Brother and Chicken Feed (both 1927); Rainy Days (1928); Crazy House (1928); Small Talk (1929); and Little Mother (1929).
Jean Darling returned to the Roach studio after a five-year gap to play Curley Locks in Babes in Toyland (1934) starring Laurel and Hardy. In Jane Eyre (also 1934) she portrayed Charlotte Brontë's heroine as a young child.
"I got sick of working at about 13," said Jean Darling in 2013. "I went down to the board of education and took examinations to graduate high school which I did with straight As."
She moved to New York, where she spent the next eight years studying voice and modelling, and working occasionally in vaudeville.
The theatre owner Lee Shubert put her under contract and presented her in the musicals Blossom Time and Knickerbocker Holiday. In 1942, she made her Broadway debut in Count Me In with Jean Arthur.
During the Second World War she toured Italy and North Africa for the United Service Organisations, entertaining troops. At the end of the war she took the role of Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel on Broadway. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian , the show ran for two years and 850 performances - Jean Darling did not miss a single appearance. She was also seen in the 1949 revival of Pal Joey.
"There was no great ambition. Like other child stars there was a key in my back. I'd been wound up by someone and was hitting all the marks," she said in later life.
She was a regular on radio shows, and during the 1950s had her own successful television show, A Date with Jean Darling, followed by a stint as the hostess on The Singing Knit-Witch. In 1953, Lloyd Bacon directed her as the silent movie star Lilyan Tashman in The I Don't Care Girl .
In June 1954, Jean Darling married Reuben Bowen, a television magician who was billed as "Kajar". Their son, Roy, was born the following year. For a while Jean Darling was part of her husband's act - singing and seemingly floating on air.
The couple made a three-year tour of South Africa, South America and Europe before settling in Ireland in 1967. They had separated by the time of his death in 1980.
Settling in Dublin in 1974, Jean Darling painted watercolours and wrote mystery stories for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Whispers magazine. She also wrote and performed plays and stories for RTE, often in the persona of "Aunty Poppy".
Her death leaves only Lassie Lou Ahearn and Dorothy Morrison as the surviving cast members of the Our Gang silent comedies. She died in a German nursing home on September 4, and is survived by her son.