1931 - 1932
1917 - 1930 | 1931 - 1932 | 1933 - 1934 | 1935 - 1937
1938 - 1942 | 1943 - 1949 | 1950 - 1976
Frankie made the transition to sounds movies without any problems. His charisma and enthusiasm carried over wonderfully in talkies, and he started in 1929 with an early sound film called Rainbow Man, as well as another early talkie entitled Blaze O' Glory. Then came the aforementioned lost year, 1930, in which Frankie didn't seem to appear on screen.
However, Frankie made many excellent film appearances in 1931, including his brief appearance in The Mad Genius with John Barrymore and Boris Karloff, his portrayal as a lovable boy in The Sin of Madelon Claudet, and his dramatic turn in Way Back Home, a down-home drama which was based on the comedy / gospel music radio program Seth Parker, written by and starring Phillips H. Lords (photo, left). The most interesting thing about this film is while it may seem dated to a modern audience (with the old hymn sing-a-longs and taffy pulls) the ending is as action-packed and exciting as any of the Mascot serials Frankie appeared in.
Speaking of the Mascot serials, 1931 was the year in which Frankie started working in serials and carved a niche in this genre. He appeared in Nat Levine productions for Mascot including The Lightning Warrior (with Rin Tin Tin) and The Vanishing Legion with Harry Carey (photo below, right). In both of these films Frankie is shown doing his own riding and stunts and brings real energy to his performances.
By this time Frankie was starting to display some of the characteristics which would become familiar in many of his movies and were probably things he had already established in the silent films (if only we could confirm this). One was his ability to cry, sometimes even going from being happy to being sad in a moment. His performances as the lovable boy losing his father, brother, dog, etc. were always convincing and heartwrenching. In a way he could be called the male equivalent to Shirley Temple in the way his characters were often orphaned early on in the picture, leading to a watershed of tears (unlike Shirley Temple, however, Frankie was not known to sing or dance in his movies).
Another Frankie Darro trademark which was prominent in the serials and early films was his wink. Frankie’s characters were often brash, smart alecky kids (not the same way kids are smart alecky today, with the disrespect and sheer contempt for adults, but a more respectful and clever way of being ahead of the adults, particularly the bad guys). His characters were usually instrumental in helping the good guys achieve justice and making sure the villains' evil plans were foiled. In outwitting the bad guys, Frankie would often throw a knowing wink and a nod to one of his fellow players, letting them know he was on top of things. Sometimes this was accompanied with an "okay" sign as well. It’s something Frankie continued to do in many of his films.
One notable performance Frankie gave in 1931 was as Matt as a boy in the classic Public Enemy starring James Cagney (photo below, right). Frank Coghlan, Jr. played Cagney’s character as a boy. Frank recalls working with Frankie on this movie, and his insights are quite different from the screen image Frankie was portraying at this time.
In 1931 Frankie was 14 years old, although the characters he played on screen were more like 10 or 11 (Frankie always looked young for his age and his short stature added to this, so he was always playing younger parts which must have been somewhat frustrating for him after a time). But in real life, Frankie was a very grown up 14 and was already leading a fast life. According to Frank Coghlan, Jr., Frankie was setting him up on dates with teenage girls who weren’t repressed in any sense of the word, and Frankie wasn’t either. We won’t go into the specifics here; suffice it to say Frankie was not the innocent little boy he usually portrayed on screen.
In 1932 Frankie again ventured into the world of Mascot serials, playing The Wild Boy in The Devil Horse (with Harry Carey and Apache the Wonder Horse). He also appeared briefly in Three on a Match as a smoking, fast living kid (more accurate to reality in that portrayal). Diana Serra Cary, in her autobiography, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?, states that in 1932 she appeared with Frankie in a Hollywood on Parade segment which took place in a schoolroom and featured many of the Our Gang kids from past and present. In the segment she and Frankie each performed their first onscreen kiss and both were terribly embarrassed about it. If Frank Coghlan Jr.’s stories are accurate, it may not have been the kiss itself, but the situation of performing a kiss for the first time in a short subject with another actress (these actors usually appeared as themselves, not as characters, in these shorts) that was embarrassing to Frankie.