1933 - 1934
1917 - 1930 | 1931 - 1932 | 1933 - 1934 | 1935 - 1937
1938 - 1942 | 1943 - 1949 | 1950 - 1976
1933 has to be considered a high water mark in Frankie’s career, for he appeared in six films, including yet another Mascot serial, The Wolf Dog (with Rin Tin Tin, Jr.), Tugboat Annie (with the wonderful Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery; photo, left), and Laughing at Life, a bizarre little film in which Frankie actually attempts a South American accent (at least part of the time).
But 1933 is most notable for two excellent performances by Frankie which his fans generally agree are his best. The first was in Mayor of Hell (starring James Cagney), a movie which was a direct predecessor to two Dead End Kids movies (the story was split in two and yielded Hell’s Kitchen and Crime School). Frankie played his first tough kid role in this film about juvenille delinquency and the inadequacies of the reform school system five years before those New York hooligans would descend on Hollywood.
But the best performance of Frankie’s career has to be Wild Boys of the Road (photo, right and below, left), a Depression era film which takes a stark look at this bleak period of U.S. history through the eyes of the kids who took to the road to try to support themselves and unburden their parents from additional financial worries. While the movie ends up being a blatant love letter to the NRA, it works on a strictly dramatic level and many consider it to be one of the best movies about the Depression ever made. Frankie’s performance is outstanding, and fans are even treated to a row of backflips and Frankie’s trademark headspin at the end of the film. This was the second film Frankie made for director William A. Wellman (after his brief appearance in The Public Enemy). Wellman must have remembered Frankie's work on these films and subsequently gave him roles in two of his later films, Westward the Women and Across the Wide Missouri.
In the 1930's it was not uncommon for movie stars to make vaudeville tours to promote themselves and their films. Frankie became engaged to a young lady by the name of Virginia Gumm while touring with vaudeville in the late days of the Depression, but the engagement didn’t last. Virginia Gumm was part of a singing act, and her sister later changed her last name to become Judy Garland. Because of his close connection with their family, Frankie quite often appeared in person at Judy Garland’s father’s Valley Theater in Lancaster to promote his movies, including Wild Boys of the Road.
Frankie also performed in a vaudeville act with Sidney Miller and George Offerman, Jr., involving a slow-motion wrestling bout. After about a year, Sidney dropped Frankie and George (reportedly because of their unreliability due to drinking, something both would continue to fight over the years) and Frank Coghlan, Jr. and Mickey Rooney took their place in the act. The routine was eventually performed by these three in the film Men of Boys Town in 1941.
Even child actors were expected to get some kind of an education, and Frankie received at least some of his at a well-known Hollywood institution called Lawlor’s. The Lawlor Professional School was an unaccredited educational establishment which catered to the Hollywood industry. Here child stars could attend classes between movies (in addition to their required amount of schooling while working on pictures). Some child stars felt out of place in public school, but they felt right at home in Lawlor’s amongst their fellow juvenille thespians. Diana Serra Cary reports in her book Hollywood’s Children that Viola F. Lawlor, the head of the school, considered herself a good disciplinarian, but her authority melted when it came to Mickey Rooney and Frankie Darro, who would sometimes stage impromptu performances for their fellow students. The woman even confided to Diana that she spoiled Frankie because she felt so sorry for him. Frankie lived with his father and his mother now lived in the apartment house across from the school. After that, Diana watched for Mrs. Darro and would sure enough see the woman’s face appear from behind the drawn curtain of the apartment window across the street, watching for her son when school let out every day. Touched by the fact that Frankie was so typical of the child stars who were supporting their parents, Diana told him she was interested in writing his life story. He agreed to cooperate and during several sessions poured out his life story to her, but eventually he lost interest in the project (she reports Frankie had a short attention span, which was not uncommon for young actors).
1934 brought yet another Mascot serial entitled Burn ‘Em Up, Barnes (photo, right) in which Frankie played the younger brother of a newsreel cameraman killed while covering a big race and whom Barnes takes under his wing. A Big Little Book of the film was even released. Frankie also appeared as a jockey in Broadway Bill, and would certainly not be the last time he would be playing a jockey (in fact, he played the same part again in a remake of this movie many years later!).
Another notable film which was released in this year was No Greater Glory, a dramatic and artistic Frank Borzage film which is a thinly disguised anti-war picture. Frankie played the leader of the terrorizing Red Shirts named Feri Ats. Based on the popular novel, The Paul Street Boys, this film showcased Frankie’s subdued acting talents at their best.
Mascot made more than just serials, and in 1934 they released a film version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Men (photo, left), featuring many young actors (including David Durand and Dickie Moore). Frankie’s portrayal of the rebellious Dan couldn’t have been more perfect, and he delivered a sincere performance which helps make this screen adaptation quite a delight to watch.