The Matinee Idol We Never Had :: Trent ’Junior’ Durkin
It’s important to honor and remember those who came before us.
Trent "Junior" Durkin spent most of his brief life acting on stage and in Hollywood films. In 1928, when he was twelve years old, he was said to be Broadway’s youngest leading man. Less than a decade later, Durkin was killed in a horrifically violent car crash which haunted child star Jackie Coogan, the accident’s lone survivor and Durkin’s best friend, for the rest of his life.
Today, few people remember Durkin. One person who remembers him well is the now 94-year-old Diana Serra Cary. Once world famous as the child star Baby Peggy, Cary referred to Durkin’s funeral as "the saddest event I have ever been a part of in my life."
In an interview with SFGN, Cary revealed a few surprising facts about Durkin. Shortly before he died, he was on the verge of major film stardom. In 1934, when she was 16 years old, Cary appeared with Durkin in the play "Growing Pains" at the legendary Pasadena Playhouse. The play became the basis for the Andy Hardy film series, which ultimately starred Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
"If things had worked out differently for Trent, he would very likely have ended up as one of MGM’s biggest stars," Cary recalled. "Having starred as the lead in the original play, Trent would have had first crack at the part of Andy in the films which later made a huge popular star of Mickey Rooney."
Viewing Durkin’s films today reveals a young actor of enormous depth and presence. In 1930, he portrayed Huckleberry Finn in the first sound film adaptation of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. The film, which has been posted in its entirety at YouTube, is a creaky old relic. Few actors took their craft seriously in those days. Most were more interested in being movie stars than in developing a character.
And so Durkin’s first appearance, around five minutes into the film, was something of a revelation. His screen presence was intense. He delivered his lines with an impressive dramatic panache. Durkin actually became Huckleberry Finn.
That same year Durkin appeared as Henry, the teenaged son of a wealthy couple in the romantic drama Recaptured Love, which has also been posted at YouTube. The actor is barely recognizable from one film to the other. His voice and body language in Recaptured Love were so different from the work he did in Tom Sawyer, it was as though different actors had played the two roles.
Durkin was an actor who played characters. He researched his roles and immersed himself in them. He took his work very seriously. Unlike his contemporaries, he continued to pursue stage work. He felt it was important to keep one foot in the theater and the discipline in taught him.
In the daringly homoerotic Hell’s House (1932), one of the few Durkin films to get a DVD release, he played Jimmy Mason. Recently orphaned, Jimmy gets caught up with the wrong crowd and ends up in reform school. There, he becomes fast friends with a sickly boy named Shorty (Junior Coghlan), who calls Jimmy "big boy." When Shorty’s bad heart begins to give out, Jimmy takes his dying friend in his arms. They weep and nuzzle each other’s faces. After Shorty dies, a tearful Jimmy whispers his friend’s name. "OK, big boy," intones Shorty’s ghostly, off screen voice.
Hell’s House, ostensibly a social reform film meant to shine a light on abuses within the reform school system, becomes a love story between two teenaged boys.
Was Durkin’s emotionally charged performance in Hell’s House a reflection of his personal life? At the time of his death, he was sharing a home with 24-year-old Henry Willson. Years later, Willson gained fame as a semi-out Hollywood agent who discovered actors Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson, both of whom remained closeted for much of their careers. Hudson was tragically outed shortly before his death from AIDS in 1985 at age 59.
"It would not surprise me to know that Trent was gay," said Diana Sera Cary. "However, in the early thirties it would have been suicidal for such a promising young actor to come out of the closet. Especially without the protection of a strong producer, or already under contract to MGM, with studio head Louis B. Mayer seriously invested in his future success as a leading man."
Cary shared her belief that MGM leading man Robert Taylor, who was gay, was forced into an arranged marriage with movie star Barbara Stanwyck. Taylor’s public image was protected by his studio.
"If Trent was already aware that he was gay, as was my dear friend Roddy McDowall early on, I think he would have persevered as prudently as possible until our more tolerant generation finally brought the subject openly to the table as a denial of civil rights and demanded the end of such cruel quaint dodges as civil unions and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell," Cary said.
While it appears they were indeed a couple, only Durkin and Willson knew for sure. But there’s no doubt of Durkin’s great acting ability. Had he lived, Cary agreed, Durkin could easily have played roles that were ultimately played by acting giants such as Marlon Brando.
"For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad tales of the deaths of kings."
--William Shakespeare, Richard II
It wasn’t meant to be. On Saturday, May 4th, 1935, Durkin, Jackie Coogan and three other men were returning from a hunting trip near San Diego. The driver lost control of the vehicle, and Durkin was flung to his death into a deep canyon that was filled with large boulders. The day before, Chasing Yesterday, his final film, had opened in theaters. He had dropped the Junior moniker for the film, and was billed as Trent Durkin. It was to be the beginning of his segues into adult roles.
Durkin’s death was front-page news. The public was shocked by this unspeakable tragedy. Yet today, Trent "Junior" Durkin is a rarely mentioned footnote in Hollywood history.
We can only speculate as to how far his extraordinary talent might have taken him.