Child star of the Our Gang comedies who went on to perform as an adult in Broadway musicals and radio shows
The popularity of the long-running Our Gang series of comedy shorts (1922-44), created by the producer Hal Roach, which followed the adventures of a group of poor urban children, made unlikely film stars of its young cast. Jean Darling, who has died aged 93, joined Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Jackie Condon, Joe Cobb, Mary Ann Jackson, Bobby “Bonedust” Young, Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins, Dinah the Mule and Pete the Pup for the second Our Gang series in 1926, when she was four years old. With her golden locks, she was often at the centre of storylines that involved the boys fighting over her. But Darling, who appeared in around 35 of the 20-minute silent shorts, was a tough cookie who avoided intentional cuteness.
The strength of the series (which was appropriately renamed Little Rascals when shown on TV from 1955) is that it portrayed children behaving relatively naturally and presented boys and girls of every colour as equals, which was extremely rare in American films of the time, when gender and racial discrimination was prevalent. Darling believed that the shorts made during the silent period were better, because the children did not have to learn dialogue (some were too young to read) and were encouraged to improvise after the director had explained the scene to them through a megaphone.
Although Darling had small roles in three sound features, including Jane Eyre (1934), in which she played the eponymous heroine as a child, her screen career was virtually over when she left Our Gang at seven years old. One could legitimately ask “Whatever happened to Baby Jean?” The answer is that despite being busy performing, she had to wait 16 years to gain comparable fame, as the mill worker Carrie Pipperidge in the original Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit Broadway musical Carousel in 1945.
Darling appeared in 850 consecutive performances of the show, in which she lovingly put over her solo number (When I Marry) Mister Snow. There must have been very few in the audience who made the connection between this attractive woman with the operatic soprano voice and Baby Jean.
She was born Dorothy Jean LeVake in Santa Monica, California, but her mother legally changed her name to Jean Darling when she was five months old, a few days after her parents separated. Her typical “stage mother” had dreams of getting Jean into show business, and she had singing and dancing lessons from a very early age before being accepted by Roach into Our Gang. Unlike many child performers, Darling enjoyed her time in the spotlight and did not appear to suffer serious problems in adulthood.
In her teens, she performed in stage shows and on radio, as well as studying singing. In the 50s, after her long run in Carousel, she hosted her own TV show called A Date With Jean Darling, and sang with Frank Sinatra (“an extremely nice man”) and Bing Crosby (“an awfully rude man”) on radio. In 1954, she married Reuben Bowen, who also went under the name of Kajar the Magician, with whom she toured as a singing assistant in many countries, including Ireland. After their divorce in 1974, she settled in Dublin, where she wrote short stories which appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and read her own children’s stories in the guise of Aunty Poppy on Irish radio and TV.
In later years, Darling became a keeper of the Our Gang flame, appearing at fan gatherings and film festivals. At the Pordenone silent film festival in Italy, she entertained audiences with her recollections of her early days and, a couple of years ago, sang songs from Carousel, her voice hardly altered from that on the original cast album of almost 70 years before.
- August, 23, 1922
- Santa Monica, California
- September, 09, 2015
- Rödermark, Germany
Cause of Death
- died at a nursing home in Rödermark after a sudden illness