Jackie Coogan in The Rag Man (1925)
If charm and a certain preternatural precociousness are the currency of a great child actor, then Jackie Coogan was a very rich little boy in the 1920′s. Best known as Charlie Chaplin’s sidekick in The Kid. Coogan was a meteoric success in the silent era. As with Shirley Temple a few years later, movie-goers couldn’t get enough of that round little face and that street urchin spunk. But alas… child actors have a very short shelf life and as he grew older Coogan fell out of audience favor. Coupled with the usual tragic tales of parental misuse of his wealth, Coogan struggled for acting work post WWII and landed mostly on television. But let’s rewind to 1925, when Coogan was still the boy king of the box office and delighting audiences with classic silents like The Rag Man.
In The Rag Man, Jackie Coogan plays Timothy Kelly, an escapee from an orphanage fire in New York’s Lower East Side. While trying to get by on the mean streets, Kelly hooks up with Max Ginsberg (Max Davidson), the titular rag man. Max is in a bad way, having been ripped off on a valuable patent years before and now in poor health, and little Kelly is in a bad way too, being an orphan and all. Dazzling narrative innovation The Rag Man does not have. Starting from this familiar and threadbare premise, the plot marches in an efficient and unrelenting straight line right to the logical conclusion. Max resists, Kelly wears him down, the grow increasingly attached, and finally Kelly saves the day and the fortune. We leave our heroes decked out in gold course finery, discussing business on the links.
As predictable and typical as all that sounds, The Rag Man sets itself apart from similar movies of the day by its unwillingness to indulge in treacly Victorian sentiment. While the movie does not go so far as to be “gritty” per se, it does present a fairly unvarnished picture of life for the those living on the edge. Max is in pain and cannot work. Kelly is unloved, unwanted, and uncared for. And Max doesn’t love Kelly for his sweet helplessness… rather, he loves Kelly for his brash, take-no-prisoners attitude, his ability to drive a hard bargain, and his willingness to go for what he wants. Rather than wish to coddle and protect Kelly, Max admires him.
But, of course, the real draw in The Rag Man is Jackie Coogan himself. As Timothy Kelly, Coogan effortlessly swings between charming insouciance and streetwise slyness. He can sweet talk a tough old broad into selling him two apples for the price of one, convince a kid to sell him a cellar full of fine wines for mere cents, and charm Max right out of fifty-percent of his own business. Kelly is always driving a bargain, and a hard one at that, but in the most beguiling way possible. The viewer will never fault Timothy Kelly for his gains. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and Kelly has a pocketful of Milkbones. A further bright point is Max Davidson’s subtle performance. Coogan is the star of this show, and Davidson possess enough restraint to play the straightman without disappearing entirely.
On a personal note, this movie barely registers as “silent” to me. The pacing of the story is superb and the narrative is so simple that title cards are mostly unnecessary for exposition. In the main, the title cards are limited to witty asides such as, “When Alexander the Great started out to conquer the world he had a great army – Timothy Kelly had four dollars.” The emotional punch of this movie is delivered visually, and you can chalk that up to Coogan again. His ability to communicate so much with his face and body is uncanny– for any silent actor, much less a child.
The Rag Man is a bit rare. It has never been released for the home video market, though it is sometimes shown on Turner Classic Movies. If you’re interested in seeing The Rag Man, sign up for an email subscription to Pretty Clever Films for updates on screenings.
- Jackie Coogan bio at Golden Silent
- The Rag Man at IMDB
- The Rag Man reviewed at Ferdy on Films
- The Rag Man reviewed at Silents are Golden
Post script, for both this post and the career of the remarkable Jackie Coogan – I did not know until researching the background for this post that the creepy and kooky Uncle Fester from tv’s “The Addams Family” was none other than Jackie Coogan. Do you see the resemblence?