Back Story

Oscar-winning movie kid Claude Jarman Jr.

Nashville’s loss became San Francisco’s gain
Claude Jarmen Jr. with Gregory Peck in The Yearling; Jarman now.

Claude Jarman Jr. will be 80 on Sept. 27. He doesn’t look it. He doesn’t act it. He doesn’t live it.

Many years ago I saw a movie with a youngster named Claude Jarman Jr. in a starring role. The movie, which came out in 1946, was The Yearling. It was based on a story about a backwoods kid named Jody who adopts a fawn and bumps up against the realities in the life of an impoverished family. Gregory Peck played Jody’s father.

NATIONWIDE TALENT SEARCH

MGM Studios conducted a talent search for an unknown kid to play Jody. Jarman, son of a railroad accountant, was 10 years old and living in Nashville, Tenn. His only acting experience had been in school plays. The studio sent him to Hollywood for a screen test and he got the part. His terrific reviews won him a Special Juvenile Academy Award for his performance. With that success, the Jarman family moved to Southern California, and for almost a decade Claude Jarman Jr. was in 10 movies.

GOLDEN AGE OF MGM

Several other kids received Juvenile Oscars. Shirley Temple was the first in 1935. Jarman got his in 1947. Others were Deanna Durbin, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, and Hayley Mills, who won the last one in 1960. At that point, the Motion Picture Academy did away with kids’ Oscars, and gave out the big ones regardless of the actor’s age. Retroactively, in 1983, they gave Jarman the big one.

Now a tall, blue-eyed, senior citizen with a full mop of silver-gray hair, and rangy in the Gary Cooper mold, Jarman reflected on those Hollywood years. “I was lucky. It was the Golden Age of MGM, and I was part of it.”

Asked what he thought of his success at the time, Jarman said, “I had nothing to compare it to. I thought, Doesn’t everyone have this? I had my own dressing room, my own makeup person and wardrobe person. I went to a two-room school on the MGM lot.

“There were about 12 kids under contact to MGM. Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Powell, Margaret O’Brien, and Dean Stockwell among others,” he recalls.

Adult stars were frequently matched romantically by MGM to gain press excitement. Occasionally, the studio arranged publicity photo dates for kid actors, and it arranged several for 13-year-old Jarman with 10-year-old Margaret O’Brien. “Hardly Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor stuff,” Jarman says.

JOHN WAYNE TO LASSIE

Following his success in The Yearling, Jarman appeared with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars like Van Johnson and June Allyson in High Barbaree in 1947, and Jeanette MacDonald and Lassie in The Sun Comes Up in 1949. Later, Jarman was picked for a young adult role in the big John Ford movie Rio Grande, starring John Wayne, who played a cavalry officer, and Jarman played his son.

“That was my favorite film to work in. It was filmed on location in Moab, Utah, and I got to ride horses, which I loved,” Jarman remembers.

Another high point was a 1952 film, Hangman’s Knot, which starred Lee Marvin. “I was 17 at the time. Marvin was a larger-than-life tough guy. He befriended me, and we rode around Hollywood in his red Thunderbird convertible,” Jarman says.

There were a few other films like The Great Locomotive Chase, but that was about the end of Jarman’s Hollywood career. He was growing up, and few youngsters make the transition to major adult roles.

NEVER BEEN TO SAN FRANCISCO

The family moved back to Nashville in 1950, where Jarman finished high school and studied prelaw at Vanderbilt, graduating in 1956. Having been in the university’s Officer Candidate School, he joined the Navy, became a lieutenant (j.g.), and served three years.

“Because I was colorblind, I was assigned to the P.R. staff and wound up in Hollywood, this time not as an actor, but as a member of the Armed Forces P.R. office, where I worked with studios making movies about the Navy,” he recalls.

“My wife was from Birmingham, Ala., so when I was discharged we moved there, and I got a job with an advertising agency. One client I worked for was the John Hancock Insurance Company, which decided to open an office in San Francisco. They offered me a job there and I accepted. I had never been to San Francisco,” Jarman says.

THE DORENBUSH DAYS

Immediately he met Glenn Dorenbush, a charismatic tippler, bar philosopher, and publicist. Dorenbush, always quotable, had an inside track with San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, so top saloons like Perry’s and the Washington Square Bar & Grill employed him to get their names in the papers. Jarman was quotable himself and had that magic Hollywood background. Overnight he became part of San Francisco’s well-lubricated saloon culture. Though not much of a drinker, he enjoys the sociability of bars and counts several bartenders among his friends.

FILM FESTIVAL

Soon Jarman became involved with the San Francisco International Film Festival, founded in 1952, and one of the oldest events of its kind in the country. He was named to a film selection committee that included Shirley Temple, writer and nightclub owner Barnaby Conrad, and novelist Herb Gold. Jarman and Temple were on opposite sides of a controversy over the Swedish film Night Games, which had overtones of sexual perversity, lesbianism and incest, then considered highly controversial. Jarman voted to screen it; Temple denounced it as “pornography for profit,” but while the others had watched the film, she had not. Night Games was shown and the world did not end.

Later that year Jarman was named executive director of the influential event.

In 1974, Mayor Joseph Alioto tapped Jarman for director of the city’s cultural affairs department. He oversaw operations of the opera house and other civic arts organizations as well as the film festival.

Jarman took another shot at acting, appearing in an episode of the TV production Centennial. He also served as executive producer of the well-regarded “rockumentary” on Bill Graham and the Fillmore Auditorium. And, to bring you up to date on that earlier magical period in Jarman’s life, he appeared as a past Oscar winner at both the 1998 and 2003 Academy Awards ceremonies.

A LONG WAY FROM NASHVILLE

Always a dedicated social saloonist, Jarman hung out at the Washington Square Bar & Grill and played shortstop for proprietor Ed Moose’s quirky softball team, Les Lapins Sauvages. Once again he enjoyed the limelight. In 1980, he was recruited by the Shaklee Corporation to run its public relations and travel departments. In 1986, he founded and operated his own travel agency until earlier this year, when he finally shut it down.

These days Jarman is sitting back and smelling the roses of a career that took him from Hollywood actor to San Francisco public figure. Most weekdays he hangs out in North Beach, perhaps having lunch with buddies at Capp’s Corner or Original Joe’s. An Academy Award Oscar sits on the mantelpiece in his Marin County home. He has seven children, including two daughters with his present wife Katherine.

Asked the inevitable question, “What if?” he concludes: “If I had not been picked for that role in The Yearling, I would probably still be in Nashville.”

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