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Hollywood star Jackie Cooper, dead at 88, brought Culver to the silver screen

May 4, 2011

A scene from the 1939 Universal picture, "The Spirit of Culver." Notice the Class of 1922 fountain (still visible on the Culver Academies campus), recreated on the campus of Pomona College in California for filming purposes. PHOTO: CULVER ACADEMIES ARCHIVES

When the news hit the wires May 3 that lifelong Hollywood star Jackie Cooper had died, many remembered him as one of the most popular child stars of the 1930s (though he’s also remembered for his more recent role as newspaperman Perry White in the 1970s and `80s "Superman" movies).
While still a teenager, however, Cooper's star shone over Culver when he was cast in the lead role (as "Tom Allen") in the 1939 Universal Studios production, "The Spirit of Culver."
"Spirit" -- which followed in a similar tradition as that of "The Spirit of Notre Dame," which had been a hit a few years prior -- was actually a remake of a 1932 movie starring Tom Brown, Alan Ladd, and Tyrone Power, "Tom Brown of Culver."
Concerning an orphaned Indianapolis teen reluctantly entering Culver Military Academy, the 1932 version was shot almost entirely on location in Culver. Cooper's "Spirit," however, was shot entirely away from Culver. Outdoor shots included recreations of iconic buildings such as CMA's Legion Memorial and Mess Hall, so accurately rendered that many viewers swear they must be the real thing.
For his part, Cooper's boyish good looks and charm are put to use alongside another teen star of the day, Freddy Bartholomew, and in spite of the more locally exciting filming locale of "Tom Brown," few would disagree that Cooper's "Spirit" is the better of the two films, though in many ways they're almost scene-by-scene recreations of one another.
Cooper, who died in Santa Monica at the age of 88, spent four years in the Navy following his years of child and teen stardom, before working as an adult in theater and television. He is survived by two sons.
"The Spirit of Culver" has never officially been released on video or DVD. It can be viewed -- in whole or in part -- at the Culver Academies Museum & Gift Shop at 102 S. Main Street, where posters, stills, press books, and other memorabilia from it may also be seen. Both "Spirit" and "Tom Brown" are planned for screenings this summer as part of a "Culver history film festival" at the museum, according to Jeff Kenney of the museum.

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