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Rob King, Critical Studies

  • By Jacqueline Tasch, Patricia Jordan
  • Published Mar 1, 2002 8:00 AM

Huge scrapbooks of news clippings record the success of child star Jackie Coogan. A letter from film producer Mack Sennett politely asks card-playing chums to pay up their gambling debts. These are among the treasures that Rob King, graduate student in film and television critical studies, discovered in the archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"He's so good at following through on tips and leads," says his adviser, Associate Professor Janet Bergstrom, "because he knows the library so well and is such a good detective."

King likes the sense of discovery. "The pleasure of having these things in my hands is what keeps me going." He is also careful to consider the historical and social environment of his treasures. For example, Coogan's scrapbooks inspired a paper on the commercial exploitation of the boy who was the kid in Charlie Chaplin's The Kid.

"Jackie Coogan promoted new patterns of child spending," King says. Because the young actor usually played a penniless orphan, he was associated with a Victorian social concern for helping the urban poor. That made him an acceptable icon to bridge the gap between the old vision of childhood, as a time for discipline and restraint, and a new image "based on spending, spontaneity, playfulness, and cheekiness."

King's paper about Coogan and child consumerism has already been published. King also submitted the paper in application for two fellowships-and won both. King will use the second award to write about Mack Sennett's bathing beauties and early models of femininity and seaside resorts.

Sennett is a key figure in King's dissertation examining the Keystone Film Company "in the context of early 20th-century American and urban working class culture." Keystone produced Charlie Chaplin's films in the mid-1910s, as well as the Keystone Cops and other slapstick comedies. King acknowledges that these comedies may not be funny to 21st-century sensibilities: "You can only take so much kicking people up the backside and hitting people with bricks before it starts to wear thin." But King looks at the way the films and society relate to one another. "The enormous popularity of Keystone suggests that film wasn't all about genteel entertainment or exploring the ways that film could be art," King explains.

Born and raised in England, King was an early fan of Hollywood movies. While studying Greek and Latin at Oxford University's Balliol College, he wrote film reviews for campus publications and, during the summer, London's version of LA Weekly. Finding reviewing unsatisfying, he took a master's degree in film and television studies at the University of Warwick, then headed for Japan to teach English in Nagoya and Osaka.

While he was in Japan, King submitted applications for doctoral studies in film to several British programs and one American school: UCLA. "At UCLA I've received the most positive support and encouragement I've ever had," he says.