Tinpot Melodrama, But With Some Memorable Moments.
One from a series of largely ignored American films originally released during the first half of the twentieth century, and reissued in DVD versions by Alpha Video, PENAL CODE is quite predictable, as might be expected for a movie that is produced upon a low budget, yet there are some gratifying performances from some stage-trained actors and the action moves efficiently, with an episodic plot enhanced with smoothly accomplished fades. This character driven adventure opens as Sarah Palmer (Virginia True Boardman) receives a letter from her wandering son Bob (Regis Toomey) postmarked Brisbane, Australia; however, he is actually residing within a New York prison, serving a two year stretch for a crime that we are informed he did not commit and, being understandably recalcitrant about telling his mother of his misfortune, he instead arranges with a private mailing service to send her his letters posted from Down Under. The scenario is not smoothly assembled, as apparently significant characters and plot threads are abruptly dropped from the storyline, but a viewer is able to follow Bob after his release from prison, and his return to his home town where he and his mother are reunited, and where he renews his courtship of Margie Shannon (Helen Cohan), daughter of a local financier who reinstates Palmer with his former position at his bank. It is here that the film's principal conflict occurs because a rival for Margie's affections has become vice president at the fiscal institution and therefore is supervisor of Bob and full of suspicions concerning Palmer's recent absence. George Melford, a worthy director before the development of sound films, shows minimal interest in his subsequent work, generally permitting his players to do as they will while he merely observes. Fortunately in this instance, several well-schooled performers are on board, their ad libbing skills somewhat improving a cliché-ridden screenplay that is dramatically challenged by the lack of musical scoring. The film's most effective sequences are those that emphasize dialogue and detail, with Toomey providing a consistent turn as a man who has become accustomed to figuratively looking over his shoulder, and there is a singularly striking performance from the luminous Cohan, daughter of George M. A Broadway veteran, she is a natural actress, but despite being a future WAMPAS baby star, is seldom upon the screen.
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