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A story of the boys who are sent to military school in order to get them out of the way of their too-busy-to-bother parents or guardians. Lonely young Philip Stewart (George Ernest)writes himself letters his father, Mark Stewart (Lester Matthews, should be writing. When his hoax is discovered Philip attempts suicide. Written by
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TOO MANY PARENTS (Paramount, 1936), directed by Robert McGowan, is a "B" grade feature with a misleading title. Misleading as the title may be, there's nothing misleading about how its screen treatment (by Virginia Van Upp and Doris Malloy) centers around boys, four boys in fact, attending Colman Military Academy where parents seldom take part of their lives. A pity TOO MANY PARENTS wasn't a major "A" production considering the truth on how some parents can place their children in a school and the only connection is mailing in tuition money with no letter attached. Yet, TOO MANY PARENTS is a prime example of how a minor 73 minute programmer can be just as good as any 90 minute all-star production. One can even imagine how 1936 theater goers attending TOO MANY PARENTS might have felt watching familiar yet not quite famous screen personalities recognized from some of their previous film performances. One can also imagine how they must have felt coming to see a movie starring someone named Frances Farmer who never appeared in a motion picture before. TOO MANY PARENTS in general doesn't belong to Farmer nor to the parents, but to the boy actors.
As the credits fill the screen with the same underscoring to "Something About Romance" lifted from the Claudette Colbert comedy, THE GILDED LILY (1935), the plot development gets underway with the introduction to the boys, briefly depicting their history and family background. 1) Clarence Talbot Jr., (Sherwood Bailey), is an orphaned rich kid and heir to the Talbot Trust Company who insists on being called "Butch." An unruly child in desperate need of discipline, Mr. Saunders (Porter Hall), the family lawyer, talks him into going to military school; 2) Billy Miller (Billy Lee), lives in the theater with his acting parents. (The "Sweet Marijuana" production number lifted from Paramount's 1934 musical-mystery, MURDER AT THE VANITIES in briefly inserted here). Rather than becoming an actor like his dad, he's rather be a normal everyday kid playing with the other boys. While taking a walk outside the theater, Billy meets up with; 3) Clinton Meadows (Buster Phelps) sitting outside the court of domestic relations while his divorced parents and their new spouses go through a custody settlement, thus having Clinton to be the boy with "too many parents." Because of these complications, the judge (Jonathan Hale) sides with Clinton's decision to go to military school; and 4) Philip Stewart (George Ernest), age 11, already a military school cadet promoted in rank, is the son of a prosperous New York City businessman (Lester Matthews) whose mother died in childbirth. As much as Mark Stewart has nothing in common with his own son, the boy would love nothing more than be with him or at least have his father come up and visit with him once in a while. To impress the other guys, Philip writes lengthy letters to himself signing his father's name to them.
Also at the academy are Sally Colman (Frances Farmer), a young woman who takes special interest in the boys; her uncle "Ned," Colonel Coleman (Howard C. Hickman), a by-the-book superintendent strict on anyone committing the worst crime for military school - lying; and Mr. Wilkins (Henry Travers), a kind-hearted janitor who plays Santa Claus for the boys unable to go home during the Christmas season. Of the four boys depicted, it's George Ernest who's the centerpiece of attention once his character is introduced. His most earnest scene comes when his Philip meets public humiliation by being losing his rank of honor. This particular scene was used in brief film clip from Arts & Entertainment cable channel's "Biography" segment in the life and career of Frances Farmer.
Though its director (Robert McGowen), is as unknown as many of the actors, his resume, interestingly consists mostly on short subjects, mainly those highly popular "Our Gang" comedies. As much as McGowen keeps the dramatic scenes moving at a pleasant pace, he briefly returns to familiar territory of a western stage show segment (staged by Ethel Meglin) featuring an assortment of kids, ranging from Billy Lee's spectacular tap dance to Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer from the "Our Gang" comedies, as Texas Bill, singing "White Gardenia" very badly, intentionally of course, to hilarious results.
Unseen on broadcast television since the 1960s, it seems unlikely that TOO MANY PARENTS will ever be shown on television again, cable or otherwise. The acting by all, especially newcomer, Frances Farmer, is natural and believable. TOO MANY PARENTS, quite impressive, and at times, genuine, may not solve the problems presented, but surely does indicate how some of these problems need to be resolved. It should be of some interest to those very much into the film career of Frances Farmer, and even of further interest for anyone hoping to ever get a chance to watch this very rare find. Its availability on DVD from an independent company might assure TOO MANY PARENTS some well-deserved rediscovery. (**)
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