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Penrod Schofield and his gang are "Jr. G Men," a secret club where all members are sworn to uphold the law and turn in crooks. When the mother of the youngest member of the G Men is killed by bank robbers the boys go into action. Will they be able to turn in the bank robbers before the bank robbers do them in? Written by
Fun, warmth, whimsy, and high spirits, and the kids beat the bad guys!
Aimed at the pre-teen set, this is the first of three "Penrod" films made at Warners in the late 30s. The series was based on the Booth Tarkington Penrod books that were written in the WWI era. For this series the settings were updated to the late 1930s.
This is a kid's film, set in a world where rules are actually respected, and while parents and kids come into conflict with each other, both sides actually trust and respect each other. Its a world where you know that the good guys will win, and you know who the good guys are too. This might be hard to take seriously today, but there is enough fun, warmth, whimsy and high spirits to make this a good time at the movies.
The kids are in charge in this film, but only to a point. They have their secret "Jr. G Men" club, a club so secret that Penrod is reluctant to tell his father about it. But when pressed to do so he not only tells his father about the club but swears him in as a member. And his dad not only takes the secret oath, he actually wears the official badge everywhere he goes! This example of parental affection is part of the film's charm. And while the adults take the G Men more seriously than would happen in the real world, its the way kid's would want it to be and this is, after all, a kid's film.
Billy Mauch is delightful as Penrod. Or is it sometimes his twin brother, Bobby? Bobby was a stand-in on his brother's films, but later the boys confessed that they played the twin game of switching identities on the set and nobody, including the director, was the wiser. Which ever Mauch twin is on screen, he had a wonderful way with a line and a look that could make even sometimes stilted dialog ring true.
The always excellent Harry Watson is Sam. Unfortunately for Watson, Mauch was the star, so he doesn't get the attention he deserves. Nor did he ever, really. Harry was one of many Watson siblings who worked in films. He was a boy who knew how to play a bit or an entire scene and always make it right. He stood out in most everything he did, but for some reason he was never a big star.
A boy by the name of Jackie Morrow is Rodney Bits, the enemy of the G Men until the bank robbers come into the picture, and then Rodney reforms and becomes one of the good guys. There is scant information available about Morrow and that's too bad. He had good screen presence and turns in an excellent performance in this film.
And little Philip Hurlic is also in top form. He's bright, he's funny, and he's believable when he cries at the death of his mother, something that is often difficult for even adult actors to do convincingly. The wonderful "Our Gang" series often is credited as being the only place in movies of the 20s and 30s where African-American children had a chance to be treated as equals with the white children. But in this film Hurlic's character is treated with the same respect given to the rest of the children. He's younger than the other boys so he hasn't earned full membership in the G Men at the beginning of the film. But he becomes a full member before the film is ended. I noticed only two aspects of questionable taste about how his character is presented. First, the character's name is Verman. Although not spelled the same, its pronounced that same as Vermin. And second, at the end of the film Penrod's dad tells him that he can be a banker, a doctor or a lawyer when he grows up. I was delighted to hear something like this in a film from 1937. But then Verman says he doesn't want to be any of the those things so Penrod's dad asks him what he does want to be. "A Pullman Porter" he says with strong conviction. Oh well. We can't have everything.
"Penrod and Sam" is quick and tightly edited. At 64 minutes its just right and undeserving of the negative write up it gets in "The Warner Bros. Story" book. And I confess to thinking that any film with Spring Byington has to be worth watching.
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