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John H. Auer
This is a bizarre and rather creepy little film from 1938. It stars Bobby Breen--a 11 year-old singing sensation with a voice that sounds like a woman's! The effect is rather strange--hearing such a high-pitched and feminine voice coming from the boy. The effect is a tad creepy. And, speaking of creepy, the film also features a freaky little girl (Irene Dare) who appears to be at most 5 years-old (though IMDb indicates she's 7--she clearly does not look to be that age). Miss Dare is the combination of two odd sensations of the day--Shirley Temple and the ice skating actress Sonja Hennie. The effect of seeing such a tiny girl exploited (yes, I do mean exploited) is amazingly creepy--and even worse than people getting rich off Breen. And, in an odd twist, the plot is about Breen's character being exploited! The film begins in a Mennonite community in Pennsylvania. Breen and his mother (silent star Delores Costello) are living with Breen's incredibly rigid and moralistic uncle (Robert Barrat). Barrat is very religious but also seems to completely miss the meaning of his faith---and is very cold and unforgiving. Eventually, his rigidity forces young Bobby to run away to Philadelphia to make his fortune. In this pursuit, he's accompanied by a real ne'er-do-well (Charlie Ruggles) who again and again exploits the boy's singing talents. When the boy is offered $25 a week to sing, Ruggles tells the kid he's earning $5--and pockets the rest. Nice guy, huh?! Eventually Breen makes good and returns home--only to be given the cold shoulder by his Hitler-iffic uncle. It seems that $20 accidentally disappeared and the uncle insists that Breen stole it. To get back in his family's good graces, he sets out to prove his innocence--which makes it all seem so very, very abusive and cruel. At no point does the boy's 'loving mother' intercede and the whole film comes off as bizarre and exploitational.
While I did not like the plot nor all the singing and skating (mostly because, as I said, it all seemed to exploit these tykes), I must admit that the acting was generally very good. Breen came off as a very sweet kid--natural and easy to like. And, Ruggles' character, while a bit despicable, was also fun to watch--much like Frank Morgan in "The Wizard of Oz" or W.C. Fields in pretty much all his films! The overall effect is quite watchable but weird--and probably something best seen only by insane cinephiles like myself!
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