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Twelve year old Jan Grovers spends more time in the alleys of Rotterdam than with his family (though he occasionally looks after his tree younger sisters, all of whom are called Mientje). Together with his best friend and partner in crime Pietje Puk he plans to travel to America to get rich. When a local clergyman takes pity on the boy and tries to teach him good manners, Boefje at first rebels. However, once he is sent to a strict boarding school, he takes an interest in music, specifically the pipe organ. Written by
Annie van Ees was the Michael J. Fox of the thirties
Based on the 1903 novel by Marie Joseph Brusse and preceded by his own stage adaption, rumors of a movie version of 'Boefje' had been circulating ever since Dutch movie tycoon Loet C. Barnstijn obtained the rights. But it wasn't until may of 1939 when a certain Mr. Ter Linden of the City-concern announced that he had taken over the property and planned to film and release it before the year was through. He hired one of the last German directors still working in Europe, Detlef Sierck, as well as scriptwriter Carl Zuckmayer. Corrie Vonk was considered for the title role, as she was already under contract at Barnstijn's 'Filmstad' studio. However, her her husband Wim Kan had pledged to writer a couple of scripts just for her (which never came to pass). So, the actress who had been playing Boefje on stage since 1923, Annie van Ees got to play her most famous part on the silver screen. This time without wearing false eyebrows and a wig, but with a boyish haircut. And all of this despite the fact that she was already 45 years old and the title role is a 12 year old boy.
Boefje is set at the very start of the 20th century in pre-WWII Rotterdam. Jan Groverts, aka Boefje is a scruffy street kid who is always getting himself into trouble with his best friend and neighbor Pietje Puk (Guus Brox). Unschooled, left to his own devices and often beaten by his father (or at least so he claims), Boefje is not a particularly smart boy, and despite a tendency to steal and lie, his heart is still in the right place, as evident in the scene where he saves a cat from drowning when other (real) children are throwing rocks at it. A good natured pastor (based on the author) takes notice and takes him under his wing. And sends him to a boarding school after Boefje accidentally sets Pietje's mother's curtains on fire.
Boefje manages to escape while smoking a cigar during a break from working in the fields (all the grown ups keep handing these 12 year old boys cigars while Boefje himself gets them from the steps of the Mayor's residence). He travels home to Rotterdam where Pietje gets him back in trouble the same night, his own grandfather accuses him of a crime he did not commit and he takes pity on the Pastor's kitchen help, Anna when she in turn is framed by Pietje Puk. The film offers an honest portrait of times gone by (as well as shots of Rotterdam before it was decimated during the war). However, the acting is very theatrical, especially Annie van Ees as Boefje, who is constantly shouting.
On the last day of filming, director Detlef Sierck decided that Europe was getting too dangerous for a German refugee, so he and his wife boarded a steamer for the States and never looked back (or saw the finished film). He would change his name to Douglas Sirk and go on to greater fame in Hollywood. Boefje itself was actually chosen to compete in the very first Cannes film festival that was to be held in September of 1939, but was canceled when the war broke out. However, during the 55th edition held in 2002 it was decided to screen the 7 nominated films from 1939, pitting 'Boefje' against 'The Wizard of Oz', 'Goodbye Mr. Chips' and others. The price eventually went to Cecil B. DeMille's 'Union Pacific'.
7 out of 10
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