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Five Little Peppers in Trouble (1940)
** (out of 4)
The fourth and final film in Columbia's series has the five peppers finding themselves in a boarding school for a reason only Polly (Edith Fellows) really knows. Once there they all are miserable but they have to put up with the abuse from classmates because of a reason Polly doesn't want to share. FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS IN TROUBLE is certainly a step up from the previous two films but it's still not strong enough to recommend to anyone outside those interested in the books or series. Still, it's hard to recommend any of the sequels to anyone other than fans because they really don't contain anything too special and it's easy to see why the studio didn't continue them. Still, if you did enjoy the first movie then you'll want to keep up with the adventures and this here offers the family up in a less annoying way than the previous movie where the kids actually needed to be in a boarding school. There are a couple very funny moments dealing with Martin the butler and the school makes for a couple good scenes as well. As usual, the kids all fit their parts a lot better here and Fellows seems to have a lot more energy this time out. Rex Evans also deserves some credit giving so much to the series and especially in this final one. The biggest problem with the film is that it's always trying to be too cute and often times there's not much of a story going on.
FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS IN TROUBLE (Columbia, 1940), directed by Charles
Barton, whether intentionally or not, became the fourth and final
motion picture installment to the Margaret Sidney based characters. It
would also be the last time viewers would get a glimpse of the five
Pepper children introducing themselves individually by name as they pop
from behind pepper shakers prior to the opening credits. Gee-wilikers.
The narrative starts off with the Pepper kids, Polly (Edith Fellows), Ben (Charles Peck), Joey (Tommy Bond) and David (Bobby Larson), along with friend of the family, Jasper King (Ronald Sinclair), coming out of school. As Jasper gets his invitation to attend Cynthia's (Ann Barlow) 14th birthday party,little Phronsie (Dorothy Ann Seese), stays after school not for being bad or asking so many questions ("My goo'ness"), but to recite poetry for an upcoming school play for her teacher. Before returning home, Jasper's grandfather, J.H. King (Pierre Watkin), former millionaire now residing with his butler, Martin (Rex Evans) at the Pepper home (with both "Pepper" and "King" names printed on the mailbox), is confronted by his sister-in-law, Martha Wilcox (Kathleen Howard) once again (as in OUT WEST WITH THE PEPPERS in a role originally enacted by Laura Treadwell), insisting on taking her nephew away from such living conditions. Even though King already has a bigger home being built for them all to live in doesn't impress her one bit. To prevent Aunt Martha from coming back with a court order to take Jasper away, King, with the help of Mrs. Pepper (Dorothy Peterson), secretly arranges to have Jasper finish his term at Lansdowne, an exclusive private school somewhere out in the country, with the Pepper kids going along as well. While pretending to like this new arrangement, Jasper and the Peppers don't, especially when feeling like outcasts by the society ridden Mrs. Lansdowne (Mary Currier) and the snobbish students. The only ones taking a liking to them are school secretary, Miss Roland (Helen Brown) and blonde English girl, Pam (Antonia Oland). Things take a turn for the worse as Polly is faced with being expelled when accused of draining the water from the swimming pool that caused serious injury to one of the girls taking a dive on the deep side at night.
While the unoriginal premise placing the poor with rich children in an exclusive school might appear predictable and time worn, it's actually a fitting story for the Pepper kids and how the situations are handled. With much of the attention focused on the youngsters, the characters of Mr. King and Mrs. Pepper are once again downplayed, though not as limited as in OUT WEST WITH THE PEPPERS. Kathleen Howard, who specializes in playing shrewish characters, does more of the same as Aunt Martha. Aside from Rex Evans resuming his natural role of a gentleman's gentleman, working and residing at the Pepper home, he gets to take part in several amusing scenes, one being the traditional attempt of trying to get a good night's sleep while resting between the two younger Pepper boys in bed. This time it's not due to their tossing and turning. As Edith Fellows shows off her musical talent singing "Tales of the Vienna Woods" by Johann Strauss, Dorothy Ann Seese continues her scene stealing antics of cuteness and of course, trouble.
Just as the series was showing signs of improvement, it all ended here, or did it? Having the FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS IN TROUBLE listed fourth in the series is somewhat debatable. As the story comes to a close, Mr. King talks about taking Jasper with him to Paris, and invites the Peppers to come along with them. As he goes into detail about the forthcoming trip, Phronsie repeatedly asks, "Where's Paris?" In what might have been something being left open for another sequel, FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS IN Paris, one question remains? Didn't the Kings and the Peppers already have their trip to Paris as depicted in the prologue of OUT WEST WITH THE PEPPERS (1940)? Could the central characters (or writers) be going through a memory loss or was this actually a third installment released fourth?
It's uncertain whether this series concluded due to lack of interest from its viewers, writers or production staff. If this series were actually canceled, then the title did live up to its expectations, the Five Little Peppers were in trouble. Had the series resumed, no doubt there would have been some casting changes. My guess being the business tycoon J.H. King and/ or Mother Pepper would be phased out completely, leaving Polly to fill in the void acting as both older sister and mother to the kids living in the new home built by Mr. King. Possibly, quite possibly, Polly might become romantically linked with Jasper; Ben or Jasper getting drafted into the Army during World War II; and Phronsie growing from moppet to charming little girl, if the writers would permit her to do so.
As much as television has brought an end to the theatrical film series by the end of the 1940s, it would be the same medium that revived these theatrical family films years later, especially Turner Classic Movies, where this 63 minute programmer and other "Pepper" adventures were shown starting in 2007. While "The Peppers" formula could be classified as a forerunner of future TV shows, "Father Knows Best" or "Family Affair", as prime examples that combine sentimental charm and humor, and having children as its main source, this comes off as a true reminder of innocent times of family togetherness, something taken for granted today. (**1/2)
The generation that grew up on the "Little Peppers" books and the four
films they inspired is pretty much gone now. Current viewers will
wonder what all the fuss was about, just what did that earlier
generation find so appealing about this family? The films were quite
popular during their two-year run just before World War II. "The Five
Little Peppers In Trouble" (1940) was the last of the four, which were
produced non-stop over about a 12-month period. The ensemble stayed
pretty much the same throughout and the child actors weren't noticeably
older than in the first film.
Edith Fellows plays Polly Pepper, the oldest of the five children. She was a sawed-off (4'10") version of Bonita Granville and Anne Shirley, with a little Deanna Durbin style singing thrown in. Charles Peck was Ben, the oldest boy, and the least developed of the characters. Tommy Bond (Butch on the "Little Rascals") and Bobby Larson were the younger boys and in retrospect the main strength of series; you wish they were featured more often. Dorothy Ann Seese was Phronsie Pepper, the single most irritating character in cinema history (step aside Moochie). Seese was just a hammy little kid but the writers repeatedly inserted her into virtually every scene, working the same lame gag over and over. Jasper King played Ronald Sinclair, a sort of sixth Pepper and their adopted grandfather's teenage ward.
The Peppers don't really get into much trouble in "The Five Little Peppers In Trouble", which is basically an early version of "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen" (2004), with Fellows playing the Lindsey Lohen character. The six are packed off to an elite boarding school. The other students, all rich kids led by queen bee June (Shirley Mills), won't associate with these common public school intruders. Although all six are in the same boat, the focus is almost completely on Polly; Fellows gets to do some singing when they hold tryouts for the school's musical.
The story is not entirely formulaic, as the Peppers leave the school rather than reform their snobby fellow students. And June only gets the mildest comeuppances.
Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.
This is the fourth and final film in the series about the Pepper
family. Like films number two and three, the plot is not based on any
of the Five Little Peppers books.
In this film, the Peppers are in danger from an aunt who threatens to split up the family by taking custody of one of them. Mr. King comes to the rescue by packing them off to a fancy private school.
But things get worse as the school is full of snobs who make their lives a living hell. They are wrongly accused of wrongdoing and are all expelled.
They return home, but their aunt is still up to her tricks. Luckily, Mr. King saves the day once again.
I particularly enjoyed the swimming pool scene. Young Dorothy Ann Seese (Phronsie) is a real firecracker in this one.
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