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A rollicking piece of vintage Booth Tarkington-penned Americana, Penrod and Sam (1937) blends adventure, drama and comedy in its tale of a group of Midwestern schoolboys who outwit some bank-robbing hooligans.
The adventures of eleven-year-old Penrod Schofield (Billy Mauch) are initially small-scale. He and his best buddy Sam (Harry Watson) are members of a gang of budding G-Men who spend their out of school hours in an old barn trying to figure out--through crime fighting techniques--how to nab gangsters and other bad guys using their finger printing, fugitive-tracking and photography know-how. Penrod gets his first chance to do some good when a small black classmate Verman Diggs (Philip Hurlic), who acts as a look-out for the boys during their crime-fighting meetings, is targeted by bully Rodney Bitts (Jackie Morrow). Penrod engages in some fisticuffs with Rodney, who also happens to be the son of his father's boss, Rodney H. Bitts (Charles Halton). The boys' constant grappling drives a wedge between Penrod's dad (Frank Craven) and his boss Rodney Sr., who believes Penrod is the instigator of all of the trouble.
Soon petty childhood quarrels quickly take a back seat to community tragedy when the Bitts bank is knocked over by a gang of four thugs led by Roy "Dude" Hanson (Craig Reynolds) who manage to shoot and kill Verman Diggs' mother during their getaway chase and gun battle with police. Penrod begs his parents to adopt the now orphaned Verman, who they find one rainy night weeping over his mother's grave. Eventually, the Schofield parents Frank and Laura (Spring Byington) are worn down and take Verman in. But the bank robbers are still at large even after police extensively search the town. The gang ends up hiding in a hay loft in the barn where Penrod's G-Men club meets and the thugs hold Penrod, Sam and Rodney hostage as their shields while the police move in.
Made by Warner Bros., a movie studio that had previously made gangster films and charismatic criminals its metier in film's like The Public Enemy (1931) and Little Caesar (1931), Penrod and Sam signaled a turn-around for the studio. In Penrod and Sam, it is the wannabe G-Men who constitute the good guys and the gangsters who are the loathsome mamma-killers, child-kidnappers and all around bad apples.
Penrod and Sam is a remarkably progressive film for 1937 in the way it treats its black and white characters as equals. Verman eventually becomes a member of Penrod's junior G-Men gang and receives a sympathetic, multi-dimensional treatment when he loses his mother during the course of the film. Racial stereotyping does however, occasionally creep into the film. The black women in the film are maids and mammy-types. And when, at the conclusion of the film Frank Schofield asks little Verman what he wants to be when he grows up: A lawyer? A doctor? The little boy responds, "a Pullman porter."
Penrod and Sam was adapted from a novel by Booth Tarkington, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novels The Magnificent Ambersonsand Alice Adams, both of which were made into successful films. The Magnificent Ambersons was memorably directed by Orson Welles in 1942, and Alice Adams was filmed two times, in 1923 and again, in a better-known 1935 version directed by George Stevens and starring Katharine Hepburn as the title character. Along with William Faulkner and John Updike, Tarkington is on a short list of American novelists who won more than one Pulitzer for their work.
From a prominent Midwestern family that made him destined for success at an early age, Tarkington was voted "most popular" by his Princeton graduating class of 1893 where he took an active role in the school's drama club. That popularity extended to his work as a consistently beloved novelist among American readers. His Penrod novels centered on the comic adventures of an eleven-year-old upper middle class Midwestern boy growing up in 1910-era America. The first Penrod book was published in 1914. The popular books spawned a series of short films and a series of features including a 1923 silent version and a 1931 version of Penrod and Sam.
Penrod star Billy Mauch was an identical twin, whose brother Bobby Mauch often doubled for Billy on the set. Warner Bros. initially wanted to sign only Billy to a studio contract, but at their mother Dorothy's insistence, both boys were signed. When they were of age, according to an Armed Forces policy that mandated twins were not to be separated, the two brothers served together in the Air Force, in the Philippines. Billy would go on to work at Warner Bros. as a sound editor and Bobby as a film editor.
Producer: William C. McGann (uncredited)
Director: William McGann
Screenplay: Lillie Hayward, Hugh Cummings (screenplay); Booth Tarkington (novel)
Cinematography: L. Wm. O'Connell
Art Direction: Hugh Reticker
Music: Howard Jackson (uncredited)
Film Editing: Thomas Pratt
Cast: Billy Mauch (Penrod Schofield), Frank Craven (Mr. Frank Schofield), Spring Byington (Mrs. Laura Schofield), Craig Reynolds (Roy 'Dude' Hanson), Harry Watson (Sam, Junior G-Man), Jackie Morrow (Rodney Bitts), Philip Hurlick (Verman Diggs), Charles Halton (Mr. Rodney H. Bitts), Bernice Pilot (Delia the Schofield Maid), Kenneth Harlan (Real G-Man).
BW-65m. Closed Captioning.
by Felicia Feaster