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In MGM's thoughtful production of Lord Jeff (1938), Freddie Bartholomew stars as Geoffrey, a haughty youth who is part of a jewel theft ring. When he gets caught by authorities, Geoffrey is given an opportunity to avoid reform school by training to be a seaman at a nautical academy. Geoffrey's insolence and bad attitude, however, soon alienate him from his classmates, though one boy, Terry (Mickey Rooney), tries hard to connect with him. Just as it looks like Geoffrey is going to turn over a new leaf, he is swept up in a new scheme when his old criminal cohorts return, threatening his chances to work aboard the prestigious ship, the Queen Mary.
Lord Jeff marked the fourth time that Mickey Rooney and Freddie Bartholomew worked together. The two young actors had met while making Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1936 and become friends. Bartholomew had been the biggest male child star in Hollywood for several years by the time Lord Jeff was made. Rooney's career, however, was just getting started. Having made a memorable impression in such films as A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and A Family Affair (1937) in which he first played the iconic character of Andy Hardy, Rooney's star was on the rise.
Even though Mickey Rooney's part in Lord Jeff was clearly a supporting role to Freddie Bartholomew's lead, MGM granted the boys equal billing on the film. It was the first and only time that this happened. The equal billing was a sign of Rooney's growing popularity and the studio's faith in his long-term potential at the box office. In just a few years, it would be Rooney's name alone above the title in the last film that he and Bartholomew made together, A Yank at Eton in 1942. By that time, Bartholomew's star was fading. By the 1950s, he would retire from the acting business entirely. In 1992 Bartholomew said of Rooney, "I will say this...about Mickey: of the whole group of us, my personal opinion is that he was the very best actor of the group. He could do anything. Tear your heart out, make you laugh, sing, dance, juggle, play any instrument you could name. To this day I have a feeling of awe about his talent."
A strong supporting cast elevates Lord Jeff with fine character actors including Charles Coburn as the kind Captain Briggs, Gale Sondergaard as one of the jewel thieves, and the adorable Terry Kilburn as Albert, one of the young students. A teenage Peter Lawford also makes one of his earliest feature film appearances in a small role as Benny Potter, one of the boys' schoolmates.
The opening of Lord Jeff bears a dedication to the memory of Dr. Thomas John Barnardo. He was the physician whose network of Dr. Barnardo's Homes for destitute children throughout Great Britain, including the Russell-Cotes Nautical School depicted in the film, helped inspire the film's story.
Producers: Frank Davis, Sam Wood
Director: Sam Wood
Screenplay: James Kevin McGuinness; Bradford Ropes, Endre Bohem, Val Burton (story); Frank Davis, Walter Ferris, Sam Wood (all three uncredited)
Cinematography: John Seitz
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Edward Ward
Film Editing: Frank E. Hull
Cast: Freddie Bartholomew (Geoffrey Braemer), Mickey Rooney (Terry O'Mulvaney), Charles Coburn (Captain Briggs), Herbert Mundin (Bosun 'Crusty' Jelks), Terry Kilburn (Albert Baker), Gale Sondergaard (Doris Clandon), Peter Lawford (Benny Potter), Walter Tetley (Tommy Thrums), Peter Ellis (Ned Saunders), George Zucco (James 'Jim' Hampstead), Matthew Boulton (Inspector Scott), John Burton (John Cartwright), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Briggs), Monty Woolley (Jeweler), Gilbert Emery (Magistrate), Charles Irwin (Mr. Burke), Walter Kingsford (Superintendent).
by Andrea Passafiume