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Girls on Probation

Girls on Probation(1938)

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teaser Girls on Probation (1938)

Connie Heath, the daughter of a strict immigrant father, is an attractive, cheerful teen-ager with an office job and a promising future until her friendship with Hilda, a co-worker, implicates her in a minor theft that gets her fired and creates conflict between her parents. Luckily, Neil Dillon, the lawyer assigned to the case, takes a personal interest in Connie and through agreed restitution payments helps the girl avoid a police record. Connie moves to another town, finds a new job and all is well until she encounters Hilda again outside a bank. Suddenly finds herself in the middle of a bank robbery engineered by Hilda's boyfriend Tony and a hostage of the fleeing couple. Arrested and faced with a prison sentence, Connie is spared from serving time by the judge and a sympathetic probation officer. She is allowed to return home and reestablishes contact with Neil, who offers her a job in his office, a situation that leads to a romance and their engagement. Then Hilda resurfaces and threatens to tell Connie's parents and Neil about her arrest (which was not reported in the papers using her real name) unless Connie helps her in a scheme to aid Tony who has just escaped from prison.

In the tradition of other Warner Bros. productions such as Angels With Dirty Faces and Crime School released the same year, Girls on Probation (1938) was yet another crime drama for the studio that expressed some of Jack Warner's favorite themes: the social conditions that breed lawbreakers, criminal rehabilitation and the pros and cons of the American justice system. Unlike the more prestigious Angels With Dirty Faces, Girls on Probation is a B-movie programmer, directed at breakneck speed by William McGann, and much closer in tone and style to exploitation films such as The Road to Ruin [1934], Damaged Goods [1937], and Enlighten Thy Daughter [1934]. What distinguishes it from others of its ilk is the presence of Jane Bryant in the role of Connie and Ronald Reagan, in one of his early roles, as Neil.

Bryan was an immensely appealing young actress who was being groomed for stardom by Warner Bros. and had already appeared to good advantage in two Bette Davis films, Marked Woman and Kid Galahad [Both 1937]. Bryan, however, abruptly retired from filmmaking in 1940 to marry industrialist Justin Dart, who later became one of Ronald Reagan's trusted business advisors. At the time of Girls on Probation, Reagan was still an up-and-coming contract player at Warners, learning his craft in producer Bryan Foy's B-movie unit. He had already worked with Foy on three films, beginning with his screen debut in Love Is on the Air [1937] and would soon be promoted to leading man status in Foy's serial-like thrillers Secret Service of the Air and Smashing the Money Ring [both 1939].

Girls on Probation is also notable for featuring Susan Hayward in one of her earliest roles. She makes a vivid impression in her brief scenes as Neil's date at a dance where she spots her own designer dress being worn by a girl from the laundry where it was being cleaned. It is her outraged reaction to the temporary theft that turns Connie's life upside down.

Crane Wilbur, who wrote the screenplay for Girls on Probation, was no stranger to the exploitation genre, having penned such films as Tomorrow's Children [1934], On Probation [1935] and Yellow Cargo [1936]. He also paid his dues at Warners, churning out other urban melodramas such as Alcatraz Island [1937], Crime School [1938] and Hell's Kitchen [1939]. Wilbur had also worked as an actor during the silent era and was a dependable B-movie director as well (Canon City [1948], The Bat [1959]).

Producer: Bryan Foy (uncredited)
Director: William McGann
Screenplay: Crane Wilbur
Cinematography: Arthur Todd
Art Direction: Hugh Reticker
Music: Howard Jackson (uncredited)
Film Editing: Frederick Richards
Cast: Jane Bryan (Connie Heath), Ronald Reagan (Neil Dillon), Anthony Averill (Tony Rand), Sheila Bromley (Hilda Engstrom), Henry O'Neill (Judge), Elisabeth Risdon (Kate Heath), Sig Rumann (Roger Heath), Dorothy Peterson (Jane Lennox), Susan Hayward (Gloria Adams), Larry Williams (Terry Mason, Hilda's Date), Arthur Hoyt (Mr. Engstrom).

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:Ronald Reagan in Hollywood: Movies and Politics by Stephen Vaughn (Cambridge University Press)
The Films of Ronald Reagan by Tony Thomas (Citadel Press)
Reagan: The Hollywood Years by Marc Eliot (Harmony Books)

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