Penrod and Sam is a series of vignettes about a typical white American boy, his best pal, and the neighborhood kids who join him in playing Army games and exercising their vivid imaginations. There’s a mean next-door neighbor with an equally nasty father, a cute girl who lives across the street, and a playful dog.
This nostalgic view of boyhood is derived from Booth Tarkington’s best-selling collection of short stories Penrod and its sequels, which were regarded almost as highly as Mark Twain’s yarns about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Tarkington was one of America’s most celebrated citizens in the early 20th century, a prolific author who won the Pulitzer Prize on two separate occasions (for The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams), although he is little read or remembered today.
In 2019, the Library of America attempted to remedy that situation by publishing a Tarkington anthology. That prompted literary lion Robert Gottlieb to pen an insightful essay titled “The Rise and Fall of Booth Tarkington” for The New Yorker. He writes, “From the moment the first of the Penrod stories appeared, in 1913, they were overwhelmingly popular, and when the first batch was published in book form it was a big best-seller, and went on selling into the thirties and forties.
“The material was close at hand—not only in Tarkington’s memories of his own happy boyhood but in the exploits of his three nephews as he lovingly observed them. He was paid thousands of dollars for each story as it appeared: the grand house that he and [wife] Susanah built in Kennebunkport was often fondly referred to as ‘the house that Penrod built.’ Tarkington also enjoyed the countless letters he received as whole classrooms across the country were assigned to write to him. His favorite: ‘Teacher told us we must each write you a letter and she will send the best one. Well, how are you? Yours truly.’”
Seen today, the Penrod and Sam movie adaptation resembles nothing so much as an Our Gang comedy of the silent era. Producer Hal Roach always said the inspiration for his long-running series of comedy shorts was watching some neighborhood kids fighting over a stick outside his office window. When he realized how long they had held his attention he pursued the idea of developing a series of comedy shorts that are still enjoyed today. The fact that Penrod and Sam has an integrated cast of children, a lively dog, and a dose of slapstick humor only furthers the resemblance. One of its cast members, billed here as Gene Jackson, subsequently joined the Our Gang ensemble as Eugene “Pineapple” Jackson and went on to a long career that extended into television in the early 1990s. Gertrude Messinger, who plays Penrod’s girlfriend, wound up at the Roach studio in 1930 in The Boy Friends, a comedy series best described as Our Gang grown up. She even married costar Dave Sharpe in real life. Her brother Buddy, who plays the hero’s nemesis in Penrod and Sam, was a busy young actor in the silent era and appeared in bit parts throughout the 1930s. He later moved behind the camera and worked as an assistant director and second unit director with credits as late as 1963.
Penrod is played by twelve-year-old Ben Alexander, a busy and likable child actor who was directed by Cecil B. DeMille (with Mary Pickford in The Little American) and D.W. Griffith (in Hearts of the World) during the teens and never stopped working, earning a sizable role in All Quiet on the Western Front and breezing through the transition to talkies. He also kept busy as an actor and announcer on radio in the 1940s and early ’50s. For viewers of a certain age he will be best remembered as Joe Friday’s partner Frank Smith on Jack Webb’s television series Dragnet. Penrod’s older sister (a small, thankless role) is portrayed by Mary Philbin, who, two years later, gained immortality as Christine opposite Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera.
Director William Beaudine’s experience working with kids and staging slapstick scenes made him an ideal choice to pilot this feature. Beaudine had an unusual Hollywood career by any standards. Born in 1892, he broke into the business as a prop boy at the Biograph studio in 1909 and in time was recruited as an actor and director in those early, anything-goes days of moviemaking. He was one of many future notables who served as an assistant to D.W. Griffith in the creation of his epic feature films The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.
His economic, no-frills approach to the job of directing propelled him up the ladder of success. He directed Mary Pickford in two of her starring vehicles, Little Annie Rooney (1925) and Sparrows (1926), which represented the pinnacle of his career. In the mid-1930s he moved to England and made a number of features there (including a “quota quickie” that was a favorite of film historian William K. Everson’s, Mr. Cohen Takes a Walk), but when he returned to Hollywood he had trouble landing top assignments. For reasons that remain unclear he was relegated to B pictures and never escaped from that domain, churning out scores of undistinguished programmers starring everyone from Bela Lugosi to the Bowery Boys. When television came along, his reputation for efficiency made him a mainstay on filmed series such as Racket Squad, Lassie (for which he directed eighty episodes!), and the “Spin and Marty” serial that was part of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club. He returned to familiar territory in the mid-1960s with the low-budget features Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. He continued working right up to the time of his death in 1970.
Beaudine revisited Penrod when Warner Bros. produced a talkie version of this feature in 1931 starring Leon Janney and Frank Coghlan Jr. The studio then commissioned a series of two-reel short subjects from its Vitaphone auxiliary and called upon the characters yet again in 1938 to spotlight its discoveries Billy and Bobby Mauch, the identical twins who starred with Errol Flynn in a 1937 adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.
An important footnote regarding the film, whose intertitles are derived from Tarkington’s text, is best detailed by Robert Gottlieb: “The naïve charm and the fun of the Penrod stories are still palpable, but they are ruined for us today by the argot that spills from the mouths of the two African-American brothers who are pals of Penrod and the other boys who play in the back yards and alleyways and sheds behind the white boys’ homes. The names of the brothers, I’m afraid, are Herman and Verman, and although they are on terms of total equality with the other boys, their language sounds like the worst kind of vaudeville blackface impersonation … How ironic all this is, given that from the start of his career Tarkington was singled out and praised for his affectionate interest in, and sympathy for, what he carefully called ‘Negroes.’ No matter: this material is utterly unbearable today.”
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius
The Baby Peggy short THE KID REPORTER preceded the feature with live musical accompaniment by William Lewis
Restored from a French- and German-language print held by the British Film Institute, this 1923 Century Studio comedy features a four-year-old Baby Peggy spoofing The Cub Reporter, a feature released earlier that year starring Douglas Fairbanks’s former stunt man Richard Talmadge. Adorable Baby Peggy gets all the action here, of course, challenging her editor to let her cover a big story then disguising herself as a man (complete with monocle and moustache) when he doesn’t. Diana Serra Cary, the real-life Baby Peggy, wrote for 2005’s Pordenone film festival that her character is more than mere comic fodder, calling her “a surreptitious symbol and role model for the growing female work force … beginning to invade America’s business world.” She also recalls in her notes that the tall Blanche Payson who plays a cop in the film was formerly of the L.A. police and wore her old uniform for the shoot, but mostly she remembers the painful bits of production, including the hours of practice it took before she could securely wear the monocle while being held upside-down and thrown out a window. The mansion in the film belonged to director Frank Borzage, a close friend of the film’s director (Alf Goulding), and the motorboat scene—with Peggy riding out to the open sea—was shot at San Pedro Harbor south of Los Angeles while the rowboat scenes were shot in Echo Park. This screening is dedicated to Diana Serra Cary who died in 2020 at 101 years old. Turn to “Baby Peggy, Everybody’s Darling” for more on the child star turned child-actor advocate. —Editor