A beautifully restored print from the Library of Congress, this heartwarming (and at times heartbreaking) film follows the misadventures of a boy named Penrod, accompanied by his best friend/second-in-command Sam, and his loyal dog Duke.
This was the second film in the Penrod series, based on the novels by Booth Tarkington; the first, directed by Marshall Neilan, had been released the previous year. Here we find Penrod as the leader of his neighbourhood gang, who have their clubhouse on the vacant lot next door owned by his father, on which the children have built a ramshackle wooden structure – styled as an army barracks – to serve as the base for their army games. Said games largely seem to involve seizing prisoners from their rival gang, led by Rodney Bitts, the son of the richest man in town, and Penrod’s nemesis.
Their antagonism of one another escalates alarmingly, although Rodney is provided with an opportunity to increase the level of cruelty in the conflict after he and his father strike and kill Penrod’s dog with their car, and the latter is forced to endure Rodney’s taunts. It seems as though things cannot get any worse for our plucky hero after the vacant lot is sold to Rodney’s father, and Penrod is banned from setting foot on it. His beloved dog is buried there, and in a tragic sequence he begs Rodney’s father to sell him just the tiny piece of land where Duke’s grave is, for all the money he has in the world – eighty six cents.
His request is refused, and he sinks into a state of utter dejection, sitting alone in his bedroom sobbing, as he looks at Duke’s grave from the window. Penrod’s father – alarmed by the change in his son, who has lost his former mischievous spark entirely – resolves to repurchase the lot (after his wife insists that he had not appreciated what it had meant to his son) using the family savings, paying $200 more than he sold it for. He puts the lot in Penrod’s name, presenting him with a deed that says it’s his to do whatever he wants with, forever.
The child cast are fantastically directed by William Beaudine, whose work here would inspire Mary Pickford to hire him for Little Annie Rooney (1925) and Sparrows (1926). As I was watching, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to them next. It’s the strange thing about watching films from the first few decades of cinema – a quick online search for the actors, and their whole lives and careers unfurl before you. In case you were wondering too, here’s what came next for the cast of Penrod and Sam.
Penrod (Ben Alexander) and Sam (Joe Butterworth)
Penrod’s sidekick Sam, played by Joe Butterworth, was a highlight of the film for me. Though he couldn’t have been older than thirteen during production, he has all the world-weary cynicism of a 1930s gangster’s deputy, or a hardboiled Noir detective. He’s the shadow to Penrod’s sunshine, and it works so well. His father, Ernest Butterworth, had appeared in small roles in several Douglas Fairbanks films, including Arizona and Say! Young Fellow (both 1918). Unfortunately Joe’s career doesn’t seem to extend past child roles, though he does appear as Mickey in Little Annie Rooney in 1925. Joe’s brothers Ernest Jr. and Frank were also actors, though neither seems to have a film credit later than 1923.
As for Penrod himself, Ben Alexander had a long career, spanning film, television and radio. He was already something of a seasoned actor by the time he made Penrod and Sam, with more than 20 credits to his name, and made a successful transition to sound with All Quiet On The Western Front (1930). He worked continuously throughout the 1930s – although largely in low budget B-movies – before becoming a radio announcer in the 1940s, and a television host in the 1950s and 60s. However, he is perhaps best remembered for his role as Officer Frank Smith in 1950s American police procedural Dragnet. Alongside his career in show business, Alexander also ran a car dealership and a motel (Ben Alexander’s Dream House Motel) in Hollywood.
Rodney (Buddy Messinger) and Marjorie (Gertrude Messinger)
The actors who played Marjorie (“acclaimed by Penrod as the most beautiful girl in the world”) and Rodney – Penrod’s biggest love and biggest enemy, respectively – were in fact siblings. There’s definitely a family resemblance in that scowl! Their father was a carpenter at Universal, where the two appeared in front of the camera for the first time in The Hunted Man (1917), a short for IMP. They followed this with several Fox fairytale films, including Jack and the Beanstalk (1917) and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1918), and they worked steadily for the next several years, until the child roles began to dwindle. Buddy continued to appear in small, uncredited roles for much of the rest of his career – including a background part in Laurel and Hardy’s Our Relations (1936) alongside his sister – with a short stint as an assistant director in his later years.
Gertrude, however, had slightly more luck. She seemed to take a break from films between 1923 and 1929, when she appeared in Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s The Jazz Age (1929). She was then part of the The Boy Friends series, produced by Hal Roach for MGM. Designed as a kind of teen spin off of the popular Our Gang series, and featuring several of its stars, the shorts followed three girls (and the titular boyfriends) through various slapstick mishaps. The shorts were released between 1930 and 1932, with Gertrude’s last appearance in the 1931 instalment The Kick-Off. She caused a minor scandal in April 1932, when she left her fiancé and eloped with David Sharpe, her co-star in The Boy Friends. The New York Times observed that “it seemed to be quite a surprise all around, since only three months ago the 20-year-old actress received a license here to wed James F. Gaither, movie sound technician”. Gertrude and David divorced in 1936, but in a strange twist of fate, after her brother Buddy passed away in 1965, his widow remarried – to David Sharpe.
She would go on to appear in several pre-codes and B-movies throughout the 1930s, including small roles in Madame Racketeer with George Raft in 1932, and The Woman Accused (1933), an early Cary Grant film. A handful of small uncredited roles appear in her filmography until 1952, but Gertrude largely retired from the screen after her role as Madge Allen in western Feud Of The Range in 1939.
Verman (Eugene Jackson)
Eugene Jackson was just five years old when he debuted in Penrod and Sam, and would go on to star in several of the Our Gang shorts in 1925, and in uncredited roles in Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Mary Pickford’s Little Annie Rooney (1925).
In 1929 Jackson appeared in Fox musical Hearts in Dixie, one of the first all-sound productions by a big studio to feature a predominantly African-American cast, in which he became the first African-American child to speak on film. Jackson also had a thriving career in vaudeville, and he was clearly a talented dancer; film historian Steve Massa notes that “Eugene and his brother Freddie were rotoscoped by the Disney Studio, and their dancing was used for the crows in Dumbo”. He had an extraordinarily long career, with his final recorded screen credits being Mel Brook’s Life Stinks, and The Addams Family (both 1991).
Festival passes for the Giornate are available on their website.