Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #30: "Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus" (1938)

Bad boy, bad boy! What ya gonna do? What ya gonna do when the circus comes through?

The flick: Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus (Sol Lesser Productions, distributed by RKO, 1938) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.9

Director: Edward F. Cline (a former Keystone Kop; directed several W.C. Fields films, including The Bank Dick, My Little Chickadee, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break)

Louise Beavers
Actors of note (and there are a bunch)
  • Tommy Kelly (played Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; cameos in Gone with the Wind and Battleground)
  • Ann Gillis (Becky Thatcher in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; appeared in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and did voice work for Disney's Bambi)
  • Edgar Kennedy (a founding Keystone Kop; the angry lemonade vendor from the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup; starred in roughly 200 short subjects)
  • Benita Hume (Tarzan Escapes)
  • Billy Gilbert (comedian known for his exaggerated sneeze; inspired and voiced Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; appeared onscreen with Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, and the Marx Brothers)
  • Grant Mitchell (Arsenic and Old Lace, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Nana Bryant (Harvey, The Song of Bernadette)
  • George McFarland ("Spanky" from Our Gang/The Little Rascals, appearing in over 100 shorts from 1932-1942)
  • Louise Beavers (Imitation of Life, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, The Jackie Robinson Story; played the title role in TV's Beulah)
  • Fay Helm (The Wolf Man)

The gist of it: Smartaleck Willie Peck (Kelly) pulls a stupid frog-related prank right before he's supposed to leave for summer camp, so his parents (Mitchell & Bryant) punish him by making him stay home with the maid, Cassey (Beavers), while they go on vacation. That means he won't be able to beat his rival, Herman (Rentschler), at the camp's obstacle course and bring home the coveted trophy for a third straight year. But Willie secretly gets each of his parents to relent, and both wind up giving him money for train fare to camp.

Willie and his eleven pals, including tough little Pee Wee (McFarland), have some time to kill before the train to camp, so they decide to take in the circus visiting their town. After a great deal of haggling and confusion over the entrance fee, Willie ends up spending all his money to cover the cost of admission for himself and his friends. While the other eleven head to camp on the train, Willie stays with the circus and gets involved in territorial war between bareback-riding child sensation Fleurette (Gillis) and scheming, jealous Myrna (Hume), who is the assistant to incompetent lion tamer Arthur Bailey (Kennedy) and also the wife of the circus' manager Mr. Daro (Demarest). When Myrna sabotages Fleurette, sidelining the horse-riding wunderkind before a big show, Willie has to impersonate the girl and perform in her place before making a mad dash via chariot (!) to the camp to compete in the big race.

Insincere Bart Simpson lays on the charm in "Kamp Krusty."
My take: Perhaps you've heard of Peck's Bad Boy. Created by the 17th Governor of the Great State of Wisconsin, George Wilbur Peck, the mischievous young lad debuted in a series of humorous newspaper articles in the 1870s. The character caught on, and the enterprising author/politician gave the public more and more (and more!) of him for about three decades. Before, during and after his political career, G.W. Peck churned out one volume after another about his infamous proto-Bart-Simpson, finally conking out with Peck's Bad Boy in an Airship in 1908.

The fictional boy then hopscotched to plays, films, and even a gender-switched TV series, Peck's Bad Girl (1959-1960) starring Patty McCormack, the homicidal demon-child of The Bad Seed. In 1921, five years after Gov. Peck's death, our pal Jackie Coogan starred in a full-length silent film version of Peck's Bad Boy. It was remade as a talkie in 1934 with the very similar-sounding child star Jackie Cooper, a veteran of the Our Gang series. And four years after that came this quasi-sequel, based on a book of the same title that Gov. Peck published in 1905, when he was nearing the end of his Bad Boy cycle. I think you'll agree, that's a whole lotta Peck's Bad Boy.

Was there any juice left in this particular turnip by 1938? Judging by Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus, the surprising answer is yes! I'm not sure how well it works as a comedy, but it's so packed with bizarre incidents, wild characters, and completely insane plot twists that it easily holds the viewer's attention 75 years after its release!

As a diehard fan of The Simpsons, I was fascinated by the plot of this film because it so clearly presaged two of that series' most famous episodes, "Kamp Krusty" and "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," both from the fabled fourth season. In "Kamp Krusty," Homer threatens to keep Bart from going to Krusty the Clown's summer camp because of a dismal report card, but he then relents and lets Bart go anyway. In "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," just five episodes later, Homer and Marge agree that they've spoiled Bart by letting him get away with irresponsible behavior and insincere apologies, so Homer vows to truly punish Bart by preventing him from seeing the most popular movie of the year.

The parenting debate Mr. and Mrs. Simpson have in "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie" is very much like the one Mr. and Mrs. Peck have in Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus, except the Pecks simply admit to spoiling their son and laugh it off, while Homer and Marge actually try to deal with the problem. I was further reminded of "teletherapist" Dr. Will Miller's review of the Dennis the Menace TV series (1959-1963) in his book Why We Watch: Killing the Gilligan Within (Fireside, 1996). Please note Miller's use of the term "bad boy."

Jay North as Dennis.
A smokescreen suggesting Dennis was an incorrigible child, this show is, in fact, not about a bad boy. It is, rather, a show about bad parents. The Mitchells are weak, indecisive, and unable to set appropriate boundaries. As in most of these cases, what is not understood by many parents is that permissiveness is not an excess of kindness. It is rather a cruel form of abandonment . . . Of course, parenting is wearisome! Certainly your children's boundless energy and incessant pressing exhaust you. But there is no option, you simply must endure. It is an act of love. Children need you to set the boundaries because they cannot see the fences on their own. Continuing to give in to their immature, developmentally unformed will has dire consequences for you later. You will regret it for the rest of your life! (pp. 126-127)

Even if you don't care about Dennis Mitchell or Bart Simpson, there is still plenty to hold your attention in this utterly berserk film. The modern-day viewer will likely interpret many of the scenes in Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus as examples of child abuse, animal abuse, or both. Did parents supervise their children at all in 1938? Nowadays, a kid can't even ride his bike around the block without first donning full-body armor, but standards were apparently lax during the Roosevelt years, so Willie Peck and his buddies (sort of a junior version of the East Side Kids, minus the "Noo Yawk" street slang) get to do all sorts of risky, borderline-illegal stuff.

Fleurette's dangerous horse-riding act seems like a gross misuse of both the child and the animal, dragging them from town to town so they can perform for half-empty audiences under a filthy tent. Yet we are supposed to side with the child's mother (Helm), a former circus star herself now living vicariously through her daughter/meal ticket, in the battle for circus supremacy against Myrna. Why? Watch this movie and tell me what makes Fleurette and her mother any morally superior to Myrna. There's a fine line between this mother-daughter pair and the one in TV's infamous Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

If that's not enough, there is a major subplot in this film revolving around Mrs. Peck's sleeping pills, which (through convoluted circumstances) wind up in her son's possession. Willie feeds some of them to the circus lions, and rest are consumed by Pee Wee after Willie tells him the pills are "candy." Think about that a moment. "Spanky" from The Little Rascals is gobbling down sleeping pills like M&M's. That sounds like the setup for a tasteless cutaway joke on Family Guy, featuring its controversial "Herbert the Pervert" character. Yet, back in 1938, this was no big deal.

Edgar "Slow Burn" Kennedy
Is it funny: Yes, though not always in the manner the film intended. It's the film's audacity and oddness that made me laugh more than its jokes. The film gives plenty of screen time to the acrobatic clowns in the circus, but this only reminded me of Here Comes the Circus, an unsettling short film once featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Tommy Kelly's "wise guy" characterization got on my nerves at first, but I got some laughs out of the genuinely-funny scene in which he dresses in drag as Fleurette and does a hapless, clumsy imitation of her act while dangling from a wire. Kelly spends pretty much the last third of the film in a dress, which was a bold choice for one of pop culture's most celebrated "tough kids."

Fleurette herself, though meant to be a serious and sympathetic character, made me laugh more than Willie Peck because she was such a little drama queen. When her act is given a slightly-less desirable time slot one night, she treats it like a major career setback. And there's one moment in which Willie's shenanigans somehow "cure" Fleurette's injured leg, and she throws her crutches away like she's just been blessed by a faith healer at a revival meeting.

Marx Brothers fans will dig the opportunity to see famed comedic foil Edgar Kennedy do his patented "slow burn" routine a few times, and Kennedy even participates in the ludicrous chariot scene that sets up the almost-as-ludicrous obstacle course finale. Kennedy also gets the movie's best line. When the chariot speeds around a dangerous curve, Kennedy asks Kelly, "You didn't want to live forever, did you?"

My grade: B

P.S. - As for the issue of racial stereotyping in this film, Louise Beavers plays yet another mammy-type domestic character, and the script makes her say things like "Is you is or is you ain't?" She also mispronounces "scram" as "scrum" several times. But Beavers is a very talented and accomplished actress, and her intelligence shines through even as this cliched character. Cassey seems like the most reasonable, levelheaded person in the Peck household and the only one to recognize what a brat the title character truly is.