Sunday, December 6, 2015

“My goodness…’just because’ ain’t no reason…”

Margaret Sidney—the nom de plume of author Harriett Mulford Stone Lothrop—wrote nearly thirty books between 1881 and 1916, and among her most popular works was a series of children’s stories that centered around a fictional family known as the Peppers.  Five Little Peppers and How They Grew introduced us to this clan; a poor but proud household whose fortunes are turned around when the youngest child, Phronsie (yes, that is the kid’s name—ayyyyyyyy—it’s short for “Sophronia”), is kidnapped by an organ grinder but rescued by young J.H. “Jasper” King, Jr., the son of wealthy bidnessman J. Horatio King, Sr.  The Kings get to know the Family Pepper and eventually become their benefactors when the family is invited to move in with them…because this sort of scenario happens all the time in real life.

The popularity of the Pepper books (there were a slew of sequels and follow-ups in the wake of How They Grew) attracted the attention of Columbia Pictures, who instituted a short film series in 1939 beginning with the appropriately titled Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.  The movie takes quite a few liberties with the source novel (anyone praying that Fonzie Phronsie really is kidnapped by an organ grinder is going to disappointed) and the movies that followed How They Grew also drew on plots concocted by studio scribes rather than anything Sidney dreamed up.

In the first movie, we meet little Potsie Phronsie (Dorothy Ann Seese) along with her siblings: the bland eldest son, Ben (Charles Peck); whiny Joey (Tommy Bond); equally whiny Davie (Jimmy Leake in the first one—Bobby Larson in the remaining three); and Edith Fellows as the eldest daughter, Polly.  The films were fashioned with Fellows in mind (Edith was a popular child star at the time…sort of Columbia’s Deanna Durbin) but it wasn’t too long before Seese started to threaten Fellows in the opening credits department (she’s second-billed beginning with the sophomore outing, 1940’s Five Little Peppers at Home) because she functioned as Columbia’s imitation Shirley Temple.

The Peppers are headed up by a family matriarch played by Dorothy Peterson (if she has a first name I didn’t catch it; she’s referred to only as “Mrs. Pepper” in the credits which gives you an idea of how integral she is to the series) whose husband died in a copper mine cave-in some time earlier.  He left a half-interest in the mine to daughter Polly; the other half is owned by the wealthy J.H. King (Clarence Kolb), whose grandson Jasper (Ronald Sinclair) befriends the children when Polly and Joey turn up at the King residence one day looking for a client who’s supposed to pay Polly for a dress she’s mended.  The money will be used to buy the fixin’s for a birthday cake for Mrs. P, and when the two children learn that the lady with the dress money is no longer at the King’s but somewhere else sixty miles away, Joey has this reaction:

I cannot even begin to explain how mortified I was to see this.  This is Tommy Freakin’ Bond crying his eyes out, ferchrissake—“Butch” from the Our Gang comedies.  If Butch ever needed $1.25 for cake ingredients, he’d just have “Woim” beat up a kid for his lunch money and problem solved.  I like Bond—not only for his work in Our Gang but in the shorts he appeared in with such funsters as Andy Clyde and Charley Chase—but his constant belly-aching in the Pepper series will get on your nerves after a fashion.  (Oh, here’s a neat drinking game you can play while watching these films: down a shot every time Tommy says “Gee whillikers…”  You’ll be Lillian Roth by the time the movie is over, I promise you.)

But I digress.  Jasper tells his granddad about his new friends, and the wily old bastid puts two and two together to conclude that this is the family he needs to schmooze to get the other half of the mine.  He showers them with presents—springs for a new stove to replace their old one—and for his efforts, winds up trapped with the rugrats when the house is quarantined for measles.

Ha!  You have to share a bed with the kids!  That’ll learn ya, you miserable capitalist swine!  King spends so much time with the Pepper brood that his crustiness begins to dissipate and he develops a genuine fondness for the kids.  (There’s a laugh-out-loud scene earlier in the movie where he’s invited to bake bread with the family and he’s a bit crestfallen to learn that the bill of fare consists solely of beans…which his doctor has told him he cannot have.  Davie: “Oh, that’s all right, Mr. King—we won’t tell your doctor.”)  Though his intention was to screw over the family and snap up the mine at a rock-bottom price, he’s changed his tune (no doubt influenced by an episode where Polly is afflicted with temporary blindness) despite some initial concern from Polly, who overhears King discussing the mine deal with a man named Townsend (Paul Everton), a competitor.  King offers to give Polly more than what Townsend is offering but she tells him all she wants is to be partners.  King agrees.

With Five Little Peppers at Home, the child actors are introduced during the opening credits by having them emerge from gi-normous pepper shakers.  Awwwww...
Five Little Peppers at Home seamlessly picks up where the previous film left off—but there’s a darker tone to the sequel, as the copper mine owned by King and Polly doesn’t appear to be the financial windfall they had counted on…on account of no one can locate any copper.  King has sunk so much money into this boondoggle that the bank has no choice but to foreclose on his own home…and so Home sees the wealthy bidnessman moving back in with his adopted family into their old residence at “Gusty Corners” when the stress of going belly-up bankrupt causes him to fall ill.  (In the books, Mrs. Pepper is made King’s housekeeper—and I chuckled at how this was excised from the movie series, ostensibly because it’s kind of bad form when you have to move back into your maid’s domicile.)  This relocation has some disturbing overtones; in How They Grew, King has a manservant who answers to “Martin” who’s played by Leonard Carey but essayed by Rex Evans for the remainder of the franchise.  Martin asks King if he can accompany his employer to his new digs even though King can’t afford to pay him.  (Again, because things like happen in real life all the time.)

Does this little prat get on your wick after a while?  Correctamundo!

Martin explains to J.H. that he, too, has grown fond of the children—apparently to the point where it’s eventually decided that he’ll sleep with Joey and Davie once they’ve moved back to Gusty Corners.  Now…I could probably understand this situation if it were a temporary one (or even if they were all related)…but this guy is still sleeping with the kids by the fourth movie, Five Little Peppers in Trouble (1940)—and the only reason why he’s not sharing a bed in Out West with the Peppers (1940; the third entry) is because the Pepper clan is on a trip in the wilds of Oregon.  (Regarding Trouble, I’d be a little worried about the trouble Martin’s going to be in when the authorities get wind of the G.C. sleeping arrangements.)  The narrative in Home goes further south when it’s revealed that before Martin became a “gentleman’s gentleman” (and dues-paying member of NAMBLA), he was an amateur geologist.  He becomes convinced that there is a vein of copper in that mine, and he takes the six kids on a “picnic” to try and locate what all the engineers and experts King has been paying for months cannot.

Disturbing, Just...disturbing.
The picnic goes sour when Martin and five of the kids are trapped in a cave-in at the mine (Ben is the lucky one…and of course, that doofus has to go back for help—honestly, I can’t catch a break in any of these movies) but on the bright side, he does inadvertently discover the vein of copper, and everything comes out in the wash.  “Grandpa” King even vows he’s going to lay waste to the current Pepper domicile and have a new house built, big enough to accommodate everyone.  (Hopefully this will eliminate the Martin-Joey-Davie sleepovers.)  Though by Pepper Misadventure #3…

The Burger King is further up the street...and the Weenie King lives in that apartment vacated by Gerry and Tom Jeffers before they went to Palm Beach.
…the farthest he’s got is a new mailbox.  Actually, Out West with the Peppers begins with the family on their way back from a trip to Paris.  Nothing unusual about this, of course…but you’ll soon see why things are a little askew when I discuss the final chapter of the movie Peppers.  The return home is necessitated because Mrs. Pepper has taken ill during the voyage and once examined by a doctor, it’s determined she needs a change in climate.  So Polly writes a letter to Aunt Alice (Helen Brown) in Oregon, asking if the family might stay with her and her husband Jim (Victor Kilian) so that Mrs. P can quickly be on the mend.  The Peppers’ visit will be complicated by the fact that Jim is a real douchenozzle; he indulges in strong drink from time to time, and at one point in Out West he even smacks Alice around.

There are a number of noticeable changes in the series with Out West with the Peppers.  First off, Clarence Kolb is out and Pierre Watkin (he of the “hearty handclasps” in W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick) is in as Mr. King.  Second—and I don’t know if this is some sort of Our Gang influence or what—but the Pepper children have really upped their bratitude in this one: it’s almost like they were raised by wolves.  (Unfortunately, they were not eaten by same.)  First, Davie and Joey decide to walk on top of the ship rails as they head back to the good ol’ U.S.A…

Gosh, kids...don't fall.  That would break my heart.

…then, while waiting for the train at the station, little Moxie Phronsie lets a bunch of chickens loose that just happen to be caged for the purpose of allowing her to let them loose.  (The family even climbs aboard the Oregon Express before all the pullets have been rounded up, letting some other schmuck deal with the problem…)

…Ben draws the unlucky straw in the “Who-will-sleep-with-Joey-and-Davie?” sweepstakes, and an unruly pillow fight erupts…

…and the pizza de resistance, Davie and Joey create a molasses mess at the local general store. 

Now…if the storekeeper (Walter Soderling) was one of those disagreeably dyspeptic types that so commonly populated films of that era, I’d get a chuckle out of the molasses spill because nothing generates more mirth than an authority figure getting his comeuppance.  But he doesn’t do anything to provoke the kids’ shenanigans, and there’s no explanation for why the Pepper children suddenly decided to get in touch with their hellion side.  Same goes for “Uncle Jim”—I’m not excusing his drinking or wife beating, but I can certainly sympathize with his surly attitude around the kids, considering they’re about as well-behaved as the freshman class at St. Trinian’s.  (They let a skunk loose in his bedroom at one point, if that helps any.)

The climax of Out West involves another idyllic picnic scene that is quickly greeted by storm clouds when the kids are trapped on a makeshift raft built for them by gregarious Swede Olé (Emory Parnell—whom I did not recognize the first time I watched this) and are headed for a treacherous log plume.  I’ll save you the trouble: they’re rescued, and their surprising champion is Jim, who is helpless to watch his heart melt in the presence of little Maisie Phronsie and her demonic siblings.

The final feature in the Peppers series was Five Little Peppers in Trouble, and the plot of this movie in inspired by a subplot in the second film, where Jasper’s Aunt Martha (Laura Treadwell) makes noises about removing her nephew from the “squalor” that is Gusty Corners.  Martha is up to her tricks again (though she’s played in Trouble by Kathleen Howard, another Fieldsian regular), threatening to get custody of Jasp through a court order because the senior and junior King are still living in the Pepper house (the new place is still under construction).  J.H. (Watkin again) has a diabolical scheme: he’ll enroll Jasper in a private school where Martha can’t find him.  For reasons unexplained, the Pepper children have to go, too…though I know the real reason why they have to go—otherwise, we’d have no movie.

Trouble is basically the old “poor-kids-mistreated-by-rich-snobs” plot trotted out for sixty-three minutes; the Pepper kids are as welcome at the exclusive Landsdowne Private School as smallpox, and despite overtures from one or two decent kids (Antonia Oland plays a student who befriends Fellows’ Polly) the children have a perfectly miserable time while they’re there.  The “danger” climax, interestingly enough, does not put the Peppers in peril; a trio of revolting female students drain the swimming pool shortly before the other girls sneak out for a midnight dip and two of the students wind up injured, with Polly framed for the deed.  Told that she and her siblings will have to leave, Polly gives a passionate speech about how awful it was for them so they’re glad to go and stick it up your ass while you’re at it.  (The actress who plays sympathetic teacher Miss Roland is the same one who played the kids’ Aunt Alice in the previous picture, which allowed me to yell “Nepotism!” at the screen.)

The kid on the left is Freddie Mercer, a talented boy singer remembered here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear as the film version of "Leeeeeroy" in The Great Gildersleeve movies...

...and the girl at the piano is Our Gang alumnus Shirley Jean Rickert,  When you know that Rickert became a striptease dancer in her adult years, her character's name of "Kiki" is pretty risible here.
Trouble wraps up with “Grandpa” King announcing that at the hearing to decide whether or not Jasper can continue living with him and the Pepper Family, the judge suggested he take his grandson to Paris…which is how Out West begins, with the family’s return.  I found this kind of curious, only because it would have made more sense to release Trouble before Out West for continuity’s sake (Jasper and Grandpa are only in the first eleven minutes of Out West anyway).  (I thought it might have been possible that Trouble was filmed before Out West and just mistakenly released afterward…but the info at doesn’t bear that out—particularly since the original title of Out West was Five Little Peppers Abroad.)

I know that my intense distaste for child actors will jaundice my appreciation for the “Five Little Peppers” series…so let me tick off the bright spots.  I like Edith Fellows, one of those kiddie thesps who managed not to be too cloying and she also sings well (she warbles Brahms’ Lullaby to little Swayze Phronsie in the first Peppers movie, and does a nice rendition of The Blue Danube Waltz in Trouble)…and I think the subtly suggested romance between her and Ronald Sinclair’s Jasper is kind of sweet.  (Sinclair was kind of the poor man’s Freddie Bartholomew…he later had a nice turn in one of my favorite Errol Flynn films, Desperate Journey [1942].)  Since the Pepper films were Columbia efforts, you get to see some of their players in small roles: Bruce Bennett (as a chauffeur in the first two films), Dorothy Comingore, Jack Rice, Ann Doran, Ernie Adams, Eddie Laughton, and Don Beddoe (plus the ubiquitous Bess Flowers), to name a few.  Director Charles Barton, who would later go on to oversee many of Abbott & Costello’s best pictures, held the reins on all four Pepper vehicles and demonstrated competency throughout despite the nausea and clear risk of diabetes.  If the movies make the rounds on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ again, those of you who are suckers for family-oriented films will certainly enjoy them.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Your stamina required to watch all these movies is amazing. This made me spit cranberry juice all over my keyboard: "If Butch ever needed $1.25 for cake ingredients, he’d just have “Woim” beat up a kid for his lunch money and problem solved."

policomic said...

I doubt I would ever watch these movies anyway, but it's certain they could never live up to your hilarious recap.

Agreed on Edith Fellows, too--definitely one of the less annoying kid actors of the era.

ClassicBecky said...

I have a really old, old, like really old, like first edition old copy of The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. It's in sad shape (it's actually been READ, something book collectors don't like). That's the only one I ever read, actually. I liked it, but then I was pre-speech at the time and couldn't tell anybody. After I learned to talk, I had moved on to The X-Bar-X Boys, also very old falling-apart books. (I grew up on old book mold.) So I had no further interest in Phronsie/Schmonsie. I do want to get a gander at one of the movies, though, just to say I did.

Brent McKee said...

Of course taking a trip to Paris in September 1940 (When "Five Little Peppers in Trouble" was released) might not have been the healthiest move for anyone involved. I can't imagine that "Five Little Peppers and the Thousand Year Reich" would have done boffo box office.

Robin Ogle said...

Love this post! I too have a very old and tattered copy of The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. I loved it growing up, I read it to death! I don't know why or how I have never seen these movies but I do, awfully, think I need to.

Linda said...

I've read (and have, in some form or other, all the Pepper books). The kids are just the opposite in the books as they are in the movies; except for Joel's occasional naughtiness, they're all perfect and wouldn't do a thing wrong to upset their "Mamsie." Phronsie is cutesy no matter when, but she's nowhere as bad in the books as in these movies, which I recorded off TCM and watched and laughed through them, especially with Martin sleeping with the boys. (!!!!) I ended up not keeping them because they were really awful.

BTW, Mrs. Pepper was never the Kings' maid in the books!

I have a web page about the Peppers books:

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Linda gently reminded me:

BTW, Mrs. Pepper was never the Kings' maid in the books!

I will defer to the fact that you've read all of the Pepper adventures in book form and sit corrected. (A couple of sources I consulted say Mrs. P was, but they may have a different interpretation of domestics.)

I'm still having sleepless nights about the sleeping arrangements in that house.