Notes on "Peck's Bad Boy" (1934)

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Harold Aherne
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Notes on "Peck's Bad Boy" (1934)

Unread post by Harold Aherne » Fri Nov 13, 2009 9:11 pm

Peck’s Bad Boy, a Sol Lesser production released through Fox, is a picture whose outcome can be guessed at without too much effort and whose characters are more of the stock variety than genuine portraits, but it is an unpretentious effort and worth the required 68 minute investment.

The action opens on a father-son banquet, with William Peck (Jackie Cooper) receiving an award for his essay on his father Henry (Thomas Meighan). The two have been living happily on their own with the cook (Gertrude Howard) and jack-of-many-trades Duffy (O. P. Heggie) rounding out the household. Henry tells Bill that they will soon be joined by his Aunt Lily (Henry’s sister-in-law, played by Dorothy Peterson) and her son Horace (Jackie Searle) owing to financial difficulties on their part. They are pretty much as far apart from the Pecks as you could imagine; Lily is filled with social pretensions and has turned her son into an eager-to-please snob (he’s carrying a Time magazine under his arm when we first see him!). Even Lily’s Pekingese brings change to the Peck’s home, for their mutt Elmer is consigned to the outdoors after he menaces Lily’s dog. Henry is only trying to be chivalrous, of course, but Bill misinterprets his accommodations towards Lily and Horace as a tacit rejection of him. We soon learn that Bill is adopted, a fact that he does not know, and which Lily and Horace use to wage subtle psychological warfare against Bill. In spite of Bill’s efforts, Horace disdains the neighborhood gang and slowly drives a wedge between Bill and his father. Horace always gets better grades, has better manners, and is better-groomed than Bill, and Henry begins taking his son to task in a way he apparently never had previously. To get even with his cousin, Bill puts a vial of ants in his dress suit—which Horace discovers and then puts in Henry’s clothes. Bill gets all the blame, of course, and is confined to his room. Horace then taunts him with the secret of his origins, and Bill tries unsuccessfully to fight him. He makes an abortive try at confronting Lily and Horace in front of his father, but his directness is mistaken for rudeness. Feeling totally rejected, he runs away to Duffy’s cabin, where Duffy counsels Bill that he shouldn’t let Lily and Horace get away with beating him down. I won’t spoil the ending of the movie, although you can probably imagine how it goes.

Jackie Cooper does an acceptable job as the bad boy of the title, although he is never particularly naughty. Cooper has a habit over-reading his lines so that all the emotion is wrung out of them and the audience has no room to interpret what is left, and this makes him a somewhat obvious performer. Still, he brings a proper amount of energy and charm to the part without adopting the overbearing style of—well, certain other child actors of the time.

Thomas Meighan is the reason I watched the picture in the first place, and his performance is very good indeed. He and Cooper have a nice rapport, and in spite of having no children of his own he takes to the role of a father very kindly and memorably. His voice is perhaps 95% like I imagined it to be, neither too soft nor too gruff, a low tenor that complements his looks and personality quite well. Other latter-day reviews have commented on how tired he looks in the film, and while he does look somewhat older than in The Racket his energy is not much different than it ever was. Getting ants in his clothes is one of the worse indignities one of his screen characters ever suffered, and his reaction as he feels something odd while sitting in church is hilarious. This scene probably should have went on a bit longer to build up the comic effects.

Jackie Searl turns in a better performance than Cooper, whether because his was the superior talent or simply because nasty kids are always more fun to watch than the wholesome ones (cf. Bright Eyes and These Three). Searl gradually turns the character from a harmless nerd into a vicious usurper, and such a transformation is an impressive achievement for a 12 or 13-year-old. It’s a pity that Searl never became a bigger star. The rest of the cast is generally good as well, particularly Howard and Heggie. Dorothy Peterson struck me as rather annoying, but I haven’t seen enough of her work to know whether it was the performer or the character.

As to the quality of the picture overall, Peck’s Bad Boy is one of many instances of a wicked step-family appearing to take over the rightful place of another relative, although since Bill is adopted Lily and Horace have no compunction about claiming what they feel is their place in the Peck home. It's odd that Henry doesn't see through their manipulation; he doesn't start to get it until his son runs away and he notices that Lily has swapped their bedrooms (Bill's was the larger and Horace had been eyeing it since he moved in). The plot is wrapped up rather quickly, and we might wonder how Lily and Horace are actually confronted. But even if this picture does not break outstandingly new soil, it does allow a great screen actor one last memorable role and a younger actor the chance to show what he could do--and should have done more of--as well.


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Unread post by drednm » Fri Nov 13, 2009 10:53 pm

I thought this was a decent film, good chemistry between Jackie Cooper and Thomas Meighan and solid support from O.P. Heggie as the hermit guy and, in an offbeat role, Dorothy Peterson as the nasty aunt (she's almost always cast as the dowdy mousy wife).
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