Watching 1939: What a Life (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

Betty Field and Jackie Cooper in “What a Life” (1939)

1939 film:  What a Life (1939)

Release date:  Oct. 6, 1939

Cast:  Jackie Cooper, Betty Field, James Corner, John Howard, Janice Logan, Hedda Hopper, Sidney Miller, Vaughan Glaser, Lionel Stander, Dorothy Stickney, Kathleen Lockhart, Sheila Ryan, Janet Waldo, Marge Champion (uncredited)

Studio:  Paramount Pictures

Director:  Jay Theodore Reed

Henry Aldrich (Cooper) is a flustered teenager who always gets blamed for what other people do and is considered the worst student at school. He also gets accused for stealing musical instruments. Barbara Peterson (Field) likes Henry, though he is oblivious. Barbara isn’t popular or considered pretty because of her braces and flat hair. When she gets a permanent and her braces off, Henry’s enemy George (Corner) asks Barbara to the school dance first.

1939 Notes:
• The first of 11 Henry Aldrich films. Henry Aldrich also had a radio program from 1938 to 1948, and a television show from 1949 to 1951.
• Jackie Cooper starred in the first two and Jimmy Lyndon played Henry Aldrich in the remaining nine films. “What a Life” is one of six films Cooper starred in that were released in 1939.
• Betty Field’s first film. She was in two films released in 1939, the other was “Of Mice and Men.”

Betty Field and Jackie Cooper in “What a Life”

Other Trivia:
• James Corner and Betty Field are reprising their roles from the 1938 Broadway play, “What a Life” by Clifford Goldsmith. Vaughan Glaser also reprised his role as the school principal.
• James Corner plays George, who is the antagonist in the story and bullies Henry Aldrich. This was only Corner’s second of three films. He was killed in World War II.
• Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder worked on the screenplay
• William Holden was originally wanted for the role of Henry Aldrich, according to On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder by Ed Sikov
• Dancer, actress Marge Champion has an uncredited role as a student at the dance.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
This was my first time watching a Henry Aldrich film, a series that I have long wanted to see.

In a way, it could be compared to the Andy Hardy series released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. But in comparison, Henry isn’t popular like Andy. He’s a nervous and awkward teenager who gets picked on at school. He isn’t academically inclined, which makes him even more nervous since his father wants Henry to go to Princeton.

The first Henry Aldrich film was released in 1939 and spawned 11 films that followed. Based on a Broadway play, the film focus was shifted to Henry. While Jackie Cooper played Henry Aldrich in the first two films, Jimmy Lyndon took over the role for the remainder of the series.

The year 1939 started off Betty Field’s film career. At 23, playing teenage Barbara Pearson was her first film role. Field originated this role on Broadway. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to her second film role, the “tart” (as the book refers to her) in the film version of “Of Mice and Men.”

The play largely takes place in the principal’s office. While the film is different, actor Vaughan Glaser reprised his stage role as the school principal. James Corner plays the film’s antagonist and also reprised his stage role. Corner was only in three films, starting in 1939, and was killed in 1944 during World War II.

I enjoy teen films of the 1930s and 1940s, and I enjoyed my first Henry Aldrich experience. However, I did find this film a little frustrating. Henry’s antagonist, popular bully George, always blamed Henry for something – whether it be stealing instruments or giving a teacher the hot foot – and the staff always believed George! Just because Henry is extremely awkward doesn’t make him a bad kid.

Henry also gets suspended for 60 days for cheating. 60 days! This seems really extreme.

Another interesting highlight is actress turned gossip columnist Hedda Hopper plays Henry Aldrich’s mother. Like Cooper, Hopper is only in the first two films.

The Henry Aldrich films haven’t been commercially released (yet), so I purchased these as someone’s DVRed DVDs. Each runs only a little over an hour so they are fun and as well as quick!

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