Watching 1939: Boys’ Reformatory (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.

1939 film:
Boys’ Reformatory (1939)

Release date:
May 1, 1939

Cast:
Frankie Darro, Grant Withers, Lillian Elliott, Frank Coghlan Jr., David Durand, Warren McCollum, Ben Welden, Pat Flaherty, George Offerman Jr.

Studio:
Monogram Pictures

Director:
Howard Bretherton

Plot:
Tommy Ryan (Darro) has lived with the O’Mearas most of his life since becoming an orphan. He views Mrs. O’Meara (Elliott) as his mother and thinks of Eddie O’Meara (Coghlan Jr.) as his brother. When Eddie gets mixed up with a group of rough teenagers and goes in on a fur theft job, Tommy takes the blame, not wanting to break the heart of Mrs. O’Meara. Tommy is sentenced with serving time in reform school until he’s 21 years old, and he makes Eddie promise that he has to stay out of trouble as a trade. However, Eddie also ends up in the reformatory.

boys reformatory2

Frank Coghlan Jr., Frankie Darro and David Durand

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– Frankie Darro was in two films released in 1939.
– Frank Coghlan Jr. was in 15 films released in 1939.
– Grant Withers was in six films released in 1939.
– Lillian Elliott was in six films released in 1939.
– Warren McCollum was in five films released in 1939.
– Ben Welden was in 11 films released in 1939.
– Pat Flaherty was in 16 films released in 1939.
– George Offerman Jr. was in 16 films released in 1939.

boys refortmatory

Frankie Darro and Frank Coghlan Jr.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
In the late-1930s, with character like the Dead End Kids and the Bowery Boys, there was no shortage of teens in trouble and juvenile delinquent films.

Frankie Darro was no stranger to these types of role. Though he previously found fame at Warner Bros., by the late 1930s, Darro found himself at the low budget studio, Monogram Pictures. Matching with the bad boy fad and films preaching prison reform, his films included WANTED BY THE POLICE (1938), TOUGH KID (1938), JUVENILE COURT (1938) and BOYS’ REFORMATORY (1939).

Though Frankie Darro was 22 by 1939 and already had started playing adult roles, his height and boyish looks kept him in teenage roles.

In BOYS’ REFORMATORY (1939), Darro plays Tommy, a good kid with a steady job. Orphaned as a child, he has lived with the O’Mearas for several years, viewing them as his true family. When Eddie O’Meara gets mixed up in crime, Tommy takes the wrap for him and goes to reform school in his place. Tommy does this under one condition: He didn’t want Mrs. O’Meara to be hurt when she found out her son was a criminal, so Eddie must stay out of trouble, or Tommy will spill the beans. Being sent to reform school until he’s 21, Tommy finds that the other kids are tough. But the real tough guys are the guards, especially sadistic Mr. Barnes (Pat Flaherty) who physically abuses the boys. Dr. Owens (Grant Withers) feels kindness and opportunity may help many of the boys more, but he’s fighting a losing battle.

While BOYS’ REFORMATORY is certainly low budget, it also is sort of difficult to watch and is frustrating, as many 1930s prison reform films can be. It was interesting to see Pat Flaherty in a larger role. Often times, his name may be in the credits, but his role is brief. Flaherty’s character of Mr. Barnes is one of the main antagonists of the film – though he’s not alone. You also have to worry about the crime syndicate on the outside. The film shows that no matter what – these kids can’t win or get a chance inside or outside of jail.

By the early 1940s, many of the juvenile delinquent films were on their way out, especially as the United States was entering World War II. Particularly, youth was portrayed in a better manner, as young men were the ones who were needed to enlist.

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