The Beloved Brat (1938)

vt Girls on Probation; vt A Dangerous Age
US / 62 minutes / bw / First National, Warner Dir: Arthur Lubin Scr: Lawrence Kimble Story: Jean Negulesco Cine: George Barnes Cast: Bonita Granville, Dolores Costello, Donald Crisp, Natalie Moorhead, Lucille Gleason, Donald Briggs, Emmett Vogan, Loia Cheaney, Leo Gorcey, Ellen Lowe, Mary Doyle, Paul Everton, Bernice Pilot, Stymie Beard, Meredith White, Gloria Fischer

On the face of it, this looks to be yet another comedy of rebellious youth—and with an appropriately lightweight star to reinforce that impression—but in reality there’s a whole lot more going on in The Beloved Brat than you might expect. And Bonita Granville, while hardly reaching Shakespearian heights, demonstrates that she was a weightier actress than her reputation might suggest.

On the eve of her thirteenth birthday, Roberta Morgan (Granville) is the epitome of the spoiled brat. And it’s hardly any wonder: Daddy, Henry Morgan (Crisp)—whom the screenplay bizarrely rechristens John Morgan later on when another character called Henry turns up—is totally absorbed in his business of making oodles of money, and regards the raising of Roberta as the domain of his wife Evelyn (Moorhead). Trouble is, Evelyn is entirely self-absorbed, devoting all her time to her social life and to fashionable charities that are in reality self-serving; she has no interest in her daughter, and is prone to fits of the vapors whenever thwarted.

Bonita Granville as Roberta

The only person in the household who seems to care much about Roberta is Daddy’s assistant, Jerome Williams (Briggs). But there’s a certain oddity, at least to modern eyes, about Williams’s relationship with Roberta. Witness this conversation on the morning of the girl’s thirteenth birthday:

Williams: “Many happy returns, Miss Morgan.”
Roberta: “Mmm, stockings! Oh, Williams, my first pair!”
Williams: “Just what every young lady should have. Now, you’re to think of me every time you wear them and wish me luck.”

Natalie Moorhead and Donald Crisp as Roberta’s parents

Stuck in the Morgans’ luxury mansion with only beastly butler Nolan Jenkins (Vogan) and his wife (Cheaney) for company, Roberta is like a caged bird—and indeed there’s a heavily symbolic scene where she releases her own caged bird into the freedom of the garden.

Donald Briggs as Jerome Williams

Emmett Vogan as Nolan Jenkins

It’s in the garden that she runs into a little boy, Pinkie White (Beard), and his kid sister Bella (White). After an encounter with bully Spike Matz (Gorcey, star of the Dead End Kids and related series, beginning with 1937’s DEAD END) leaves Roberta wet and muddied, the White kids take her home to their mom (Pilot) for cleaning and an infusion of morale-boosting cake.

In 1938 in the US South, these scenes must have been a very big deal indeed, because Roberta appears barely to notice that her newfound pals are black: they’re just other kids, so far as she’s concerned, and are lucky enough to have a mom who very obviously adores them. And the Whites likewise see Roberta as just another kid.

Stymie Beard as Pinkie . . .

. . . and Meredith White as his little sister Bella

Someone who does notice the color difference, though, is the vile Jenkins, who physically hurls Pinkie out of the house when Roberta tries to entertain him to supper.

The bad blood between Roberta and Jenkins gets worse. Later, as they fight in the car, they cause an accident that kills another driver; Roberta perjures herself to get Jenkins imprisoned for manslaughter.

When the perjury’s revealed, Roberta is treated leniently by Judge Henry Harris (Everton), who makes no bones about the fact that the child’s problems are a consequence of her appalling parenting; this washes off the parents like water off a duck’s back. Roberta’s sent to the Lawndale School for Girls, which has a good reputation for reclaiming “lost souls.” There headmistress Helen Cosgrove (Costello) and sidekick Miss Brewster (Gleason) try to instill discipline into their new charge, and eventually manage to restore her—and, even more impressively, her parents—to normalcy.

Dolores Costello as Helen Cosgrove

This section of the movie is for the most part pretty gooey, to be honest, and made even more so by the early signs of romance between Helen and Williams, but there are moments where it bares its teeth, as when the Morgan parents overhear Roberta spell out to Helen the very good reasons why she’d rather stay in school than go home and why the prospect of never seeing either parent again bothers her not one whit.

Yes, obviously, there’s reconciliation in the finale, as epitomized by a grand party—with lots of cake—for Roberta and all her friends, not just those from school but also Pinkie and Bella. Indeed, it’s taken as a symbol of the Morgan parents’ epiphany that they now have an integrated household staff and Roberta’s black friends mix happily with her white ones. A nice touch is that the movie starts with a white butler opening the dining room doors to welcome us into the story and finishes with a black one bidding us a smiling farewell as he closes those same doors at the story’s end.

Lucille Gleason as Miss Brewster

While it’s easy enough to smile indulgently at the movie’s rosy-tinted view of race relations in the 1930s US, at the same time we should admire The Beloved Brat and its makers for their effort, even if it is a bit clumsy. Let’s remember that this was an era where Hollywood normally depicted African American characters as shifty, lazy, untrustworthy, cowardly and ultimately moronic. Actors like Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best made good livings out of roles that matched the preconceptions of the bigots in the audience (as did Mantan Moreland, although I’d argue that he managed, through lampooning the stereotype, to subvert the bigotry). In that context, The Beloved Brat’s treatment of all its characters on an equal footing—little Meredith White, for example, is given what’s basically a sort of Shirley Temple role—is hugely to be applauded.

Paul Everton as Judge Henry Harris

Bonita Granville is almost certainly best remembered for her eponymous role in the Nancy Drew movie series, begun with Nancy Drew . . . Detective (1938), but she played a number of weightier roles in films noirs and other movies of noirish interest:

  • The GLASS KEY (1942)
  • SUSPENSE (1946)
  • The GUILTY (1947)

In the last of these she’s very effective playing a dual role as sweet virgin Linda and her trampish but otherwise identical twin sister Estelle.

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