Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Gallant Sons

A couple of weeks back in the Thursday Movie Picks blogathon, the subject was "Amateur Sleuths". I hadn't watched Gallant Sons yet, and at any rate it doesn't fit into the them-within-a-them I ended up using. Still, it's an interesting little entry into the genre.

The sleuths in question are going to be adolescents, but it takes a little longer to get to the actual sleuthing. Johnny Davis (Gene Reynolds) and Byron "By" Newbold (Jackie Cooper) are classmates and friends in high school, even though their parents don't get along. Johnny's dad, "Natural" (Ian Hunter), is a gambler and owns the local illicit casino, although he's always able to stay one step ahead of the cops. By's father Barton (Minor Watson) is a crusading editor at the newspaper, constantly trying to bring Natural Davis down. Also in the group of adolescent friends are Leo Gorcey as "Doc", Bonita Granville as Kate Pendleton, and June Preisser, whom MGM were obviously trying to groom for stardom at the time. Oh, and El Brendel is the janitor who seems to be the "responsible adult".

Further complicating things is that Kate's mom Clare (Gail Patrick) is in a relationship with Natural that the kids apparently known nothing about. And both Kate and Natural are being blackmailed. Natural wants to stop the blackmailing. So after a raid the fizzles out, Natural goes to an apartment where he's supposed to meet somebody involved in the blackmail. What he doesn't know is that Barton Newbold is following him. He also doesn't know that the woman he's supposed to meet is already dead, having been shot. Natural, on finding this out, makes the spectacularly stupid move of picking up the gun and putting his fingerprints on it.

So, for all the obvious reasons, Natural gets convicted and sent to prison. Johnny gets sent to live with Kate and Clare, distressing him because he has to live with a girl!, horror of horrors. Also unsurprisingly, there's a big falling out between Johnny and By, since Johnny thinks By is partly responsible for what happened. The other friends, however, are able to patch things up by making the suggestion that the group investigate the case themselves to try to solve what really happened. (I'm guessing that forensic science wasn't advanced enough to determine the time of death by how digested the contents of the dead woman's stomach were. This would likely have given Natural an alibi since he was at the casino all evening with a whole bunch of witnesses.)

There isn't much of a mystery here, as suspicion falls on a composer/bandleader who's blown the apartment in the same building as the dead woman but leaving behind sheet music. In fact, the mystery is superfluous to the plot. Further investigation gets the kids into slight danger. Meanwhile, By is supposed to be writing a play for the school's drama club, and this is tied into the plot by having him come up with the same insight that Hamlet did: The play's the thing/wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king. The climax of the movie is a play that recreates the teens' reconstruction of events, with their suspect in attendance so that he'll incriminate himself.

The play-within-a-movie isn't just the climax, it's the highlight of Gallant Sons. It requires our adolescent stars to become terrible actors, and I mean really awful. They pull it off with aplomb, and there's also a lot of heckling from the audience that I found myself wondering whether a truly talented playwright could have put in as a way to break the fourth wall. Whether it was supposed to be part of the play or just comic relief in the movie doesn't matter; all that does matter is that it works well.

Gallant Sons is a really fun little B movie with a lot of enjoyable adolescent actors, with Leo Gorcey being the most oddly cast of the bunch. Fans of mystery may enjoy this change of pace.

No comments: