The Under-Pup (1939)
I love girls' summer camp movies. They're like minor league women's prison pictures, which I'm a sucker for, and The Under-Pup doesn't disappoint. The film was Joe Pasternak's answer to Deanna Durbin's growth spurt and 13-year-old (they said she was 11) Gloria Jean's debut.
Here's the gimmick: Toney girls' camp, Camp Happy Warrior, decides to open its silken tent flaps to a poor city girl by granting the spot to the girl who writes the best essay on trees. "What's an essay?" ask the disadvantaged girls amongst themselves, but Pip-Emma (Gloria Jean), the kid with the angelic voice and hardscrabble street smarts (she starts a junior turf war on the way home from church) is already dreaming of trees and sunshine.
I like this kid. She calls her dad "onion" and her mother "sweet potato" (which is also happens to be what I call my son). She knows how to run a shell game, thanks to an uncle, and is planning to have her grandpa (C. Aubrey Smith) compose the essay for her so she can rub elbows with little millionaires. It's in the ag-bay. Of course, she can't go through with cheating, writes the essay herself, and wins the contest anyway.
Turns out Cecilia (Shirley Mills), the rich kid who thought up the contest, and her friend Letty Lou (Ann Gillis) are class-A stinkers and a bullies. They run the Purple Order of the Penguins, kind of a Skull and Bones girl's auxiliary, and make a point of marginalizing Pip-Emma at every opportunity. But one girl, little Janet Cooper (Virginia Weidler, her excellent, softer self), likes her moxie and the two become friends. Poor Janet has the kind of parents who are too rich and too unhappy with each other to pay any attention to her, a fact snotty Letty-Lou teases Janet about all the time. Of course, none of these girls seem to have parents who make time for them, unlike Pip-Emma's close family with the grandpa, and the parents, and the little brother (Dickie Moore), and the endless supply of character uncles.
On accounta the poor are truly the rich ones.
As an exclusive club, the Penguins have complicated rules and requirements, thereby letting the rules do the bullying for them. Non-members can't wear the uniform, or the swim suits, or the gym clothes, or the riding gear that members wear, for instance, and of course, Pip-Emma has none of these things of her own. Eventually, the kid's natural goodness and spirit makes her more popular than the mean girls and a particular favorite of the staff: Camp Director, Beulah Bondi; Camp Ingenue, Nan Grey; and Camp Heartthrob, Robert Cummings.
Lessons are learned. Friendships are made. Parents are reunited and relationships bloom. It's a fun, engaging, and entertaining picture. Personally, I could do without the singing, but I'm cold-hearted that way.
I think Beulah Bondi is a marvelous actress whose spinster camp director Miss Thornton could have been a disastrous caricature in less skilled hands. She and Joe Pasternak stable performer Nan Grey were the biggest surprises of this film and I recommend you see it if you can. Then tell me why Nan Grey didn't do more.