The Precocious Exploits Of The Amazing Mitzi

What a different image of childhood exists in the world of pre-Code film.  The main takeaway I get from the 1931 flick Finn and Hattie is that childhood brattiness is a good thing.  It allows for that free play of emotional expression we so value in our young.  Even if it rampages onscreen with the innocent glee of elephants in stampede.

Consider the behavior of Mildred Haddock, the 10-year-old spawn of terror of our film’s title couple, a pair of Midwesterners on their way to a Paris vacation.  The first scene has an impatient Mildred interrupting her father’s (Leon Errol) farewell speech to the town, as the family prepares to leave for their trip.  Farewell speeches at train stations seemed common in 1930s movies (remember Gary Cooper tootling the tuba in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town?), but Mildred (rightly, I think) believes the trip itself is what matters.

So, when Dim Dad fails to take the hint to get a move on, Mildred doesn’t hesitate, but takes it on herself to start (and drive) the train engine on her own.  We have here a child of rare gumption and enterprise:

Once the Haddocks are shipboard bound for Europe, Mildred deals with her misbehaving traveling companion, 9-year-old cousin Sidney (Jackie Searl)—who, in the film’s terms, is even more terrifyingly obnoxious than Mildred—by tricking him into tumbling down the mouth of the ship’s funnel.  Hide-‘n-seek this ain’t:

When said funnel fall fails to faze the still-obstreperous Cousin Sid, Mildred then hoists the lad from what may be the highest yardarm in the U.S. cruise lines.  Our Mildred, we’re beginning to learn, plays for keeps:

Further on, Mildred spies with lubricious delight on her naive father’s amorous meeting with a scheming gold digger (the great Lilyan Tashman, as conniving as all get-out)—because that’s what pre-Code young’uns did for ocean-borne amusements:

Finally, Mildred retrieves her father’s compromising check that’s been secreted in the golddigging lady’s stocking, by engaging the latter in a no-holds-barred cat fight on the floor.  Because there’s nothing like a good, healthy tussle between the ladies to win the day:

That last bit—a small girl grappling a grown woman in close embrace, while sicced on by her father’s encouraging cries—would probably elicit a few raised eyebrows (and maybe even a content warning) today.  The film, however, presents this scene as clean, wholesome fun, suitable for family viewing, do bring the kiddies, please.

No doubt audiences did.

L.P. Hartley was right:  The past really is foreign territory, where things are done differently.  And we need to tread carefully if we choose to revisit it.  Especially if it concerns The Land Of Before-The-Production-Code.

I came across F&H by a fortuitous algorithm (it popped up in my YouTube recommendations), and it’s an oddity, for sure.  Falling into that limbo of early sound cinema, in which everything achieved on film the previous decade seems to have been forgotten and then relearned, step by painful step, the film looks as flat and crude as a 1990s Internet chat room.  At least the relearning process was quick.  By the following year F&H‘s producing studio, Paramount, was releasing such accomplished products as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Shanghai Express, films possessing that sheen and elegance I associate with the 1930s Paramount ‘look,’ in which everything shines as if washed in silver.

But F&H was still in the Dark Ages, still groping, still seeking for a ‘look,’ a tone, a pitch of sophistication as it entered the new era of sound.  So we still get some pretty strange sights; such as co-star Mack Swain wearing a beard so outrageously, so moth-eatenly fake that I’d bet he had saved the thing from one of his 1914 Keystone comedies.  Probably had it wrapped in tissue and stashed it in the back of a drawer, confident that one day it would be used again.  How right he was.

Would such a sense of the primitive account for the film’s mirthful depictions of child-inflicted mayhem?  In F&H’s terms, 10-year-old Mildred, played by 10-year-old Mitzi Green, is not the story’s resident monster but its heroine.  She not only chastises horrible cousin Sidney for his nasty behavior (did I mention the part where Mildred ties a rope round Sid’s waist and dunks him in the ocean?), but also saves her father from the clutch of a siren’s well-manicured paws by superior surveillance and wrestling skills.  The young Miss Green acts this infant phenomenon with such confidence and swagger, and looks so eerily mature as she does so (note that Louise Brooks bob she sports), that I looked her up in IMDB to make sure she was a child when she made the film (born in 1920; she was).  Mitzi may have been a youngster, but she was no fluke.  She was the first child actor to sign a multi-film contract with Paramount, and was famous for her singing and mimicry skills (Greta Garbo and George Arliss a specialty).  Sounds like pretty hot stuff to me.

As in everything else, there are fashions in child stars:  Jane Withers was a refreshingly brash antidote to the wholesome Shirley Temple, and Catherine Demongeot of the zany Zazie dans le Metro could be a Gallic version of Mitzi herself (even to similar haircuts).  But Mitzi came before both (and perhaps was an influence?)—yet she seems forgotten today.  The few years between Green’s descent and Temple’s surge is quite a sea change, and Mitzi’s career, which ranged from playing Becky Thatcher in a 1930 version of Tom Sawyer to playing herself in The Stolen Jools (turns out she took ’em, natch), had a short run.  As with many of her ilk, Green’s childhood stardom petered out by the time she hit puberty.  Playing an adult role when she was 14 (significantly in 1934, the year of the Code crackdown), Green left Hollywood in the mid-1930s for nightclubs and Broadway (including a lead role in Babes in Arms).  After a brief cinematic/TV resurgence in the early 1950s, she retired for marriage and four children.  Not a bad run for a performing career, as such careers go.

I, at least, will treasure Mitzi’s portrayal of Mildred as a mental touchstone for how we can imagine children, and childhood, onscreen.  I haven’t seen Green’s other child performances, but I liked her bracing (and unyielding) lack of sentiment in F&H.  Hollywood has envisioned childhood misbehavior in many ways and means, but Mitzi’s may be the first to be celebrated for pre-adolescent antics that border on the sociopathic.  The film is not even conscious of Mitzi’s behavior as monstrous, but presents everything she does as a healthy, and comical, outpouring of juvenile spirits.  In watching, I may have raised my own eyebrows (a bit), but I was never put off; in fact, I frequently laughed.  I think real children would prefer seeing Mitzi get away with (almost) murder than watch any number of post-Code Temples or O’Briens shedding buckets of tears.  Those are the kiddies for soppy adults; whereas Mitzi is for the rest of Us.

Per an entry in her IMDB bio page, a fan once sent the young Green a present of a live baby alligator.  Perhaps not the sort of gift one would approve for a child.  I assure you, however, if Mitzi’s performance as Mildred is anything to go by, my concern would have been all for that harmless little reptile.

Brava, Miss Green, on her hundredth.


BONUS CLIP:  Here’s Mitzi Green in a clip from 1932’s Hollywood on Parade singing “Was That The Human Thing To Do?”  Mitzi (who would go on to introduce the Rodgers & Hart classics “My Funny Valentine” and “The Lady is a Tramp”) displays a pretty mature set of pipes here, at age 12.  She also declares she wants to sing a “grown-up song” rather than one about “toys and dolls.”  And she wears an evening gown.  Ohhh-kayyy….

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10 Comments

  1. Marjorie J. BIrch

     /  June 28, 2020

    Mitzi looks a great deal like Scout in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

    I gotta see this movie.

    Reply
  2. Marjorie J. Birch

     /  June 28, 2020

    Also: movie was based (remotely? I haven’t read the book) on a book by Donald Ogden Stewart — “The Haddocks Abroad” — making fun of American tourists in Europe.

    Reply
    • Yes, it actually was based on that book (which may be out of print?) – Per Stewart’s autobiography, he wrote the book in Paris, and meant it to poke ‘gentle’ fun at folks from Ohio (where he himself was born) as they travel abroad – so much of the non-Mitzi comedy in the movie focuses on the parents, Leon Errol and Zasu Pitts, encountering sophisticated con artists out to trick them. There’s are some bizarre sequences (such as Errol and Pitts getting drunk in a French bistro), and the comedy with the 2 children is pretty rough. But’s it’s worth seeing, especially for Mitzi Green.

      Reply
  3. Paddy Lee

     /  June 28, 2020

    I first encountered Mitzi in Skippy and Little Orphan Annie. I think of her as a member of the family (sort of a quasi distant entertainment cousin) as she married Joseph Pevney who directed some of my favourite TV episodes. Of course, the Rodgers and Hart connection impresses me greatly.

    This movie sounds like a giggle and YouTube is my go-to movie palace for much of the week.

    Reply
    • I hadn’t seen Mitzi before this film, and I was impressed by her performance savvy (she came from a vaudeville family, so acting must’ve been in her blood). I’ll have to check her out in these other movies if I can find them. Pevney was a prolific actor as well as director; I wonder if any of their children entered show biz? The film seems to have been removed from YouTube (drat!), but let’s hope someone posts it back. It’s a strange, uneven film, with a lot of the comedy focusing on Leon Errol, Lilyan Tashman, and Zasu Pitts; and there’s a sequence with Tashman and Pitts snuggling in bed together, so it’s DEFINITELY pre-Code!

      Reply
  4. Marjorie J. Birch

     /  June 28, 2020

    annnnd… Jackie Searl played rotten children named Sid (as in “Tom Sawyer”) or SIdney in several movies. What is it with the name “Sidney” that denotes an obnoxious character, I wonder?

    (I love Pre-Code movies…)

    Reply
    • Good question! Something about the sound of Sid/Sidney? Or maybe Jackie liked the name and preferred to be called it? Reminds me of the great character actor Sidney Greenstreet, who so frequently played villains – wonder if his name added to his menace?

      I love pre-Code cinema also – it’s refreshingly direct and funny in its look at human nature, no punches pulled…

      Reply
  5. Thanks for covering this interesting film in your post! Before reading, I scoured YouTube and other sites for it, and came up dry. I’m glad to have the classic DVD resource that you provided so I can find this and other rare films. I’ve seen Mitzi in “Stolen Jools” and always enjoyed that one for Laurel and Hardy; I’ll have to rewatch it with a special eye for Mitzi’s performance. Thanks for sharing another pre-code gem with us-it’s one of my favorite genres!

    Reply
    • Thanks for commenting! Finn & Hattie seems to have been removed from Youtube, but apparently there are DVDs available (as I indicated in an earlier comment). Mitzi comes right on at the end of Stolen Jools, so you’d either have to watch the full movie (about 20 minutes), or scroll to about the 17-minute mark to see her appear. I agree, pre-Code movies are great fun to watch, and Mitzi was in several of them. She seems very much a part of that era!

      Reply

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