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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