9 August 2003 | lugonian
The Trouble With Henry
PECK'S BAD BOY (Associated/First National Pictures, 1921), written and directed by Sam Wood, features little Jackie Coogan in his first starring role following his tremendous success appearing opposite Charlie Chaplin in THE KID (1921). Based on the magazine articles written by George W. Peck (no relation to Gregory) in the 1880s, which later became the basis of a Broadway play, PECK'S BAD BOY indicates the story of a young boy who constantly gets himself in trouble, sometimes through no fault of his own. The Henry Peck character, which predates Hank Ketchum's immortal comic strip, television and later screen carnation of DENNIS THE MENACE, so happens to be the granddaddy of all bad boys. Even the opening title card (compliments of Irvin S. Cobb) forewarns its viewers with this witty line: "It takes four pecks to make a bushel but only one small Peck to start a riot."
PECK'S BAD BOY, set in a small town, opens on Circus Day where little Henry Peck (Jackie Coogan) and his best pal named Buddy (Charles Hatton) are running from a lion which Henry had turned loose from 0its cage. This incident soon finds both boys inside the cage with the lion roaring from the outside. After being rescued from the ferocious beast, Buddy asks Henry why he let the lion loose. He responds: "Aw, they said he was a man-eater. How did I know he'd be fond of boys?" Learning of the incident, Henry's father (James Corrigan), who sells real estate for a living, refuses to give the boy any money to attend the circus. But Henry is determined to go, even if it means tricking his father into changing his mind by using Buddy in his scheme by having him disguised as a lady. But while Mr. Peck occasionally loses his patience with his mischievous son, the only one who truly has the patience and understanding towards little Henry is his mother (Lillian Leighton), who affectionately calls her son her "little lamb." Other escapades follow: Henry getting sick after stuffing himself with dry apples and prunes from the grocery store where he usually hangs out, keeping Buddy's father, the clerk (Raymond Hatton), company and charging whatever Henry eats and takes to Papa Peck's charge account, followed by a memorable scene taking place on a Sunday morning where Henry's ant collection is placed in his father's lumbago, and while the family is in church, Dad feels the full effects of the ants crawling around his neck, which causes him to suddenly make his exit from the church. Also entering into the story is Jack Martin (Wheelar Oakman), a young physician who not only moves into the neighborhood, but becomes part of the Peck family and love interest to Henry's older sister, Letty (Doris May). Even the young doc finds himself in trouble, finding himself getting nearly getting arrested, thanks to Henry, who unwittingly concealed some important documents belonging to his father into the doctor's coat pocket. And if that's not all ....
As a film, PECK'S BAD BOY plays like a series of ten minute comedy sketches thrown together to make a feature film, and at 52 minutes, it barely passes the one hour mark. Jackie Coogan, at age 7, is the sole attention getter in this light-hearted comedy which doesn't let up for a moment. Although the movie concentrates and succeeds solely on getting laughs, it does take time out for a couple of tender moments, such as one in which Henry's tag-along pet, Tar Baby, is captured by a neighborhood dog catcher and placed in the back of the wagon along with the other strays. As his dog barks for him, Henry opens up his arms and looks sadly at the pooch. Then seconds later, Henry immediately changes his expression when he comes upon the idea in getting his dog back. Another tender scene, once again, involving Henry and Tar Baby, shows the love and affection boy and dog have for one another while sleeping in bed. Besides other kid actors in appearing in small roles, Coogan has his moments with a little girl (Gloria Wood) whose ice cream is taken away by a couple of bullies. To calm down the crying child, Coogan's Henry takes his last nickel he has to buy the girl a fresh new ice cream cone. As for the conclusion, the writers throw in a couple of very close calls set at the train station to add some suspense before wrapping up the story. Although the fade-out appears rushed, and it probably was, it also seems to indicate a sequel or a series of "Peck's Bad Boy" adventures to be in the works. But a film series this did not become. Coogan never reprised his Henry Peck role, but did become one of the most popular child actors in his time. However, PECK'S BAD BOY did return on screen twice during the sound era: first in a Fox Film comedy starring Jackie Cooper in 1934, and again in the sequel, PECK'S BAD BOY AT THE CIRCUS (RKO Radio, 1938) featuring Tommy Kelly.
PECK'S BAD BOY was one of the selected twelve films to be presented in the 1975 edition of THE SILENT YEARS, hosted by Lillian Gish, for public television. From the Paul Killian collection, the movie was featured with an orchestral score. In later years, it became available on video cassette through various distributors, ranging from Blackhawk to Grapevine Video. Rarely seen on television in recent years, PECK'S BAD BOY is worthy screen entertainment and a fine addition to any silent movie lover's video film library. (***)