Bobby Breen was a child star in the 1930's. Born in 1927, the
young Bobby began appearing on stage at the age of 7 and in 1936 he became
a sensation on Eddie Cantor's radio show. He appeared in many shorts
and movies in minor roles, but it didn't take long for Breen to sign with
RKO. His first staring role was in 1936's Let's Sing Again, but sadly
he stared in his last film a mere three years later, 1939's Escape to
Paradise. That's because Bobby's voice started to change, and
as his haunting soprano voice went, so did his Hollywood career.
Roan, one of the best publisher's of public domain movies, has now released
Breen's second to last film on DVD, Way Down South. This is
a standard studio picture of the day, with a run of the mill story and
plot, but with a certain amount of charm too.
Tim Reid (Bobby Breen) has an idyllic life on a plantation in pre-civil
war Louisiana, until his father dies however. Though Tim inherits
the entire estate and all of the slaves that run the land, it is all controlled
by the executor, Martin Dill (Edwin Maxwell.)
Dill is long on talk but short on money, and he also has a fiancee with
expensive tastes. In order to keep his lady friend pleased, Dill
starts embezzling money from the estate. Soon that's not enough however
and the crooked man plans to sell all of the slaves, including all of Tim's
friends, and take the proceeds to Europe. It's up to plucky Tim to
find a way to save his friends before they are all sold and scattered to
This film was written by a pair of African-Americans, Clarance Muse
and poet Langston Hughes, which was a rarity in 1939. It is obvious
that they tried to paint African-Americans in a better light than Hollywood
was used to doing at the time, but they only partially succeeded.
While they didn't use the black characters for comic relief and the romantic
subplot was between two slaves (one who is savagely beaten for talking
to the woman he loves) there was still much stereotyping present.
The slaves are shown to have a great life cutting sugar cane and picking
cotton as long as Tim's father is alive. They have races and sing
songs and don't have a care in the world, even singing the praises of
their former master after he dies. It's only when Dill takes over
that they aren't happy, implying that slavery isn't a bad practice as long
as the owner is a kind person. Watching the film I often wondered
how much was changed from the original script. (It is easy to assume
that the writers knew that they could never submit a script that accurately
portrayed plantation life if they ever wanted the film to be made.)
Aside from the comments on race that the movie has, this is a typical
B-movie of the period. It clocks in at a scant 60 minutes, that's
including a few musical numbers, and it has a very simple and straight
forward plot. There isn't time for a lot of twists and turns, and
it's easy to see the resolution far in advance.
As far as acting, Bobby Breen does a fair job, but he just doesn't have
a lot of screen presence. When compared to Shirley Temple, a contemporary
child star, he pails in comparison. His voice is very high and pretty
(one of the highlights of the movie is when he sings Sometimes I Feel Like
a Motherless Child), but he doesn't bring much more than that to the screen.
The creators might have realized that because, though he does get top billing,
the plot doesn't really revolve around his character. He seems to
be along for the ride more than actually driving the picture.
The two channel mono soundtrack is limited by the technology of the
day, and it has a rather limited range. This is most noticeable in
the musical numbers, but the whole film sounds a little flat. There
is some hiss in a few scenes and some light distortion, but this isn't
a major problem. The film sounds about average for a movie this old.
The full frame image looks very good for a public domain film released
in 1939. The picture is clean and clear, and the contrast and level
of detail are both excellent. The black levels are a bit on the light
side, but this is a minor defect. There is some print damage, a few
spots and scratches and one or two missing frames. There is a very
small white spot that travels down the left side of the screen for a while,
and a light vertical scratch though a good portion of the movie, but these
aren't distracting. Overall this is a very nice looking DVD.
In addition to an introduction by NY Post film critic Lou Lumenick,
there is a nice featurette entitled Life of a Child Star, an interview
with Bobby Breen's son, Bill Winckler. He talks about his father's
start in show business and mentions some of the many films that he appeared
in. I especially liked the anecdote Bill told about his father running
for Congress and coming "dangerously close" to winning.
There is also a clip from the Roan release of Check and Double Check
and the ever present Radiation March.
This second to last Bobby Breen vehicle is an average B-film for the
time. That's not to say it's bad, it just isn't as dynamic and exciting
as it could be. Though Breen had a beautiful voice, his acting was
only average and he really doesn't light up the screen. Roan however
has done a nice job with this DVD. The picture is very good overall
and looks better than most public domain films from the 30's.
Though it's not perfect, this film is still a good hour's worth of entertainment,
and is recommended for fans of early talking films.