By Ed Garea
Girls on Probation (WB, 1938) - Director: William C. McGann. Writer: Crane Wilbur (s/p). Cast: Jane Bryan, Ronald Reagan, Anthony Averill, Sheila Bromley, Henry O’Neill, Elisabeth Risdon, Sig Ruman, Dorothy Peterson, Susan Hayward, & Esther Dale. B&W, 63 minutes.
What a title! It sounds like something out of an old SCTV sketch; but there it is in all its B-glory. Warner’s used their Bs to test and develop new talent, in this case Bryan and Reagan, whom the studio was grooming for hopefully bigger and better things. While it was hoped Reagan would stand out in the film, it was actually Bryan who carried it. But, though her performance is decent, and helps make this potboiler worth watching, it exposes her limited acting range.
Bryan is Connie Heath, an attractive, cheerful, and bright young woman who works in the office of a cleaning and dyeing firm. Her boss has maximum confidence in her abilities, often keeping her overtime to go over others’ mistakes with the books. Connie is staying late one night, going over the mistakes committed by her co-worker and good friend, Hilda Engstrom (Bromley). While Connie corrects the errors, Hilda wiles away the time on the phone speaking with her boyfriend, who we will later meet. Connie and Hilda make for quite an odd couple: Connie is buttoned-down while Hilda is easy and totally sleazy.
Hilda accompanies Connie home and both talk about Connie going with Hilda to a dance at the Hula House. Alas, Connie doesn’t have a decent dress. At Connie’s place, she, Hilda and Connie’s mother (Risdon) attempt to make do with an old party dress, but it’s just no use. Then Father, played by Ruman in his usual hammy style, comes home. He wants (a) dinner, and (b) to know who is upstairs with Connie. When Mother tells him it’s Hilda, Father blows a gasket as only a ham actor can. Hilda is no good, he bellows, and a bad influence on Connie. Hilda leaves, but not before enticing Connie to go to the club with a dress she “borrows” from work. As a character-establishing scene, it’s poor. Ruman is allowed to run amok and McGann clearly has no idea of how to proceed. But we also get a good look at Father’s character, that of an absolute autocrat, no room for negotiation. It’s his way or the highway. From his manner, one would think he was playing a Prussian general from the 19th century.
We now pick it up at the Hula House, supposedly a ritzy joint, and Connie and Hilda are enjoying themselves immensely. Far from swanky, the place is our typical Warner Brothers nightclub, swanked out with faux Hawaiian props to make it look different. It looks like the place - minus the props - where Bette Davis and Bryan entertained themselves in Marked Woman. Also hoofing it up at the club are Neil Dillon (Reagan) and his date, snobbish Gloria Adams (Hayward). Gloria gets one look at Connie’s dress and identifies it as hers, one she took to the cleaners. Are you sure, asks Neil? Yes, she’s sure, but Neil insists Gloria wait and see if the dress she sent to from cleaners is there when she calls to pick it up.
Unfortunately for Connie, she tears the dress exiting from the taxi. Hilda does a quickie repair when she gets it back to the shop the next day, but upon a cursory inspection, Gloria notices the repair work and makes waves, lots of them. Connie is fired and Neil, who works as an attorney for the insurance company covering the dress, tells Connie it was larceny and that he has to prosecute both Connie and Hilda. But Neil has a soft spot for Connie (the film was made back when Reagan was a liberal) and pays off the cost of the dress so the girls don’t have to end up in court. When Father finds out why his daughter no longer works at the cleaners, he shows his tenderness by slapping Connie in the face, calls her a liar, and throws her out of the house.
Connie moves to another town, where she finds work as a secretary, and, out of her first paycheck, mails Neil a payment. As she mails the letter, she runs into - naturally - her old pal Hilda. After the perfunctory how-do-you-dos, she and Hilda argue about Hilda writing a letter absolving Connie of guilt in the famous case of the stolen dress. Hilda wants no part of such a letter, but before she can argue further, her old boyfriend, Bad News Tony (Averill), comes bounding out of the nearby bank with a gun and the bank’s money. He forces Connie into the car as Hilda, quickly behind the wheel, peels out. A young boy selling movie magazines conveniently witnesses the entire scene, and we know it’s just a matter of time until he rides to Connie’s rescue.
The three of them lead the cops on a merry chase. Hilda breaks out the back window and begins firing at the cops until Connie wrests the gun from her and points it at Tony, forcing him to pull over so they can be arrested. Connie gives a false name to the authorities, lest her identity be discovered (especially by Father). As there exists no independent evidence to corroborate her story, and after a trial quite unlike any I have ever seen ensues, with lawyers ignoring the rules of the court by breaking into open debate. Connie, amid all manner of unlawyerly shenanigans, is sent to the big house, where she runs right into - you guessed it - Hilda. And get a load of that prison! A happier place I couldn’t imagine, stocked with every prison stereotype the producers could find. It seems as if the ladies were sent there for bad acting. Anyway, Hilda turns Connie into a virtual slave by threatening to write and tell Father what she’s been up to (I’d like to get Connie in a poker game, she bluffs so easily) until Connie can’t take any more and the two get into the obligatory catfight.
Here the film almost ceases being a drama and turns into one of those shorts usually seen before the main feature, and which exclaims the virtues of some government function or other. In this case, it’s the probation department. Connie is spared from serving time through the intervention of sympathetic (aren’t they all?) probation officer Jane Lennox (Peterson), who gives Connie a cheery summary of how probation works. Jane has even found the newsboy who witnessed the bank robbery and brings him to testify before the judge, who in turn grants Connie probation. Hilda, on the other hand, gets a 1-to-5 stretch while Tony gets 10-to-15.
Connie goes home and looks up the nice, young Neil. He’s now the Deputy District Attorney, and is still smitten with Connie, so much so that he hires her as his secretary. Of course, Neil has no idea about Connie’s past and she isn’t about to tell him. Time passes. Neil and Connie begin dating. This leads to a totally useless sidebar scene with Father. Now that Connie’s living back home, she must obey Father. When Neil comes around, Pops asks about his intentions toward his daughter with a suspicious tone. Neil’s answer that he hopes to marry Connie causes Pops to become overjoyed and he immediately blabs all to the family (Neil hasn’t even asked Connie yet!) and tells them that he has always liked this young man. We can readily ascertain that this scene is only being included to pad out the length of the film.
Cut to Connie in Neil’s office. Now . . . who should saunter in but - have you guessed? - Hilda! Hilda is like gum on Connie’s shoe. Try as she might, Connie can’t shed her. Hilda tells Connie about her parole and learns about Connie’s engagement. She asks her favorite victim if Neil’s been informed about her past. Finally tired of Hilda (about time), Connie confesses all to Neil, who, being the white knight he is, forgives all.
Meanwhile, we cut to Tony and his prison buddies about to make their escape. Armed to the teeth (I can see them having a pistol, but a shotgun?), their bust-out is pure hokum (worthy of a viewing on Mystery Science Theater 3000), intercut with stock footage from other Warner Brothers’ prison films. I loved it when Tony, on the wall after his compatriots have been killed, somehow escapes being shot from almost point blank range, and jumps from the top of the wall into the river. We know he’ll get away - the picture’s not over yet.
So, just when it looks as if Connie’s seen the last of Hilda, up she pops again. She’s been caring for Tony, who scrammed to her place after his escape. Now threatening to tell the District Attorney himself about Connie’s past, she wants dough to stay quiet and get out of town. Connie acquiesces, but, being as this is taking place after-hours in the ‘30s, the banks closed and there are no ATM machines. However, there is one place to get money that’s open all night, so Hilda tells Connie to pawn her engagement ring. Connie offers to give it to Hilda, but Hilda’s too smart for that one. She makes Connie come with her so she can’t drop a dime to the cops. While Hilda waits in the car, Connie negotiates the sale of her ring and also gives the pawnbroker a note, telling him to call Neil. He, in turn, calls the police and they arrive at Hilda’s place just before she can enter her apartment. Hearing the cops, Tony shoots wildly through the door, hitting no one but Hilda - of course. Tony is then dispatched by a hail of gunfire and Connie is at last free of Hilda, with the final scene one of Hilda receiving the last rites as she’s loaded into an ambulance.
By any standard, this is a lackluster effort. Bryan, then being groomed by the studio for bigger and better things, displays an amazing lack of range, one she would never shed until her retirement. It seems that Jane could only be effective playing sickly-sweet dames. We wonder just how far she would have gone at Warner’s if she hadn’t married Walgreens executive Justin Dart. Reagan, for his part, came across in this film as if he was heavily medicated. Why the studio hired Ruman for the part of Roger Heath, Connie's dad, is beyond me. Maybe they thought in a film this mediocre no one would notice or care. As Hilda, Bromley comes close to stealing the picture, and if that was all she did, she would get probation for petty theft. Averill never rose above the Bs. In fact, when he left acting, he was well on his way to features in Poverty Row. Probably the best performance came from young Hayward in her brief turn as Neil’s bitchy girlfriend at the nightclub and who sets in motion the entire plot.
Longtime Warner’s B-unit director William McGann directed the film at a hectic pace, reminiscent of an exploitation film. It has all the elements as her best friend leads the pure-as-snow heroine down the path to degradation. Note that in the bank robbery scene, the heroine is trapped by circumstance into the criminal world. All one needs is drugs or sex to complete the chain; we already have jail. But it didn’t matter to Jack Warner, for producer Bryan Foy made sure it contained all Warner’s favorite themes: social conditions that led to crime, criminal rehabilitation and confidence in the pros and cons of the justice system.
Crane Wilbur, who wrote Girls on Probation, was no stranger to the exploitation genre, having previously written Alcatraz Island (1937), Crime School (1938), Blackwell’s Island (1939), and Hell’s Kitchen (1939). He would later write screenplays for Roger Touhy, Gangster (1944), He Walked By Night (1948), Women’s Prison (1950), The Phenix City Story (1955), and House of Women (1962). He also directed 37 features, many of them in the exploitation genre.
All in all, Girls on Probation is a hoot to watch, due to the presence of Bryan, Bromley, and Reagan and its sheer overwrought screenplay. It rarely rambles and seems even shorter than its 63-minute running time. As with many of the Warner Brothers “social commentary” films, Girls on Probation begins with a weighty prologue informing us that for some women probation was the only thing standing between happiness and degradation. This is absolutely hilarious in light of the fact in the film that Connie is going to marry Ronnie Reagan. Which could be worse: stir or Reagan?
Hilda to the priest before she’s loaded into the ambulance after being shot: “Pretty soon I’ll be seeing your boss!”
At the end of the bank robbery scene, as the car pulls away, the cops fire wildly into the crowd as they try to hit the car.
Watch for the scene where the detective babbles half of his lines to the party on the other end on the phone after taking the receiver away from his mouth.