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Tom Brown's School Days

Tom Brown's School Days(1940)

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teaser Tom Brown's School Days (1940)

The Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire, England, in operation since 1567, has long been the model for the British boarding school in literature and film. Being one of the oldest schools still in operation in Britain it has become known for its educational reforms and traditions. Not only that, the game of rugby itself sprouted from its very halls. It is in this historical setting that author Thomas Hughes produced one of the longest lasting works of "coming of age" literature, Tom Brown's School Days, in 1857.

Hughes took the historical figure of Thomas Arnold, who came to the school in 1828 and remained until 1841, and created a story to preach more of what he, the author, believed than anything Arnold actually taught. While Arnold did indeed produce reforms at the school that would influence boarding schools all over Europe, Hughes used the story as a means of preaching his own brand of Christian principles even though Arnold did indeed share many. The 1940 film version of Tom Brown's School Days, however, cut loose from the story all but the basic outline of Tom Brown and his stand against bullies.

This version was directed by Robert Stevenson years before he became the go-to director for Walt Disney's live-action features (Johnny Tremain [1957], Old Yeller [1957], The Absent-Minded Professor [1961] and Mary Poppins [1964] for which he received an Oscar® nomination for Best Director). Starring Cedric Hardwicke as educator/reformer Thomas Arnold, Jimmy Lydon as Tom Brown and Freddie Bartholomew as East, the film is told in flashback as Tom and East meet at the beginning at the resting place of Arnold and rekindle their friendship. Unknown to the viewer, at this point, is what drove them apart. As the movie flashes back to the first day Arnold is asked to be headmaster of the school, the story begins and the answer eventually comes.

Tom Brown arrives at the new school fresh and excited only to be quickly educated that bullying is the order of the day and he's the new mark. Flashman (Billy Halop) begins tormenting Tom because the new student stands up to him. The tormenting gets worse and eventually Flashman and his thugs hold Tom up to a fire (referred to as a roasting), heating him up so intensely that he passes out. But Dr. Arnold has set a new rule and wants bullying stopped, telling the head of the sixth formers that bullying is the refuge of liars and cowards. Tom Brown takes this message to heart and challenges Flashman to a fight that results in the unfortunate severing of his friendship with East, due to a misunderstanding in which East believes that Tom has ratted out Flashman for the roasting. The boys hate the bullying as much as Tom but turning someone in is considered the lowest a Rugby boy can sink and Tom is ostracized.

Watching Tom Brown's School Days with modern eyes, it quickly becomes apparent how straightforward and downright brutal the film's depiction of bullying is. Whatever reforms Arnold achieved in real life, they are reduced to "stop bullying" for the movie and the rough treatment in the movie is frightening and harsh. Boys are beaten, publicly humiliated and burned, facing torments that seem far more real than many modern day depictions of bullying in the movies. And since almost everything else is stripped away from the story, it's an excellent film on the subject, historical relevance notwithstanding.

The title role is played by Jimmy Lydon, a child actor who spent a little over a decade playing in dozens of movies before moving into a career in television that spanned four decades. Lydon retired in 1987, never achieving recognizable fame but maintaining a career that kept him working steadily until the day he left.

Cedric Hardwicke plays the all-important role of Thomas Arnold although he spends most of the movie off screen; when he's on screen he does little more than admonish or advise. Nevertheless, Hardwicke managed to create a full character both sympathetic and disciplinary at the same time. Hardwicke would, of course, enjoy a great career playing in some of the biggest movies of all time, from William Cameron Menzies' Things to Come (1936) to Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) as well as using his wonderful voice to narrate George Pal's The War of the Worlds (1953).

But in the end it is East, the role of Tom Brown's best friend, played by the talented Freddie Bartholomew, that carries the movie. While Lydon does a fine job, it is Bartholomew that gives the best performance to the movie. A child actor who had achieved worldwide fame with his roles in David Copperfield (1935), Anna Karenina (1935), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), Captains Courageous (1937) and Kidnapped (1938), Bartholomew ended up working with the likes of Greta Garbo and Spencer Tracy. After the forties, like his costar Lydon, he transitioned to television. Yet, despite his many talents in front of the camera, he went behind the scenes as a director and producer, directing several episodes of famous soap operas like The Edge of Night and As the World Turns until his retirement in the eighties. Tom Brown's School Days remains one of his best films.Producers: Graham Baker, Gene Towne
Director: Robert Stevenson
Screenplay: Walter Ferris, Frank Cavett, Gene Towne, Graham Baker (adaptation and screenplay); Robert Stevenson (additional dialogue); Thomas Hughes (novel)
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Anthony Collins
Film Editing: William Hamilton
Cast: Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Dr. Thomas Arnold), Freddie Bartholomew (East), Jimmy Lydon (Tom Brown), Josephine Hutchinson (Mrs. Mary Arnold), Billy Halop (Flashman), Polly Moran (Sally Harowell), Hughie Green (Walker Brooke), Ernest Cossart (Squire Brown), Alec Craig (Old Thomas), Gale Storm (Effie).

by Greg Ferrara


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