While I am always eager to point out how wretched contemporary filmmaking seems to have become, I can never dismiss the notion that bad movies have been getting cranked out by Hollywood since the beginning. In fact, as the type of feller who appreciates that certain kind of maligned movie manufacturing (see: just about any of my articles), I don’t mind discovering a previously unseen Tinseltown atrocity from yesteryear in the least bit. That is, until I stumble across something as wretched as When a Feller Needs a Friend, of course. That’s when I feel like gnawing my own arm off in order to beat myself to death with it.
A forgotten 1932 MGM family melodrama about an annoying disabled kid and his cranky old uncle that is even worse than it may already sound, When a Feller Needs a Friend stars former Hal Roach Rascal and future Daily Planet editor Jackie Cooper as a kid named Eddie. As if being a child in the Depression Era wasn’t tough enough already ‒ it wasn’t entirely uncommon for children to be abandoned or given up for adoption ‒ Eddie is permanently stuck wearing a leg brace, which (naturally) prevents him from doing activities with his peers that don’t include being picked on, bullied, or getting the shit kicked out of him. (Yes, it’s a happy movie, kids!)
Fortunately for Eddie, his stubborn, cantankerous old Uncle Jonas (as played by vaudeville legend Charles “Chic” Sale, whose name became synonymous with outhouses after he published his many monologues in order to prevent copyright infringement) is always there to tell him what a wuss he is for not standing up for himself. In fact, good ol’ Uncle Jonas ‒ whose relation to Eddie’s family, though constantly stated, is something we really have to wonder about ‒ is always ready to teach Eddie a lesson in self-defence with the boxing gloves. Alas, Eddie prefers to whine, nag, roll up into a ball, and cry instead of trying to grow a pair of things which have not yet developed.
Heavy on sap and almost completely devoid of anything actually resembling compassion, When a Feller Needs a Friend features all of the hallmarks of fine parenting: Eddie’s parents (Ralph Graves and Dorothy Peterson) ignore their son because of his condition, choosing to keep him sheltered and all-but-shackled away from the outside world. This only worsens when Eddie’s bratty cousin (Andy Shuford) comes to live with the family, and is received and treated like the “normal” kid they always wanted, never admitting the fact the cousin bullies their own son relentlessly. And wait until the characters start talking about sending Jonas off to the poor farm!
Child actors Helen Parrish and Donald Haines (another former Hal Roach Rascal who would join the East Side Kids legacy before giving his life in WWII) also star in this unbearable drama from Harry A. Pollard, who helmed many a silent film. This would prove to be his last credited gig; he would pass away from cancer two years later. Sylvia Thalberg (sister of MGM icon Irving) and Frank Butler (a regular writer on Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s Road pictures) take the blame for the adaptation of William Johnston’s sensibly titled novel Limpy ‒ which I can only hope is slightly easier on the eyes and ears than this difficult-to-endure slice of hell.
But, no matter how hard it is to sit through When a Feller Needs a Friend ‒ and I must stress I have never been so overcome with the urge to fold laundry in all of my life while this one rolled out ‒ I have to hand it to the Warner Archive Collection for rescuing this obscurity from the vaults. Not only are they doing their part to preserve our motion picture heritage (for better or for worse), but they also enable us to graft a slight inkling of how tough it must have been for kids before they only had a lack of adequate Wi-Fi for their laptops or an almost depleted mobile phone battery to gripe about. If nothing else, you can show this to your young’uns and watch them suffer.