Courageous Mr Penn (1942)

September 12th, 2021
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Lance Comfort | Cast: Clifford Evans, Deborah Kerr, Dennis Arundell, Aubrey Mallalieu | UK Drama 78′

A straightforward history lesson plainly aimed at drumming up support from the isolationist United States of 1941, Penn of Pennsylvania wasn’t ready for cinemas until Pearl Harbor had already forced America’s hand and thus rendered this film obsolete by the time it finally opened in Britain at the end of January 1942. It received only a perfunctory New York airing at the end of 1943 retitled Courageous Mr. Penn to suggest action rather than history and was then quietly forgotten. (The print on YouTube is of the US version, with hasty-looking credits containing errors and omissions – Edmund Willard is billed as ‘Edward’ and the name of director of photography Ernest Palmer is missing altogether.)

Precisely because it’s moment was so brief makes Penn of Pennsylvania extremely interesting viewing today. In many respects it ironically resembles a German ‘genius’ film of the same period such as Friedrich Schiller (1940), in which a fiery young hero back in the Bad Old Days defies convention and outrages the reactionary old establishment. Both a jury of Penn’s peers and Charles II himself (played by Dennis Arundell) are shown taking the side of the dashing young Mr. Penn against the dead weight of the establishment.

The Merry Monarch thoughtfully opines for the benefit of any future waverers across the Pond that “We could take America and turn it into a vast continent whose freedom of thought and liberty of conscience will be the birthright of every man”. Penn goes one better by declaring “We would treat the Indians as brothers and gain their friendship”; although he’s later required to show himself handy with his fists to prevent the lynching of one of his new brethren. Penn also makes a point of obliging his colleagues to leave their weapons at home when he comes to negotiate with the local chief.

(A strange moment occurs when the King himself solicits the opinion of a gentlemen that he addresses as “My Lord Halifax”, who we then cut to in close-up – the actor himself is like many others in the film unidentified in the credits – so that he can respond “I think that Mr. Penn is an extremely brave gentlemen, and I should like to wish him luck.”)

The cast includes many familiar faces in wigs – including Henry Oscar as Samuel Pepys and Gibb McLaughlin as the Indian Chief (fortunately the latter isn’t playing a speaking part) – embellished with handsome sets and photography and William Alwyn’s first score for a feature film. A radiant young Deborah Kerr plays his wife Guli, whose memory a title informs us “was always with him” after her death in 1696. The film omits to mention that he remarried two years later and fathered nine more children. @RichardChatten

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