MGM bought George Oppenheimer’s story A Yank at Eton in early 1939 and word soon trickled through the trade papers that they planned on shipping Mickey Rooney and Freddie Bartholomew to England to star. In mid-August, Variety reported that the first sequence, featuring Rooney starring in a high school football game, would be shot on the Metro lot, and then the rest was going to be filmed in England. World War II shelved the movie for three years, and while Rooney and Bartholomew would star, the entire production was filmed at Culver City in 1942.
After Rooney’s Tim Dennis wins the big game, he shares a few words with a visiting Notre Dame football legend who had played alongside Tim’s late father. After expressing his desire follow in father’s footsteps for the Fighting Irish, Tim hits the showers. The locker room is infiltrated by his little sister, Jane aka “Runt” (Juanita Quigley), who brings news from their mother. Their mom fell in love while on vacation in England and now she wants the kids to join her and her new husband at his home across the Atlantic. Any trace of Andy Hardy Goes to Notre Dame disappears when Rooney is diverted to his new life in England.
Before ten minutes of the movie have passed, 17-year-old Tim has put his football future on hold, engaged in an innocent shipboard romance, and disembarked in England, where he and Runt are met by their mother (Marta Linden) and her new husband, Roger Carlton (Ian Hunter). “Let’s hate England,” Runt says, determined to side with her unhappy big brother, but her very pleasant new stepfather brings her around with a trip to his stables and his gift of two puppies. Tim has a talk with his mother and vows to do his best to fit in while insisting he will return to the States and Notre Dame after finishing high school in England.
That’s the rest of the movie, Tim fitting in and going to school. The ante is upped when it's not just any school, but Eton, where Carleton secures for Tim the space he had reserved for his late son.
Carlton’s living son, Peter (Freddie Bartholomew), is in the upper class at Eton. This should ease Tim’s transition, but the independent-minded American doesn’t make life easy for himself. He immediately makes an enemy out of the Master of the House, Kenvil (Peter Lawton), though also forms a fast friendship with the diminutive 6th Earl of Weald (Raymond Severn), who Tim dubs Inky after the stains on his collar. The Headmaster (Edmund Gwenn) is a kind gentleman who allows Tim every opportunity to fit in, but is fed up with him by the time of the school’s first break at the end of the first half. He scolds Tim for taking his ideas of American individualism too far, explaining that he finds his behavior more barbarian than American. He hopes Tim can be better when school resumes.
During their stay, Tim causes a mishap at Carlton’s stables that costs his stepfather one of his prize horses. The incident leads to a heart-to-heart between Tim and his stepfather, with Roger explaining that despite their nationalities, he and Tim are the same type of people. Tim is now ignited with a desire to reform and excel upon his return to Eton. Most of the boys are happy to support Tim, but Kenvil holds his grudge.
Tim eventually faces expulsion for a mishap caused by Kenvil. This leads to a misunderstanding between Tim and Peter, and eventually sets Runt loose to lead Inky and the entire pack of the younger lower boys to save Tim from expulsion. There’s a wild bar brawl and an equally unruly cab ride that more resembles a circus act, especially after Alan Mowbray arrives to give the cab a little extra push.
As mentioned, Rooney’s Tim resembles a displaced version of Andy Hardy. How will the stubborn All-American boy fit into the presumably stuffy confines of upper class England, and how will the more rigidly ordered British react to the presumably wild American. Rooney is at his best during the lightest and darkest moments of A Yank at Eton, but he’s a bit hard to take in between, when he’s surly and petulant. The British characters show a remarkable restraint in allowing Tim’s poor mood and bad manners to roll off their backs. There isn’t much to put American viewers off of the British, other than Kenvil, who’s just a bad egg regardless of nationality.
Tim’s sister, the Runt, is played by ten-year-old Juanita Quigley, who energizes every scene she appears in. That’s saying something since she’s often alongside Rooney, who is hyperactive as ever in Yank. Quigley’s Runt is a precocious little girl, completely loyal to her big brother, though able to make him see her way with the hilarious threat of biting her finger till the end falls off. When she sees how full Eton dress clashes with her brother’s ultra American image, Runt breaks down in tears, begging Tim to at least remove his hat. Runt attaches herself to Inky later in the movie, which is good because it keeps the exuberant little star relevant through the climax.
Quigley was a busy child star from 1934-1944, most notably playing Claudette Colbert’s daughter at age 3 in Imitation of Life (1934), where she was billed as Baby Jane. Later in her career she appeared as one of Elizabeth Taylor’s sisters in National Velvet (1944), also with Mickey Rooney. Quigley became a human interest story when she left acting behind in 1951 to become Sister Quentin Rita of the Catholic Daughters of Mary and Joseph. She left the convent 13 years later, married, and became an instructor at Villanova University.
I suspect Rooney and Freddie Bartholomew would have been more evenly matched had MGM made A Yank at Eton in 1939 as originally planned. At that time the two actors had recently played together in a similar film, Lord Jeff (1938), where Freddie played the brat and Mickey was the well-adjusted young man. But MGM let Freddie go in 1939 and he had only had a light freelancing schedule since then, so it was a nice touch by the company to get him back at all for this film. He shares several scenes with Mickey, though you don’t have to do anything more than look at Freddie towering over Rooney and Edmund Gwenn to see that his days as a child star have expired.
A Yank at Eton’s message of American and British unity was on target with the war audience and the film scored at the box office on both sides of the Atlantic. All tolled it cleared $1.1 million in profits, with 42% of total earnings coming on foreign soil.
The success of A Yank at Eton didn’t help save Freddie Bartholomew’s career. MGM never used him again. His next effort came at Columbia in Junior Army (1942) alongside Billy Halop and some other Dead End Kids. Freddie enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in December 1942. On the other hand, Mickey Rooney continued his run as a major star at MGM, following Yank with more Andy Hardy and then The Human Comedy (1943), which earned him a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. The studio kept Rooney busy with additional films up until the time he was drafted in 1944.
Rooney had previously supported Bartholomew in Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Devil Is a Sissy (1936), Captains Courageous (1937), and Lord Jeff (1938), so it is fitting that they share A Yank at Eton's final moments, their last alongside one another in any movie.
A Yank at Eton is available for purchase as a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R from Warner Archive. The trading card and still images shown on this page are from my stock, while the screen captures are from a Turner Classic Movies recording of the film.
- “Actress Gives Up Film Career to Become Nun.” Toledo Blade. 20 Aug 1951: 2. Web. Google News. 24 Jan 2015.
- Beck, Marilyn. “Where Are Movie Kids Now? Dead, Fled, on Top or Out?” Milwaukee Journal Green Sheet. 17 Jul 1973: 1. Web. Google News. 24 Jan 2015.
- “Friendly Gesture.” Variety 16 Aug 1939: 5.
- Glancy, Mark. When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood ‘British’ Film 1939-1945. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999: 71.
- “Yank at Eton for M-G-M.” Motion Picture Daily. 24 Feb 1939: 5.