Recently I learned of a Jesuit priest named Francis J. Finn who’d written Horatio Alger style adventure books from the 1890s through the 1920s. His most famous stories were novels about Tom Playfair, who attended St. Maure’s School. I wasn’t able to find any of that series, so I’ll be reviewing Fr. Finn’s Bobby In Movieland, published by Benziger Brothers in 1921.
Eight-year-old Bobby Vernon and his widowed mother were making their first visit to California. Bobby and his new friend, Peggy Sansone – they’d met on the Pullman railroad car – wanted to go wading in the ocean by Long Beach, and Mrs. Vernon gave her permission if they promised to return to the railroad station in half-an-hour, for they were traveling to see a relative who might help Mrs. Vernon pay a debt.
Alas, Bobby ventured further out into the water than he should have, and then – double alas – a high “roller” wave rushed over him and pushed him under water and then out to sea. Peggy rushed back to her mother, just as the train was about to leave the station. The girl was too upset to notice the small earthquake tremor that terrified those who were new to the Los Angeles area. The train was moving when Mrs. Vernon learned that her son probably drowned, and the porter told her it would be best to go on to the next station, and see if there was a telegram waiting for her.
Fortunately the book’s hero did not die in the first chapter. A former lifeguard rescued Bobby, then left to get the boy some brandy. (Gasp – and this during Prohibition!) Bobby put on his shoes, and just as memories of his near drowning came back to him he felt the earthquake tremor. Panic stricken, he began running out onto a highway.
Bobby was nearly hit by an auto driven by John Compton, a “promising comedian” recently hired by a moving-picture company to star in silent movies. Compton stopped his auto, and ran back to see if the boy was hurt. He soon learned the boy’s entire history, including Bobby’s mother’s maiden name. In later chapters I learned that Compton had once courted Bobby’s mother, but she had broken up with him because he was a non-believer.
Compton promised to take care of Bobby until he could be reunited with his mother. He promptly sent off a telegram to the train station
the widowed Mrs. Vernon was headed towards but – alas once more – so many frightened visitors rushed to send off wires that the telegraph company was overwhelmed with work, and John Compton’s message didn’t arrive in time to be delivered.
Compton had to return to his studio, and he took Bobby along. The boy followed the rules about staying out of the way of those working on the movie, but he was a born mimic, and amused himself by taking on the movements and facial expressions of the actors. And when the director gave instructions to an uninspired youth on how to act out a scene Bobby followed directions better than the paid actor, and put on an fine show out of camera range.
Soon everyone on the set knew that Bobby was a gifted actor, and he was given a part in the film. Bobby loved working in movies, staying with his “uncle” John Compton, and learning that Peggy Sansone – the girl he’d gone wading with – was an actress at the same studio he worked at.
Bobby was living near a Catholic church and loved to go inside to pray. Compton went in with him, though he didn’t know just what was required within church walls. Bobby gave him little catechism lessons, and soon the temporary uncle became interested in the faith of his young ward.
The boy was almost always cheerful, but when night came he missed his mother. Each evening Compton checked on Bobby after the boy had been sent to bed, saw tears on his face, and knew Bobby had cried himself to sleep.
What had happened to Mrs. Vernon? She got off at her destination, but found no telegram waiting for her. She made inquiries about the relative she’d come to see, and learned the man had recently died in poverty.
The train had left, so she prayed for guidance. Five minutes later a man with two children came up to her, and said his wife would die if he didn’t find a nurse to give her around-the-clock care. Mrs. Vernon declared that she’d attended nursing school, and was hired on the spot to go out to a ranch and care for the gravely ill wife and mother.
Caring for the woman helped Mrs. Vernon forget her own troubles, and she grew to love the family’s two children. But if she’s off living on an isolated ranch, will she learn anything about the wonderful new child movie star? Will the private investigators hired by John Compton be able to find her? And if she is reunited with her son, what will she think of his guardian, who’s now becoming interested in the Catholic church? You know, the man who once courted her, but who’s lack of faith doomed their romance.
I’ll let you know that the novel has a happy ending. Though I wouldn’t rank Fr. Finn as a first class writer, I found the book an enjoyable read. Bobby is a good boy, but he’s not perfect, so doesn’t come off as annoyingly pious. Other likable characters “reform” their mildly naughty habits in ways that come across as plausible.
Catechism lessons are given, but they only take up a couple of sentences at a time. However, the book was written for an audience of Catholic children, and has a religious slant that some may not appreciate.
If you’d like to know more about Bobby, Mrs. Vernon, John Compton, and how silent moving-pictures may have been made in 1921 Bobby In Movieland can be downloaded, free of charge at: