“Penrod and Sam”: If You’re New To Silent Films, Start Here! by Jenna Moloney


Penrod and Sam

Last week, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival was broadcast online to continue its prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic. As I watched these silent films and drank my red sangria, I dreamt of being in Italy amongst the fall foliage and silent film lovers like myself.

The first film I watched was entitled “Penrod and Sam,” and I really enjoyed it! I watched it with my 15-year-old sister who had never seen a silent film before, and we were both laughing throughout the boys’ adventures, yelling each time Roddy entered the scene. I think there is a fun element to silent films, as you can laugh and joke through them without missing major plot points. If you are new to the silent film scene, I recommend this one as a starter. It has a pretty loose plot until about ¾ of the way in, so
you can just enjoy the ambiance and get used to the new medium.

Please Note: Spoilers Ahead!

“Penrod and Sam” was released in 1923 in the US. It was based on the novel of the same name released in 1916. The story follows a young all-American boy named Penrod and his best friend Sam. Penrod rules the young community – he is the leader of the boys’ “militia” and commands how their missions will proceed. This tale of boyhood was very lighthearted and fun to watch. The juxtaposition of their innocence to their parents uptight nature was refreshing. Their purity was progressive for this time period as their friend group included two Black boys who were portrayed as friends and members of their “army.” (This youthful inclusion differs from the division of races amongst the adults, as we see with the Black maid in Penrod’s house.) One of the boys even has a connection with a small Black girl who is shown in a cute and romantic light. She is beautiful and even more innocent than the white female romantic character, who is a bit
more gritty and outspoken.

On top of the romantic connections and friendship portrayed through the childhood adventures of the group, there were also a few darker elements sprinkled into the plot. Penrod’s dad selling the lot where Penrod’s friend group gathers was an example of a parent caring more about finances than his child’s emotional and social health. The communication between father and son was very poor at the beginning of the film, but through this careless decision and the depression Penrod falls into when his lot is taken from him, his father realizes his son’s wellbeing is more important than a few hundred dollars. He buys the lot back for more than he sold it for, and the love the two boys share
grows immensely. The character Roddy is a great example of greed and envy. However, the conclusion of the film proves that acting on those negative impulses will not yield true friends.

Penrod endures his first experience with death in this film; a car hits the puppy that he learned to love and care for. He has to take on the role of adult after this event by digging a grave for his dog and making sure it is visited each day. When Roddy obtains the lot for
his own personal advancement in the friend group, it adds a layer of wickedness to his character. When Penrod can no longer visit his dog’s grave due to Roddy’s “new rules”, it proves that Roddy’s intentions were truly evil.

One aspect of this film that was less than progressive was the element of toxic masculinity. Penrod achieves credibility in his friend group by physically fighting anyone in his way. However, this is not an original idea on his part. When he misbehaves, his friend’s parents expect him to be beaten by his father. This is not healthy for a young child to endure, especially with his friends and grown men listening in, and it only
teaches him to take out his anger toward others physically.

Silent films allow our 2020 minds to view what the world was like 100 years ago. We can grasp just how much our society has changed since then. With “Penrod and Sam,” we discover that even though we continue to change culturally and socially, the innocence
and adventurous childhood is timeless.

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