Edward Arnold plays a ruthless gangster who’s raised his streetwise boy (Gene Reynolds) to follow in his footsteps. Arnold remains at large when the feds catch Reynolds and send him to reform school. He’s such a destructive terror there, that he’s paroled to a farmer (Robert Sterling) who needs the meager stipend to keep his farm going, and might get a hefty reward, if Arnold can be lured to the farm to visit his son. Reynolds warms to rural life and to the good people around him, including Sterling’s mother Emma Dunn, his girlfriend Marsha Hunt, her sister Gloria DeHaven (just Reynold’s age too), and their grandpa Lionel Barrymore. After a bumpy start, Reynolds might be rethinking his promise to join Arnold in a life of crime.
The Penalty was directed by Harold S. Bucquet, and based on a play by Martin Berkeley. It’s really two pictures in one, with first city/crime and then country/honest work shaping Reynolds’ character, which is tested when his two worlds and father figures meet. The tough crime movie half features Arnold’s character, his methods and his network. The film starts with his daring bank robbery using a dozen innocent men he just “hired” as labourers. He offers to take them to the bank to get their pay, then gets away with a bag of money by showing the teller his killer “gang.”
Arnold’s moll (Veda Ann Borg) and Reynolds bicker about how she’ll give them all away with her conspicuous spending and addiction to chocolate marshmallows. That’s exactly what draws FBI agents Richard Lane and Ralph Byrd onto their trail. But Arnold has a big tell too, his signature expression, “that’s the stuff.” So no matter how carefully the gang uses the “grapevine” of messengers (Phil Silvers is one, disguised as a hobo) bearing cryptic statements (e.g. “if I only had a blonde from New York”), the Feds finally catch up to them.
Arnold is excellent as the vicious “Stuff” Nelson with a soft spot for his boy but no tolerance for disobedience. He teaches Reynolds all the gangster skills, and tells him to trust no one, but he also wants to set him up with a legit casino so he doesn’t continue the same life on the lam. He impresses the boy by getting him flying lessons, and then fears for his safety. The fatherly love Reynolds feels over that gesture he needs to focus on later, when he’s disgusted by dad’s cold-blooded murders.
When Reynolds is sent to the country in the “farm half” of the story, he’s understandably confused by simple kindness, trust and loving guidance. He’s also no match for a nasty gander (aren’t they all?) who delights in attacking unguarded rear ends. Reynolds is surprised to learn that a “hick” like Sterling can both outsmart him and protect him. When Sterling shows the boy how cross-breeding corn seed will bring in loads of profit, it’s the first time Reynolds has ever enjoyed the thought of making money through honest hard work. We see quick little signs that he’s changing: he does well in Hunt’s class, is talked into a pilot training path by Barrymore, hesitates to contact Arnold, and feels guilt when he steals and loses his temper. But that’s all in a short time with no guarantee the changes will stick, so when Arnold comes to get him, the outcome isn’t as predictable as you might expect. Barrymore and Arnold get a juicy showdown scene, Arnold brings violence into their world, and then the boy will use some rules daddy taught him. The Penalty is a very likable movie with a fantastic cast and a good showcase for Gene Reynolds’ acting. In later decades he was an Emmy-winning TV producer who worked on M*A*S*H, among other series.