Clearly, what first attracted me to the little-seen 1936 MGM programmer The Devil Is A Sissy was its title. Would the Devil show up in the film? Who would play him? My money was on Mickey Rooney. Would he indeed be a "sissy"? How would the filmmakers show him to be a sissy, exactly—sobbing over a scraped knee? Maybe the Devil would see a little mouse, and then would jump up on a stool eeeeking with a screamy voice, and then there would be a close-up of the mouse laughing at him. Is the word "sissy" a micro-agression? Against whom? What about the word "devil"—or is "The Devil" more of a proper name, like "The Fonz"? These are the questions that kept me out of the really good schools.
I was also attracted by the cast; this movie stars three of the most popular juvenile performers of the 1930s. How would their very different acting styles mesh? Were there fistfights on set, as there are in the film? Who would win these off-screen fistfights? My money was on Jackie Cooper; he looks scrappy. I learned through the courtesy of IMDb that at various points in his career, Jackie Cooper played characters named Skippy, Swipes, Scooter, Midge, and Dink, but alas, no Scrappy. This seems like a missed opportunity.
This sounds like a raucous comedy, but Gig's dad is a famous criminal who is given the chair. Yes, the ELECTRIC chair. The rest of the film concerns the boys' efforts to raise enough money to buy him a proper tombstone. Yes, a TOMBSTONE. Because if there are two objects that belong in any "boy's adventure" film, those two objects are an electric chair and a tombstone.
The most interesting aspect of The Devil Is A Sissy is its labyrinthine plot and its inability to pick a single genre. Is this film a standard "slice of life" drama from the mid-1930s? Sometimes. Is it, in fact, a boy's adventure film? Sometimes. Is it a gangster picture? For about ten minutes, yes! This film reminded me of the Bollywood films that suddenly shift genre every ten minutes until they have covered all the bases, thereby qualifying as a "full evening of entertainment." A very good reason to watch The Devil Is A Sissy is that, if at any given moment the film is not pleasing you, it will obligingly switch genres to something you may like better.
One of the reasons for the film's apparent indecision might be that during shooting the film's original director, Rowland Brown, was replaced by W.S. Van Dyke, who reshot most of Brown's footage. Rowland Brown is an interesting historical footnote at MGM; he was continually being replaced mid-shoot by other directors.
Many skilled character actors familiar to all who love films of the 1930s make appearances here, but none are given enough screen time to really make an impression. Gene Lockhart, lovable Bob Crachit in the 1938 A Christmas Carol, shows up as Buck Murphy's dad and reminds the audience of his range by thrashing his son with a belt, kind of a lot. Grant Mitchell, well known from such Frank Capra favorites as Arsenic and Old Lace and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, made nine films in 1936, one of which was The Devil Is A Sissy. I tend to recognize some of these character actors more by voice than face. Jonathan Hale, famous for playing a judge in dozens of MGM films, here plays a judge.