Penny Wisdom (1937)


She’s decided to bake something. . .probably a cornerstone for the new town hall.

Penny Wisdom, one of “Pete Smith Specialties,” is a culinary film that won the 1937 Oscar for Best Short Subject, Color. The rather pedestrian plot goes a little something like this: Housewife Chloe Smudge (a gum-smacking Gertrude Short) is informed by her husband (Harold Minjir) that he’s bringing his boss and best client home for dinner. Unfortunately for the Smudges, Chloe’s a bit of a tyrant and the household cook has quit. On her own reconnaissance, she attempts to conjure up a multi-course meal, with disastrous results. Following a near nervous collapse, Chloe is rescued when the narrator (Pete Smith), calls his pal, Prudence Penny of the LA Examiner, to assist the little wife with her kitchenly duties.

Prudence, who clearly won top marks in her high school home-ec class, whips up a cost-effective meal (only $2.83!) in a mere 35 minutes. The guests are wowed! Mr. Smudge no longer prays for a medium sized earthquake! The day is SAVED!

Aside from the hilarious one-liners delivered drolly by Pete Smith, modern day viewers will derive an anachronistic kick from Prudence’s stomach-churning meal choices. Tomatoes stuffed with peppers, celery, and mayonnaise? A strange concoction that amounts to a pineapple sandwich wedged between two hunks of meat? Burnt pea soup allegedly salvaged by a spoonful of peanut butter? I’m no gourmand, but the whole menu rates a 10 on the Doris “You take tuna, run it through the meat grinder, add clam juice and peanut butter!” Upson scale of vomit. Mame Dennis would be appalled!

Yet, it just goes to show the lack of common sense prevailing in pre-Julia Child American cuisine. In search of some kind of national culinary identity, the upwardly mobile Depression housewife ran away from Fannie Farmer and into the arms of these absurdist offerings from such “woman” oriented publications as Ladies Home Journal. Chloe herself abides ice cream as a plebian dessert. Not until Prudence slathers it with meringue and broils the mess in imitation of a Baked Alaska, does Mrs. Smudge deign to place it on her dining table.

Today, these bizarre recipes stand as an interesting counterpoint to the more appetizing Depression dishes of working class denizens, as evidenced by Clara Cannucciari’s cookbook. Influenced by immigrant tradition and altered by the introduction of New World, locally sourced ingredients, these dishes may be simple, but at least they are digestible.

Now, a few words about Prudence. Brainchild of the Hearst organization, there were many incarnations of the Penny persona, and therefore while I’m not entirely sure who plays the one seen here, we can be fairly confident that she never actually wrote any of the Prudence Penny columns. In this David Miller directed piece, she is billed simply “as herself,” and apparently went on to do a few more short subjects, including Penny’s Picnic, which I’m dying to see. What kind of fare would a gal like this bring on a picnic?

Prudence was also apparently the author of a cookbook, Prudence Penny: The American Woman’s Cookbook. Again, note the stress on national and feminine identity. The target audience was doubtlessly middle-class American women. Although I don’t own it, I’m thinking this might be a worthwhile acquisition, if only for the inherent entertainment value that her recipes are sure to provide.

As a film, Penny Wisdom, is a winsome, charming offering. The campy, genre-appropriate performances of all the characters heighten the “every day predicament” scenario, and coupled with a clever script, deliver genuine laughs. Plus, there’s a dog. A cute one. And some stop-motion fish heads.

P.S. The one practical takeaway from Prudence is her salt trick for banishing onion odor from hands. Take it from Miss Fierce, this one really does work!

Thanks to my friend, Tyler, for sending me this gem!

One Comment to “Penny Wisdom (1937)”

  1. I cannot express enough how much my daughter and I enjoyed this! We just watched it on TCM.

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