Moments of Movie Wisdom: True Loyalty in ‘Lord Jeff’ (1938)

Moments of Movie Wisdom: True Loyalty in ‘Lord Jeff’ (1938)
Actor Mickey Rooney (top) pictured sitting high on a mast calling the boys to mast practice, circa 1938, as publicity for the film "Lord Jeff." (Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Tiffany Brannan

In his book “From Within I Rise,” T. F. Hodge wrote, “One owes loyalty, only, to those who demonstrate in kind.” Loyalty is one of human nature’s most admirable traits. It’s wonderful to be able to trust someone implicitly, knowing he will stick by you no matter what. However, this quote reminds us of loyalty’s flipside. We must bestow it carefully, because it’s important to know where our loyalties should lie. When placed between loyalty to two separate people, how do you know which to honor? The answer lies in these wise words. Study each person’s actions and determine who would stand by you in a similar situation.

Today’s moment of movie wisdom comes from “Lord Jeff” (1938), fourth of five movies featuring young actors Mickey Rooney and Freddie Bartholomew. The scene takes place 77 minutes into the 85-minute film. When a boy (Bartholomew) who was sent to a naval school after his involvement in a jewelry theft is caught with the stolen jewels, he learns a valuable lesson about loyalty from the superintendent (Charles Coburn).

The Story

Young “Lord” Geoffrey Braemer (Bartholomew) appears to be the perfect little gentleman when he enters an expensive jewelry store to buy his mother a present. However, when an expensive necklace disappears during his sudden fainting spell, he is apprehended as the thieves’ accomplice. His associates, Jim Hampstead (George Zucco) and Doris Clandon (Gale Sondergaard), desert him to the court’s mercy, but an understanding magistrate takes pity on the orphan boy. Believing the cunning pair conned him into criminal involvement, he turns him over to the custody of the Russell Cotes Nautical School, a training academy for the Mercantile Marines. There, Geoffrey is determined to dislike everyone, including pint-sized recruit Albert Baker (Terry Kilburn) and honor student Terry O’Mulvaney (Mickey Rooney), despite their best attempts to befriend him.

When Geoffrey runs away, Terry goes after him, knowing he’ll be sent to reform school. Geoffrey gets back in time, but Terry is caught climbing through a window after curfew. When Terry refuses to reveal the truth, the superintendent, Captain Briggs (Coburn), is forced to take away his rank, hurting his chances for one of the coveted spots on the Queen Mary’s next voyage. After this incident, the boys unanimously agree to “put the freeze” on Geoffrey; little Albert is the only boy who will talk to him. However, when lovable Bosun “Crusty” Jelks (Herbert Mundin) appoints Geoffrey as captain of the rowing boat to race against a naval school, and he leads the team to victory, the boy finally starts loving his work.

Since his schoolmates still reject him, Geoffrey finally confesses the truth about Terry’s breaking curfew, though he knows the consequences it could have. Realizing that his confession proves he has reformed, Captain Briggs doesn’t punish him and allows him to go to the party celebrating their victory. The party is hosted by Doris Clandon, Geoffrey’s former associate, who tries to convince him to rejoin them. When he refuses, Jim sews the stolen necklace into Geoffrey’s coat lining, planning for him to unwittingly sneak it through customs for them. As he and the pair were hoping, Geoffrey is selected as a member of the Queen Mary crew, along with a vindicated Terry, and is finally accepted by the boys. However, when the necklace is discovered in his coat, Geoffrey must decide where his loyalties lie, with the pair who led him into a life of crime then deserted him or with the school which has welcomed him and made a man of him.

Publicity still for the 1937 film "Captains Courageous" starring Freddie Bartholomew. (MovieStillsDB)
Publicity still for the 1937 film "Captains Courageous" starring Freddie Bartholomew. (MovieStillsDB)

The Scene

After Geoffrey is unable to explain the necklace in his coat, Captain Briggs calls him into his office, along with Crusty and housemother Mrs. Briggs (Emma Dunn). The captain says, “Geoffrey, tell me, what do you know about this?” Geoffrey answers, “I think it must be the necklace ... stolen from Morcott’s, sir.” “How did it get into your coat?” Captain Briggs asks. Geoffrey hesitates. “I can’t say, sir.” “We believe in you, dear, because we’re your friends,” Mrs. Briggs interjects, “but a magistrate would be much more skeptical.” “Yes, ma’am,” Geoffrey replies nervously, “I know that.” Captain Briggs asks, “You never felt the necklace in your coat before the night of the party, did you?” “No, sir, I didn’t,” Geoffrey answers. “Have you had any contact with your former associates?” the captain presses. Geoffrey pauses again, then uncomfortably replies, “I can’t say, sir.” Crusty breaks in, saying, “For the sake of all of us, lad, speak up and tell what you know, every last bit of it.”
“Geoffrey, do you remember when you ran away?” Captain Briggs asks. “Yes, sir,” Geoffrey responds. “And you knew that for such a transgression as running away, I could return you to the court for probable sentence to a reformatory?” the captain continues. “You knew that?” “Yes, sir,” says Geoffrey, “I did.” “Knowing it, why did you confess?” the captain asks. “Out of loyalty, wasn’t it?” “Yes, sir,” Geoffrey answers, “it was.” “Loyalty to what?” Captain Briggs queries. “To ... to Russell Cotes, sir,” Geoffrey replies. “Good,” the captain says. “Geoffrey, loyalty is a splendid quality, and I admire you for yours. But you have now to choose between two loyalties: loyalty to the people who led you on the wrong path, or to the boys who believed in you and still do, under every suspicion. To Terry, Crusty, to Ned, Albert, Tommy, all of them. Which loyalty do you choose?” “To Russell Cotes, sir,” Geoffrey says after a pause. “And the boys.” Realizing where his loyalties lie, Geoffrey finally reveals the truth.

Its Significance

Until this point, Geoffrey has spent most of the film being a wholly unlikable boy. From the stuckup, demanding little nobleman at the film’s opening of the film to the bitter, snobbish student he becomes at the academy, it seems unlikely that he’ll ever change. However, when he finally turns around into a regular fellow, the audience begins to root for him. The discovery of the necklace, just as he’s packing for his trip on the Queen Mary, comes as quite a blow to him and to the audience. It seems certain that he will stick to the criminal honor code and not reveal anything, dooming himself to prosecution.
However, through the love and understanding of his newfound mentors and friends, Geoffrey realizes the two thieves who brought him up have no hold on him anymore. He learns the importance of truth earlier in the film, when he finally finds the nerve to confess to running away. He faces it again when he accuses his former associates. He is loyal to the right people by speaking up and is rewarded for his actions in the end.

It Goes Both Ways

To be loyal is one thing, but to be gullible and easily manipulated is another. Loyalty, like every important thing, must be earned. As Captain Briggs tells Geoffrey, loyalty is admirable but must be carefully given and guarded. Despite very bad treatment from the other boy, Terry protects Geoffrey, sacrificing his own reputation. When Geoffrey finally reciprocates by telling the truth, he is rewarded with his classmates’ loyalty and friendship. When he reveals all he knows about the necklace and the pair who stole it, he not only helps bring them to justice but frees himself from them and their evil ways for good. He is rewarded by being able to start a new life with four friends aboard the Queen Mary.

Loyalty to a friend or associate who is in the wrong or seeking to do harm can lead you down a dangerous path. Loyalty to a cause which proves different than you thought is an even more common mistake. To quote another wise man, President Abraham Lincoln, “Be with a leader when he is right, stay with him when he is still right, but, leave him when he is wrong.”

In today’s world, when it’s so easy to cling to a side or a particular person just to avoid being swept into the tide of confusion, this is an important lesson to remember. Has loyalty to an individual made you disloyal to your cause or your beliefs? As Geoffrey Braemer learned, no matter what a person may have done for you in the past, if you know that he is now wrong, you must take a stand and remember where your loyalty truly belongs.

Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.