Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Original Harry Potter ( 1938 )

Ever wonder what the original Harry Potter series was like? We certainly did; and so in the spirit of the upcoming Great Imaginary Film Blogathon, we thought we'd share our review of the first film in the original Harry Potter series... and get this, he wasn't called Harry!  

Henry Potter ( 1938 ) 
aka School for Sorcerers  ( UK title )

Studio : MGM Pictures. 

Directed by Victor Fleming. 

Cast : Freddie Bartholomew ( Henry Potter ), Mickey Rooney ( Richard "Dodge" Woolsey  ), Joan Mortimer ( Lucille Griffith ), Jackie Cooper ( Dunkin Balfrey ), Basil Rathbone ( Snafferal Snake ), Harry Davenport ( Headmaster Humbledore ), Louis Hayward ( Professor Quinttin ), May Robson ( Headmistress Margaret McDonagall ), Wallace Beery ( Rupert Haggin, Groundskeeper ),  Lennox Pawle ( Mr. Wanderers ). 

The Story : 

The film takes place in 1876 London, and opens with a young orphan, Henry Potter, being sold to rather dubious foster folk who agree to provide him food and lodging provided he work in exchange. One day, while running an errand to the meat shop in town, he happens to pass by Wanderers Magic Shop, a shop he has not seen before even though he just passed the storefront on his way to town. Mr. Wanderers beckons him in and tells him he has been expecting young Henry. 

His face was not pasted on. We kid you not!

He informs Henry that he is a little warlock - quite a famous one at that, having survived an attack from the villainous Lord Valdimere as a baby. He then equips Henry with a basic entry-level witch kit complete with cape, a wand and a magic spell book and sends him off into the streets..which have been magically transformed to Dungeon Alley, a hidden wizardry avenue filled with students preparing for the fall semester of school. Henry boards the train at Queen's Station which takes him to Higgens School of Witchcraft, where he has been invited to attend. 

Henry Potter and Dunkin Balfrey

Once at school Henry meets Dodge Woolsey and Lucy Griffith, two chums he will remain lifelong friends well as Dunkin Balfrey, at first a schoolhouse rival, but then a good friend. He also finds Headmaster Humbledore to be a trusted ally and mentor. Humbledore reveals to Henry details about his birth and the death of his parents that he was unaware of before and warns him against Lord Valdimere, who may return to harm him. Sinister events at the school make Henry suspect that one of his professors is aiding Valdimere in his desire to kill him. It will take a pure heart, a good knowledge of witchcraft, and the help of his friends for Henry to overcome the evil Valdimere. 

The adorable May Robson as Headmistress MacDonagall

The Review : 

Although it falls into the routine "Tom Brown's Schooldays" formula upon occasion, overall the movie is quite enjoyable and it was a great introduction to a series that ran for over six years. Freddie Bartholomew and Mickey Rooney are a great duo ( they made five other films together in addition to the Henry Potter films ) and Joan Mortimer provided good sweetheart-support as little Lucille Griffith. Joan Mortimer would be busy in the early 1940s as she juggled between doing the Henry Potter series in addition to the Henry Aldrich series with Jimmy Lydon. She must of loved working with Henrys!

Unfortunately, Freddie Bartholomew was pigeon-holed into playing English school-boy roles ever since his appearance in David Copperfield in 1935. Bartholomew was fourteen years old when the Potter series began and by the time the fourth film in the series was filmed he was edging near twenty. Because of his growing age the studio execs decided to cancel the series...much to the disappointment of its loyal followers. 

One of the most notable performances in Henry Potter is from villain-extraordinaire Basil Rathbone. Little Henry has his eye on him from the start and it's no never know whether to trust Snake or not. 

Basil Rathbone was famous in the 1930s for playing villains in such notable films as Captain Blood, Kind Lady, and The Adventures of Robin Hood ( filmed the same year ). However, in the late 1930s he would star in what would become his most famous role, that of Sherlock Holmes, in a string of classic films released by Universal. 

MGM was generally not inclined to film stories dealing with witchcraft, however since Henry Potter focused on the predicaments of three school age children, Louis B. Mayer felt that youngsters would relate to the trials and tribulations they must go through in spite of its underlying theme. And with three of the studio's top child actors in the lead roles, it was sure not to miss! 

Henry Potter was released on Sept. 18, 1938 and ranked in above-average at the box-office. Most of the film was shot in the sound stages at MGM and on the backlot where Dungeon Alley and the Higgins School of Witchcraft were constructed with MGM's usual stamp of set design brilliancy. 

Later releases included : 

Henry Potter's Secret ( 1940 ) 

Henry Potter Fights Back ( 1942 ) 

Henry Potter and the Black Bird ( 1944 ) 

The quality of the original films remained throughout but with much of the cast evolving as the series progressed it was difficult to match the enchantment of the original. Overall, its a series well worth checking out! 

For more information, or if you would like to participate in the Great Imaginary Film Blogathon click here.


  1. Great post...what makes it work are all the "changes" the 1930s MGM would make with this type of source material.

    1. Louis Mayer probably would have never allowed a story like Harry Potter to be made then, but we think Victor Fleming could of sweet-talked him into a revised script like this. Especially with widdle Fweddie in it.

    2. The original Harry Potter? It deserves to be recalled by us. It is also a treasure. I have also a good news to tell you.
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  2. I feel like I've seen it! Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

    1. Darn those MGM writers for not stealing Rowling's work earlier! Glad you enjoyed the post, Caftan Woman.