In Columbia Pictures’ final film loosely based on the children’s books by Margaret Sidney, the Pepper kids Polly (Edith Fellows), Ben (Charles Peck), Joey (Tommy Bond), Davie (Bobby Larson) and little Phronsie (Dorothy Ann Seese) are still happily residing at Gusty Corners alongside their mother (Dorothy Peterson, third-billed and in all of two scenes - did she have the cushiest gig in film history?), nice rich boy Jasper (Ronald Sinclair) and their wealthy guardian J.H. King (Pierre Watkin), who is at work building them a new house. Unfortunately, Aunt Martha (Kathleen Howard) resurfaces. Last seen in Five Little Peppers At Home (1940), this disapproving battleaxe wants Jasper back in her custody and hires a pair of burly detectives to enforce a court order. As a solution, the Pepper kids and Jasper are packed off to the Lansdowne Private School, where their good spirits are sorely tested by some strict teachers and snooty brats.
After Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1939), subsequent entries were scrappy efforts, little better than a bunch of half-hearted gags interspersed with an occasional playful platitude from queen of cute Dorothy Ann Seese. Thankfully, Five Little Peppers In Trouble ends the series on a relative high and recovers much of the original’s folksy, homespun charm. Following the wayward Out West with the Peppers (1940), this film boasts a tighter plot and better gags. Some are admittedly tedious slapstick filler (e.g. Davie falling in cement or getting stuck up a tree) but others hit their mark, including the inventive pranks Joey and Davie play on long-suffering butler Martin (Rex Evans). Poor Martin remains unflappable throughout and even faces down those detectives, unleashing a stream of doubletalk later echoed in the comedies director Charles Barton later made with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
Where Barton and his screenwriter Harry Rebuas really succeed is in returning the Pepper kids to adversity, putting them in a situation where they have to stick together and rely on their ingenuity. Seeing the Peppers shunned by the snobby kids, as older girls mock Polly’s shabby clothes and folksy ways and youngsters refuse to play with Phronsie, proves unexpectedly emotional. One nice scene finds Polly mocked during a music recital where nasty June (Shirley Mills) deliberately plays piano off-key. But Polly rises above it all as actress Edith Fellows - clearly enjoying the chance to sink her teeth into some real drama - displays a fine operatic singing voice.
Things turn a little darker, or as dark as these films get, when the mean girls pull a prank that turns surprisingly nasty and leave Polly to take all the blame. Interestingly, the film sidesteps an overtly mawkish conclusion as Polly never proves her innocence but makes a private peace with an injured Pam. The film ends with the Pepper clan set to accompany Jasper on his trip to Paris but since no further entries were made Phronsie’s repeated queries (“What’s a Paris?”) went unanswered.