What a Life is a largely forgotten entry in the careers of Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett. Wilder doesn't even mention it in Conversations with Wilder, Cameron Crowe's book-length interview with the writer-director.
It's based on a play, but Paramount liked it enough to turn it into a franchise, featuring Jackie Cooper's lead character, Henry Aldrich, no doubt to compete with Andy Hardy over at Metro. Prior to this, I only knew Cooper from the Superman movies from the 70s and 80s, but of course, he had a notable career as a child star in the 30s, as one of the Little Rascals and in films like The Champ.
Henry is more of a schlemiel than Andy; he doesn't try to get into trouble, but it seems to find him anyway - and you can bet he gets the blame. He's Peter Parker without the benefit of a radioactive spider bite. Dad is implied but never seen, so there's no one with whom he can have a "man-to-man" talk (though a sympathetic teacher offers him guidance late in the film). There's a Mary Jane character for him to pine over and a Flash character to bully him, some oddball teachers, a semi-romantic adult couple, Hedda Hopper as Henry's mom, a glowering principal, even a cop!
To be honest, if this was the first Wilder film I saw (he only co-wrote; he didn't direct), I would not guess he'd go on to make films like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot, though there are hints, however small. The film opens with the school marching band parading through the campus and into the halls, and at the tail end, one kid provides a jazzy flair to the music before his music teacher scolds him. It's easy to miss, but it's there, and it's funny. The cop is called in to investigate some missing musical instruments, for which Henry is framed. The cop is belligerent to the snooty music teacher at first, but by the end, they're dancing together at the climactic school dance. The love interest actually has braces - but of course, she's only Hollywood Homely, so she gets a makeover and suddenly becomes a hottie.
What a Life came out in 1939, the same year as Ninotchka and Midnight; a huge difference. Here's a quote from Wilder about the film from Charlotte Chandler's Billy Wilder: A Personal Biography:
...The picture doesn't seem like much now, but at the time it was a very, very big challenge for me, it was so American. I had never worked on that kind of subject before, and this one was twice as tough, because it was about American teenagers in an American high school. The Europeans in Hollywood usually got European subjects, but with Charlie Brackett, they trusted me. The lines I contributed didn't speak with an accent.Given those circumstances, I can certainly cut him slack. Still, this would probably be best appreciated by Wilder completists.