Hollywood tackles the big issues! This adapted play about an unwanted teen pregnancy is actually quite good, thanks to fine performances by Carol Lynley and Brandon De Wilde, who convince as cherubic high schoolers ‘too young to know the score.’ And hey, the teen trauma is set to an intense music score by Bernard Herrmann.
20th Century Fox Cinema Archives
1959 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 89 min. / Street Date March 16, 2016 / available through Amazon / 19.98
Starring Carol Lynley, Brandon De Wilde, Macdonald Carey, Marsha Hunt, Warren Berlinger, Vaughn Taylor, Roberta Shore, Malcolm Atterbury, Anthony J. Corso, Gregg Martell, William Schallert.
Cinematography Leo Tover
Film Editor William Reynolds, George Leggewie
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Written by Edith Sommer, Philip Dunne from the play by James Leo Herlihy and William Noble
Produced by Charles Brackett
Directed by Philip Dunne
Sex education today is erratic, with no established standard, but in 1959 it was scarcely discussed at all. My only public school sex education was a single day in High School, when an unhappy Mormon biology teacher, red-faced and stern, spoke to us as if he were being forced to talk about the most disgusting thing he could imagine: “The State of California requires me to tell you certain facts….” So when a 15 year-old girl in Blue Denim finds that the only book in the school library doesn’t help her, it’s entirely believable: “It doesn’t tell you how to STOP IT,” she cries,
The girl isn’t poor or disadvantaged, promiscuous or wanton, she’s simply defenseless and ignorant. Perhaps she hasn’t been told the story of the birds and the bees in any detail because her mother died years before, but that detail isn’t necessary. I don’t think my parents told me a single thing — when she became concerned that I was seeing a lot of a certain girl in High School, I got a book tossed on my bed, with the words “Read this.” I think I read two pages.
The admirable film about ‘young problems’ Blue Denim begins with a grim quote that equates adolescence with misery. From that beginning we meet some fairly happy middle class (or perhaps middle-to-lower middle class?) kids. They lack for nothing but could use more attention from their parents; the implication is that the relative affluence of ‘fifties America has loosened the family unit. Even mom and dad have time for activities outside the house, and thing go smoothly enough that, with survival not on the line, complacency has set in. The kids will do fine, they don’t need to be pushed. And they’re good kids, so it’s okay if we don’t monitor every moment of their lives, or know what they’re really up to when they’re alone.
Blue Denim began as a stage play co-written by James Leo Herlihy, who when he wasn’t acting also wrote the original books for Midnight Cowboy and All Fall Down. Director co-screenwriter Philip Dunne worked the play over with his co-screenwriter Edith Sommer, who wrote the source play for producer Charles Brackett’s rather superficial teen crisis drama Teenage Rebel. On Broadway Blue Denim had made a starlet of young Carol Lynley, who was retained for the movie version along with her young co-star Warren Berlinger, who was 22 by the time of filming.
Young Arthur Bartley (Brandon De Wilde of Shane and Hud) finds that his friendship with the equally young Janet Willard (Carol Lynley) is becoming serious, without either of them understanding completely why. Janet realizes that Arthur isn’t like other boys, and both are impressed by the romance and impending marriage of Arthur’s older sister Lillian (Nina Shipman). Arthur’s parents ‘The Major’ Malcolm (Macdonald Carey) and Jessie (Marsha Hunt) have no idea that when Arthur and his friend Ernie ‘study’ in the basement, they’re actually drinking, smoking and playing cards. Janet visits them there, even though her father Professor Willard (Vaughn Taylor), a gentle and reflective widower, tries to tell her that it isn’t ladylike behavior. Arthur and Janet go too far, and when she realizes she’s pregnant they have nobody to turn to. Telling the parents seems unthinkable. To get Janet to stop thinking about running away or killing herself, Arthur entreats the reluctant Ernie to locate an illegal abortion doctor. Arthur has to forge his father’s name to get the money. A black car arrives for Janet right during Lillian’s wedding. Janet cries, ‘please don’t make me go,’ but she puts on the blindfold and is taken away. Only then do Ernie and Arthur realize just what a big mistake they have made.
Dated or not, Blue Denim is still a highly effective drama. The young actors do indeed convey the problem of Babies Having Babies. Arthur and Janet strike us as far too young for children or marriage… they don’t yet know enough about making a living or what it will be like to compete with just a high school education. Their overall judgment is shaky at best. Due to ignorance and a willful denial of sexuality, girls still ‘get pregnant’ without fully understanding what’s happened to them. The movie’s tag line mentions ‘Lost Innocence,’ but in truth they still are innocent.
Much of Blue Denim does have the feeling of a Broadway play. The Bartley basement is the main set, and the boys are introduced with a card game not unlike that of the comedy Born Yesterday. Warren Berlinger carries himself with the skill of a New York pro. Best-pal Ernie is an all-purpose ‘relationship tester’: he teases Arthur’s parents, is the first to notice the serious attraction between Arthur and Janet, and is the one to bring up all the moral arguments when it comes time to seek a criminal abortion.
The parents are a lot fuzzier. Janet’s dad doesn’t realize that she’s a functioning adult woman; he still sees her as his baby. That’s quite realistic — Professor Willard behaves as if he’d like to shoo the boys away and keep her for himself forever: Janet is the image of his beloved, long-dead wife.
Arthur’s parents are set up to be ‘the problem,’ as defined by ’50s dramas that invariably point to parental negligence as responsible for delinquency and other adolescent ills. Mom’s thoughts are taken up with her daughter’s wedding, and dad tends to think of Arthur as someone to run errands. The Generation Gap hasn’t yet been defined, but son and parents aren’t really connecting.
In 1959 audiences were probably made uncomfortable by the realistic casting. The teenagers that look like real teenagers — in other words, twelve year-olds with longer legs and necks. Carol Lynley looks so vulnerable that we cringe at the idea of a quack doctor getting his hands on her. I imagine the show did its duty by making a lot of parents to think about their children, and a lot of kids to think about themselves. If it seems too tame, consider Blue Denim the teen-pregnancy equivalent of early Sidney Poitier movies: Poitier’s image may have been idealized, but it reached white people not ready to accept blacks that were less ‘perfect.’ Nobody is going to defame the utterly virtuous girl played by Carol Lynley, as a slut who gets what she deserved.
Interestingly, after being unable to even imagine telling his parents that he and Janet are in big trouble, Blue Denim is too chicken to have a scene where Arthur directly tells his parents what has happened — the moment is skipped with an ellipsis. Perhaps it was because the word ‘pregnant’ might have to be used more than once or twice. This was 1959; pregnancy was a semi-taboo not to be depicted in detail, because all movies had to be family-safe, and community standards would be offended. This is what I mean when I say that it’s not at all incredible that teenagers might be willfully ignorant about the details of sex and procreation… it wasn’t ‘nice.’
Is the suppression of such subjects an extension of paternal authority? When the news gets out, Blue Denim goes into full paternal mode. Mother is simply useless, a ninny who can’t deal with what’s going on; the last time we see her the only thing she thinks to do is to ask Arthur to eat some toast, because he missed his breakfast. She’s practically a denizen of Pleasantville. (spoilers) In reality, I think things would be reversed, with the males acting emotional and flying off the handle. In Blue Denim the fathers take charge as if rescuing Janet were a military mission. This proves ridiculously easy to do. A show of force convinces a felonious soda jerk to cough up the address of the quack doctor. Yeah, sure.
Blue Denim never loses its sensitivity, but the conclusion goes a little further off the rails. As this is 1959, there can be no discussion of options for Janet — she has to go out of town to have the child. We assume she’s going to keep it, that her education may be finished. The plan is for the kids to never see each other again, which was sadly often the attitude in real life — shame, shame, shame.
Incredibly, they put Janet on a bus only hours after she comes out from under the quack’s sedation. Dramatically exciting but even more morally objectionable is (spoiler spoiler) Major Bartley’s decision to double-cross Professor Willard and go against Janet’s spoken desire, and to let Arthur do what he wants to do — rush off with permission to marry Janet. Ain’t it grand? He can quit school at seventeen and support her by pumping gas. Won’t that make everybody happy? In other words, at the last minute Blue Denim contradicts itself and says that these kids are ready for full adulthood. Sure, some teens are, but for many we’re talking about a life-crippling decision. I’m sure every case is different. Since I get to dispense unsolicited opinions here, I say Arthur and Janet are genuinely in love without have a full sense of how delicate that love might be when faced with harsh realities. All one can say is, ‘lots of luck.’
Blue Denim was the first film to put teen pregnancy front and center in an ‘A’ picture that the public couldn’t ignore. But it wasn’t the first worthy film to address the problem of unwanted pregnancies, or of teens trying to handle adult situations for which they aren’t prepared. The impressive The Careless Years sees young Dean Stockwell in over his head, trying to run away with his preggers girlfriend Natalie Trundy. Her mother is played by Barbara Billingsley, just before landing the TV show Leave it to Beaver. A far more credible teen than the glamorous James Dean, Stockwell is a bright kid but shows his immaturity when he flies off the handle. A small-scale movie called Unwed Mother (1958) carries the story of a young woman betrayed all the way to its logical conclusion. A snide Robert Vaughn is the predatory jerk that dupes Norma Moore and gets her pregnant. The fine script asks if homes for unwed mothers to give their children up for adoption might be selling babies to the highest bidder. And Unwed Mother has a terrific scene with an abortionist — he’s played by the incredibly sleazy Timothy Carey as a drug addict.
A later film treating a panic pregnancy as a horror tragedy is the moving Our Time from 1974. Betsy Slade becomes pregnant at boarding school, and in trying to abort it, finds herself on a slippery slope to doom.
Claude Chabrol’s disturbing, haunting Story of Women (Une affaire de femmes) addresses abortion in a crazy historical context, the Nazi occupation of France. A crime regarded as a misdemeanor in peacetime, becomes a capital offense when the Nazi overlords wish to make a ‘moral’ statement.
I didn’t realize it, but I had already seen Carol Lynley in Disney’s The Light in the Forest for which there is still no decent video release. I first noticed Warren Berlinger in a Disney TV show playing a character called Oscar Kilroy. His home life was a teenage happy ever after story: his marriage to child actress and teen star Betty Lou Keim (Some Came Running) stuck for her entire life.
Both Marsha Hunt and Macdonald Carey were associated with liberal Hollywood, in different ways. Ms. Hunt’s First Amendment activism got her blacklisted, and hurt her career. Carey starred in two essential films by Joseph Losey, who was driven to leave America in the witch hunt: The Lawless (1950) and These Are the Damned (1963).
Momentary teen queen Roberta Shore (Annette) provides a bit of carefree teen attitude, sharing a school dance song with Warren Berlinger. And Nina Shipman had the previous year played a tiny role that we’ve nevertheless all seen: she’s the un-credited woman that James Stewart mistakes for Kim Novak at the Palace of the Legion of Fine Arts in Vertigo. That’s what I call anonymous immortality.
One last thing. On the fateful night when, as they used to say, Arthur and Janet’s passion goes too far, we get a 100% perfect demonstration of “The Look.” The phenomenon is probably true for all ages but is vital to teen romances, when both parties don’t know that attraction is setting in. A boy can be trying to act cool, detached, and suddenly she’s looking at you in a way that can only mean, ‘kiss me.’ Lynley hits De Wilde with The Look, full force. I don’t think I realized that this phenomenon existed until George Lucas and his writers expressed it so clearly in the back seat of a Volkswagen in American Graffiti… change the circumstances a little, and who knows how far they’d go?
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD-R of Blue Denim is just what we wanted to see, a good, sharp enhanced B&W transfer at the proper CinemaScope aspect ratio. I saw a bit of dirt on the Fox logo but noticed no damage or flaws afterwards. Either cinematographer Leo Tover knew how to adjust the C’Scope lenses properly, or he was able to use the improved, post- Panavision lenses: the visual field is free of warping and distortion, and I saw no hint of the CinemaScope Mumps on close-ups.
Bernard Herrmann’s skillful music soundtrack hits all the emotional moments, highlighting the purity of Janet’s love and Arthur’s devotion. The high violins sound very much like similar music in the composer’s recent Vertigo, music that comes into play when James Stewart and Kim Novak are experiencing their strongest attraction. Does that infer that, with their first kiss the teenagers have attained an equal height of passion?
The movie is accompanied by a horrendous trailer featuring none other than Joan Crawford reading a pious, sensitive narration assuring us what an important movie this is. Crawford is on the set and in costume for the same year’s The Best of Everything, and she’s lined the camera up in a way so as to keep her neck taut and so look younger. Knowing the calculated insincerity of this woman, the trailer is nothing less than chilling. I looked really carefully, but saw no spiked Pepsi bottle in the frame.
And again, the release of another good film with a Bernard Herrmann classic score is always welcome. Fox’s DVD of the Herrmann-scored Beneath the 12-Mile Reef is a beauty, while the copy of his 5 Fingers is just passable.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good ++
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: original trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 2, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson
A Savant bonus, here’s Allison Anders on Blue Denim!