Let’s go back to 1959, when just implying that two teenagers might have first-hand knowledge of sex is socially unacceptable dynamite. 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 the intense music of composer Bernard Herrmann.
1959 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 89 min. / Street Date April 17, 2018 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
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 Editors: 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….” When the 15 year-old girl in Blue Denim finds that the only book in the school library has no answers for her, she’s caught in a modern Catch-22: “It doesn’t tell you how to STOP IT,” she cries.
The girl isn’t poor or disadvantaged, promiscuous or wanton, she’s simply unschooled and defenseless. 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 someone 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 weakened the family unit. Even mom and dad have time for activities outside the house, and things 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 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 and co-screenwriter Philip Dunne worked over the play with his co-screenwriter Edith Sommer, who had written the source play for producer Charles Brackett’s superficial teen crisis drama Teenage Rebel. Blue Denim had made a starlet of young Carol Lynley on Broadway. She 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, bless her) 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 convey perfectly 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 survive 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 when it comes time to seek a criminal abortion is the one to consider the moral arguments.
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 a gopher 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 look like real teenagers — in other words, twelve year-olds with longer legs and necks. Carol Lynley seems so fragile 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 think about their children, and a lot of kids to think about themselves. If Blue Denim now seems too tame, consider it 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 Carol Lynley as a slut who deserves her fate.
Interestingly, after being unable to even imagine Arthur telling his parents that he and Janet are in big trouble, Blue Denim is too chicken to have a scene where Arthur directly says what has happened. The moment is instead skipped with an ellipsis and a blast of Bernard Herrmann music. 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, the fathers of Blue Denim go into full Air Raid mode, taking charge as if rescuing Janet were a military mission. Mother is simply a useless ninny; the last time we see her all she does is 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. They instead bust through the problem like Mike Hammer on the trail of the Commies. 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 does slip off the rails somewhat. 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? Arthur can quit school at seventeen — ‘all those straight-A’s up the chute — and support her by pumping gas. That’ll solve everything. In other words, at the last minute Blue Denim contradicts itself. goes all romantic-crazy and says that these kids are ready for full adulthood. Sure, some teens are, but for the majority we’re talking about a life-crippling decision. 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 (1957) sees young Dean Stockwell in over his head, trying to run away with his 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 fine small-scale movie called Unwed Mother (1958) carries the story of a young woman betrayed to its logical conclusion. A snide Robert Vaughn is the predatory jerk that dupes Norma Moore and gets her pregnant. The daring script asks if homes for unwed mothers to give their children up for adoption might be selling babies to the highest bidder. Unwed Mother has a terrific scene with a drug-soaked abortionist — he’s played by the incredibly sleazy Timothy Carey.
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.
Why stop with American pictures about teenagers? Claude Chabrol’s disturbing, haunting Story of Women (Une affaire de femmes) addresses abortion in a scary 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. Considering the laws being enacted in some states right now, the film couldn’t be more topical.
I didn’t realize it, but as a child 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 HUAC 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 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 Twilight Time Blu-ray of Blue Denim is a perfect rendition of this B&W CinemaScope picture. 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. The very strong audio track really puts across Bernard Herrmann’s powerful, emotive soundtrack, and the fact that it’s on a TT Isolated Music track gives Herrmann lovers the choice of watching the film as a background for his music, like a concert.
Bernard Herrmann’s skillful music highlights 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 trailer featuring none other than Joan Crawford reading a pious 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 up the camera in a way to keep her neck taut and wrinkle free. Knowing the calculated insincerity of this woman, the trailer is nothing less than chilling. I looked carefully, but saw no spiked Pepsi bottle in the frame.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes confirm that others think that Herrmann’s score sounds like a tender reprise of Vertigo. She also takes a swipe at the script’s dated aspect, that tries to find a happy solution for an insoluble problem. I guess the kids can’t marry but stay at home and finish their educations with a baby, but what parents wouldn’t sacrifice so that Arthur could have a shot at his greater ambitions? Julie rightly notes that nobody’s looking out for Janet’s future potential, not at all. The pair appear to be tossed to the winds of fate. The happy hug in the bus is almost scary. Finally, Ms. Kirgo reminds us that this is still a sensitive movie, for 1959. Considering the new Christian Conservatism, I fear to learn what other Janets are being subjected to right now, all across the country.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good ++
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Original Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: April 3, 2018
(Rewritten from 2016)
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Here’s Allison Anders on Blue Denim: