The Boy with Green Hair

by Glenn Erickson Jun 09, 2023

Joseph Losey’s first feature is an anomaly — a million-dollar Technicolor semi-fantasy about tolerance, anti-conformism and pacifist activism, made just as Hollywood was commencing a purge of liberal writers and directors. Young Dean Stockwell is excellent as the serious, puzzled boy whose hair turns bright green overnight, making him socially suspect. The odd ‘Franz Kafka-lite’ tale takes place in a Sesame Street– like small town, where childhood fantasy and atom age fears intersect. With Robert Ryan, Pat O’Brien and Barbara Hale co-star.

The Boy with Green Hair
Warner Archive Collection
1948 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 82 min. / Available at MovieZyng / Street Date May 30, 2023 / 21.99
Starring: Robert Ryan, Pat O’Brien, Dean Stockwell, Barbara Hale, Richard Lyon, Walter Catlett, Samuel S. Hinds, Regis Toomey, Charles Meredith, David Clarke, Billy Sheffield, John Calkins, Teddy Infuhr, Dwayne Hickman, Peter Brocco, Ann Carter, Anna Q. Nilsson, Dale Robertson, William Smith, Russ Tamblyn.
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art Director: Albert S. D’Agostino, Ralph Berger
Film Editor: Frank Doyle
Original Music: Leigh Harline
Written by Ben Barzman, Alfred Lewis Levitt
Produced by Stephen Ames (and Adrian Scott & Dore Schary, uncredited)
Directed by
Joseph Losey

Joseph Losey began his career as a Hollywood leftist already associated with progressives like Charles Laughton. His first feature film was produced just as the infamous officially began years of unofficial blacklisting; clouds of political division were gathering. The film Losey directed ended up a major liberal statement of the time — its pro-peace and anti-conformism message comes in the guise of a child psychology drama. Losey himself said that he kept the word ‘Peace’ out of production meetings, because it had become synonymous with ‘Communist.’

Joseph Losey directed four more Hollywood pictures and then fled to England before he could be subpoena’ed by the HUAC. His The Lawless is a scathingly accurate indictment of racial inequality and mob hysteria in a California farming town, a show that would now be slandered as a ‘hate America’ movie. Losey’s The Prowler is a direct attack on the capitalist system, in which a crooked cop murders to get a piece of the American Pie and ‘make money while he sleeps.’ But Losey’s first directing effort is a curious mix of fantasy and pro-tolerance lectures, wrapped in a parable commenting on the nation’s willingness to demonize citizens that dare to stray from conformist politics.

Unlike Losey’s American noir thrillers, 1948’s The Boy With Green Hair takes the form of a children’s movie. Its star is the 12 year-old Dean Stockwell, already a pro actor with ten films on his resume. Young runaway Peter Fry sits in a courtroom as the friendly Doctor Evans (Robert Ryan) tries to get him to open up. All of Peter’s hair has been shaved off. Evans gently goads the bald boy into telling his story. When war trapped his parents overseas, Peter was shunted between aunts and uncles. He eventually ended up with Gramp Fry (Pat O’Brien), an ex- Vaudevillian and magician. Rather humorless and suspicious, Peter likes his new teacher (Barbara Hale). He reacts emotionally to his school’s promotion for aid to European war orphans, mainly a display of photos of war orphans. He learns that his parents are dead, and that he is a war orphan himself; his schoolmates poke fun at him.


But then Peter’s hair unaccountably turns bright green overnight. The hue practically glows, and it won’t wash out. Being different causes Peter to be ostracized by his fellow students. Girls stay away because his green hair might be ‘catching.’  The milkman worries that his customers might think his milk is responsible. Gramp Fry defends Peter’s right to be different, but neighbors and authority figures insist that the offending hair be cut off. Isolated and confused, Peter experiences a fantastic encounter that reveals the meaning of his hair color, and why he needs to show it proudly. But everyone else demands that he shave it off.

The Boy With Green Hair is an engagingly child-like parable. In 1948, few movies identified with a child’s point of view, mixing reality with fantasy. A prominent precursor was Val Lewton’s child psychology-conscious The Curse of the Cat People; its child star Ann Carter has a small but important part here. In the film version of Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, similar fantasy sequences interrupt a realistic tale about a farm boy.

The fantasy element here is sometimes awkwardly introduced. Peter Fry’s grandfather appears in a barely-motivated dream sequence that looks like something out of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.  More understandable are the ghostly children that Peter encounters in a forest clearing. Standing in sad poses, they have obviously sprung to life from the dramatic posters of war orphans in Peter’s school classroom. Although that hallucination has a psychological explanation, Peter’s green hair does not — it’s a pure symbolic placeholder for anything that might turn one into a social pariah, a ‘dangerous’ outsider who represents unpopular ideas.

Peter is a weak but stubborn little guy, and resists others telling him what to believe. He decides that his calling is to make the world aware of the need to stop war forever. The ending is ambivalent about what color his hair will be when it grows back, but the boy is committed to his pacifist mission. The liberal cause will be carried forth by a new generation.


In 1948 anybody that questioned America’s assertive military posture was looking for trouble, including people making cute movies about boys with green hair. The openly leftist Ben Barzman was one of the first film writers to be blacklisted; his next job came two years later in exile on Edward Dmytryk’s English film  Give Us This Day. According to the comments on the All Day DVD, the pro-labor anti-capitalist Give Us This Day was so aggressively picketed that it never really opened in the U.S.. These Hollywood liberals did not hide their opinions. Norma Barzman said that her husband knew that John Wayne did his own stunt work, and had purposely written dangerous action into his movies (Back to Bataan?). It may have been a joke, but he bragged that he hoped Wayne would break his neck!

The Boy With Green Hair is not at all subversive, but its gentle “now I’m going to teach you a lesson …” attitude might irk some viewers, and not only conservatives. Little Peter Fry seems blessed with adult intuition. Phrases crop up that could have come straight from a pacifist activist’s handbook. One dialogue line is close to the ’60s mantra “War is not good for children and other living things.”  It’s a good movie with which to observe the genesis of modern liberal message making — sincere but somewhat manipulative. But those that would prefer that ‘dangerous’ liberal opinions be banned from entertainment fail to recognize that the overwhelming majority of commercial films deliver conservative messages by asserting that all is well with society. Complacency is dangerous too.

With his serious attitude and troubled brow, Dean Stockwell excels at portraying moral indecision in an 11 year-old. Stockwell was reportedly very into the character, which accounts for his bald, shaved head. Connecting the resolute little scout Peter Fry with Dean Stockwell’s later sicko freak in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet raises chills on one’s spine. Imagine a montage of little Peter cut to Roy Orbison’s In Dreams (I Walk Alone) — in that context, young Dean Stockwell’s precociously troubled looks might also seem disturbing.

The film’s adults are mostly relaxed and subdued, like Sesame Street denizens on painkillers. Nobody becomes hysterical about Peter’s change of hair color, even those that are bothered by it. When Peter is singled out for grief by his peers, his teacher Barbara Hale (later famous as Della Street on TV’s Perry Mason) purposely downplays the disruption. She takes a quiet census of hair color in her classroom… a bunch of brown-haired kids, a few blondes, one redhead and one with green hair. No big deal. The audience gets her point, but would her students?  Nowadays kids are being sent to Kindergarten with dyed-green mohawks, but in 1948 a child with green hair was the kind of break with normality that Dr. Seuss would exploit for children’s books like The Cat in the Hat.

Forming a juvenile version of the lynch mob in The Lawless, Peter’s school friends force him to run for his life. One moment seems a clear reference to Hollywood treachery in the political divide of 1947: one of Peter’s tormentors loses his glasses, and tearfully begs Peter to help find them. When Peter does, the kid immediately attacks him again. Any slum kid — or anyone competing in the business rat race — eventually comes in contact with gross betrayal and injustice.

The movie pinpoints one of the causes for the abandonment of humanistic values in the new dog-eat-dog world. When Peter asks if the whole world is going to blow up, his Gramps can only express an uninformed hope for the best. The age of atomic terror has just begun.


The role of RKO’s star Robert Ryan’s is a glorified guest walk-on. Pat O’Brien is quite good as the softhearted Irish grandfather. His blarney talk is never too thick. Writers Barzman and Levitt have Gramps quietly take Peter’s side against intimidating authority figures. But Gramps can’t ‘wish away’ Peter’s problems with a song. The movie proposes that when average people are misinformed and unenlightened unpopularity might be a good thing. I can see conservatives arching their backs and hissing over this superior attitude, if they indeed perceived it at the time. The status quo demands conformity, and Peter is a quiet rebel.

Director Joseph Losey keeps the action and blocking so simple that the film sometimes resembles a Dick and Jane book. People calmly assume their places and say their lines. Peter and Gramps stroll slowly from one neighbor to the next, having little conversations along the way, as if they live in MisterRogers’ Neighborhood. The cost of Technicolor probably had something to do with the simplified style … even when budgeted at over a million dollars, fancy camerawork and fast cutting were likely too expensive for this unusual movie.

 Joseph Losey would later direct one of the best and most politically aggressive Science Fiction films ever, Hammer Films’ These Are The Damned — a film with a strong thematic connection to The Boy with Green Hair. Losey reported that Ben Barzman wrote an early draft for The Damned, that Losey rejected. The weird anti-nuke story concerns nine mutated children impervious to radiation that are themselves highly radioactive. They’re being reared in secret isolation to repopulate the Earth when the (inevitable) doomsday arrives. It’s as if The Boy With Green Hair were re-imagined as an apocalyptic science-fiction parable. Both films fixate on ‘impossible’ children, ghosts cursed by the Evil of War, that come from a different dimension to plead for humanitarian decency.  “Help Us!”



The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Boy with Green Hair is a stunning remaster from original Technicolor elements. Older TV prints and the 2010 DVD weren’t bad, but now the color really pops: Peter Fry’s green hair is alarmingly bright. The overall art direction evokes the postwar trend in children’s books, with neatly dressed adults and rosy-cheeked children — Dick and Jane all the way. Barbara Hale’s beautiful grade school teacher is ‘picture perfect.’ Back in the ’50s we little boys (at least little teacher’s pets like me) fell in love with all of our teachers.

The RKO logo comes up in grainy B&W, which remains a curious sight — Dick Dinman informed us that RKO’s earlier pictures Sinbad the Sailor and The Spanish Main featured the famed globe-and-tower logo in full Technicolor.

The movie’s music became more famous than the film itself. Eden Ahbez’ mysterious song Nature Boy is sung over the titles by a choir and heard as underscore throughout. Nat King Cole’s cover version became one of the singer’s biggest hits.

The one disc extra is the old short subject A Really Important Person, an MGM ‘Passing Parade’ entry starring young Dean Stockwell a year before Green Hair. Stockwell already had 11 film appearances under his belt, including the Technicolor Anchors Away when he was only 8 or 9 years of age.


When interviewed in critic Tom Milne’s book Joseph Losey, the director proudly stated that he had two films currently playing in Paris, his latest release Accident but also a revival of The Boy with Green Hair, then almost 20 years old. He and producer Adrian Scott had first approached Dore Schary with the idea of shooting it in 16mm, for maximum flexibility. Everything changed when Technicolor was proposed. Famed UPA animation director John Hubley helped Losey graph out the design of the picture. Adrian Scott was gone before filming started, and Dore Schary departed during production, bought out by Howard Hughes. Pat O’Brien replaced the first actor considered to play gramps, Albert Sharpe. Losey liked the fantasy musical number but realized that it was a radical style departure from the rest of the movie; he criticized his own staging of the ‘ghost children’ as stiff and un-moving.

Losey also said that studio chief N. Peter Rathvon saved Green Hair from being mangled: Hughes wanted to redub all the dialogue lines with pacifist content to identify the villains as Russians, but only a couple of small changes were made.

The images for this review were taken from the Internet, and some don’t fully reflect the excellent colors on the Warner Archive disc.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Boy with Green Hair
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: short subject A Really Important Person.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)

Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
June 8, 2023
(6942gree )CINESAVANT

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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