Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Untamed Youth

TCM's Star of the Month look at pinup girls continues tonight, including one of the more buxom ladies of the 1950s: Mamie Van Doren. I've already mentioned her in The Girl in Black Stockings, but this time you'll get to watch her in somethign else: Untamed Youth, at 11:45 PM.

Van Doren plays Penny Lowe, a young woman who wants to make it as an entertainer out in Hollywood. So she's hitching rides across country with her kid sister Jane (Lori Nelson). They stop in some small town for a rest break and go swimming, but their swimming involves skinny dipping, and of course they get caught by the authorities. It's the sort of thing that should just be a fine and let them go on their way, but then we wouldn't have a movie. No, this has to be one of those corrupt as sin towns, so our two damsels in distress get sentenced by Judge Cecilia Steele (Lurene Tuttle) to work at the cotton farm owned by Russ Tropp (John Russell). It's a good arrangement for both of them. Judge Steele gets to get the criminals out of the court system, while Tropp gets a source of cheap labor, much to the chagrin of the other cotton growers. Plus, Steele gets to keep Tropp happy, as he is her fiancé. No wonder none of this cheap juvenile labor is going to any of the other farmers.

Tropp takes advantage of this cheap labor for all it's worth to him, which is next to nothing. He thinks this kids are to be disciplined and treated like dirt, They don't get adequately fed, they're housed in what looks more like a barn than anything else, and not following instructions is going to be met with discipline. Unless you happen to be the one girl the supervisor has his eye on today, in which case you might get favors. That having been said, despite all this treatment, the teens still have the energy to perform several rousing musical numbers which are incongruously placed in the movie to show off the talents of rock singer Eddie Cochran.

And then Judge Steele's son Bob (Don Burnett) returns home from the military. He recognizes that there's something horribly wrong going on over at the Tropp farm, and when he takes a bit of an interest in Penny and Jane, he realizes that he's got to do something to stop Tropp, even it puts him and all the teens in danger. You kind of have to expect that justice will be served, thanks to the Production Code and the fact that the producers wouldn't want a downer of a movie in which Tropp gets away with his evildoing. So we're left to watch how they get there.

The overall result is a movie that falls squarely in the teen exploitation movie subgenre of the 1950s. The presence of Van Doren, and especially Cochran, in the cast, meant that it was being targeted at them and not discerning adults. It works as entertainment, in no small part because of how much there is over the top. Happy kids singing and dancing in a cotton field? Tropp treating them almost cartoonishly badly? Oh, there's a lot here that should elicit howls of laughter even though the movie was not at all intended to be a comedy. And yet it shouldn't be looked at as a bad movie. Van Doren, and the rest of the actors playing the young indentured servants, are genuinely entertaining, and the plot isn't a bad one. It's not I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang by any stretch of the imagination, but it's more than worth a watch.

Untamed Youth is available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

No comments: