Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Young Stranger

The other day, TCM showed The Young Stranger, a movie which is certainly worth blogging about. Fortunately, it's gotten a release to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection, so if you didn't see it when TCM last ran it, you can get your hands on a copy for a price.

James MacArthur, who would go on to play Dano on the Jack Lord version of Hawaii Five-O, stars in one of his first movie roles as Hat Ditmar, a teenage kid in Beverly Hills with an attitude problem. It doesn't help that his father Thomas (James Daly) is a big-shot movie producer who spends much more time with his clients than he does with his son, and his mother Helen (Kim Hunter) comes across as an aloof type. While Hal's parents are having an outdoor party at their home, Hal goes to visit his best friend Jerry (Jeffrey Silver). The two go to see a movie, but it's so boring that Hal basically starts being the sort of irritant you'd see in the Pete Smith Movie Pests short. It's the sort of behavior that's going to get Hal thrown out of the theater, and deservedly so. And to be honest, Hal is willing to leave the theater. But the manager (Whit Bissell) wants to talk to the two young ruffians in his office, and is willing to detain them to do so. When Hal rightfully doesn't want to be detained, he punches the manager, getting arrested for his trouble.

At this point, Hal's troubles multiply. He claims self-defense, and has a fair case, since after all he was prevented from leaving the theater. But the police won't believe him, and even worse, his father won't believe him either. (The movie has a gaping plot hole in that there were several witnesses to Hal's being prevented from leaving the theater. Presumably they would have pointed out that Hal was trying to leave the theater but was forcibly brought back in by one of the ushers.) And Daddy is worried more about how it's going to make him look, not any affect the whole incident has had on Hal. To that point, Mr. Ditmar is willing to use his influence in Hollywood to pressure the theater manager to drop the charges, something which only enrages Hal, since he still can't get anybody to believe him. What's a teenager got to do to get people to listen to him?

When I looked up this movie on IMDb, I was surprised to see it get much more glowing reviews than I'd be willing to get it. To me, the movie falls flat, something that I think is down largely to the writing. MacArthur does well enough portraying the kid nobody understands, although he comes across as a bit too unsympathetic to the viewer. I mean, he acts like an utter jerk in the movie theater. But his character also seems like a caricature of all the wanna-be relevant "why won't the adults listen to us troubled teens?" movies of the mid-to-late 1950s. This was made at RKO, and around the same time they produced a short called Teenagers on Trial that I've mentioned before. Both are earnest, perhaps too much so. At points, I was practically laughing at how hard The Young Stranger was making its point. That's not a good thing, since this wasn't supposed to be a comedy. Daly's father character is especially little more than an archetype. Kim Hunter also doesn't seem to know how sympathetic towards her son the character is supposed to be; these are flaws that are all down to the writing, I think. There are also the plot holes; in addition to the one I mentioned above, it seems as though somehow everybody in school learned about what happened to Hal the previous night. Gossip may travel fast, but how would this have become news for the other students to hear? Clearly the parents are too mortified to mention it, and Jerry wouldn't have done so either, since he had to spend half the night at the police station too.

One other thing to note is that this is one of hte very first movies directed by John Frankenheimer. In fact, while watching I was reminded of the piece Frankenheimer narrated on Burt Lancaster. Frankenheimer mentions doing The Young Savages with Burt Lancaster, and comments about how Lancaster found some of his choices in camera angles interesting. There are a couple of camera angles in The Young Stranger that definitely reminded me of that piece.

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