Thursday, June 1, 2017

Youth Runs Wild (1944) and Youth in Crisis (1943)

Youth Runs Wild (1944) and Youth in Crisis (1943) show us American teens led into juvenile delinquency during World War II.  For children on the home front, the war means neglect – and danger.

This is the third post in our series on how Hollywood depicted the experiences of children during World War II.  Have a look at The Piped Piper (1942) here, and On the Sunny Side (1942) and You, John Jones! (1943) here.

Youth Runs Wild, directed by Mark Robson, features Glen Vernon and Tessa Brind as star-crossed pair of teens successfully navigating their awkward years and the nation at war. They are left behind and left out.

We are shown even in the film’s first moments the message that, in the wartime emergency, we are not taking proper care of our children.  Jean Brooks walks down a city street with her three-year-old son, while a truck plows over a sign cautioning drivers about children at play.  As she proceeds through a working-class neighborhood, she stops at one rundown workers’ row house. Her parents live here with her fifteen-year-old brother.  Miss Brooks is returning home to live with them while her soldier husband is away.

Art Smith and Mary Servoss are her folks, who both work the night shift at the local war plant and sleep during the day. Their son, played by Glen (or Glenn) Vernon, is in trouble at school, skipping class to work in a local garage to earn money for a present for his girl.

Tessa Brind, literally the girl next door, is the oldest of three daughters of a couple who also work at the war plant. Her parents are even more neglectful, they go out to bars after work, or bring friends home to play cards (one friend openly leers at their teenage daughter) leaving the housework and the care of their younger daughters to Tessa. (Using her birth name of Smylla Brind, she was Ann Blyth’s understudy in the Broadway drama Watch on the Rhine in 1941, and went on to play the role of Babette in a touring company.  A writer and an artist as well, Brind would later take the name of Vanessa Brown in her acting career.)

Glen and Tessa have a sweet, rather innocent relationship, a stark contrast to their rough surroundings and rougher companions. Interestingly, they carry the story, unlike more established stars playing supporting roles including Kent Smith, who plays the soldier husband of Jean Brooks, discharged from the military hospital; Lawrence Tierney, a shady guy (he’s Lawrence Tierney, what else?); and Bonita Granville, who is a smart-talking tough moll for Tierney.  She provides the only gloss for this B-movie.

The neglected teens – seemingly thrown under the bus by their parents – will have unlikely support from Kent Smith, Tierney, and Granville, adults on the periphery of their lives and with no responsibility toward them, but who actually help them turn their lives around. Tierney, at first leading Tessa Brind astray, helps Glen get away from the cops when he and his buddies (including Dickie Moore) are committing a crime.  He regularly sends kids to the war plant at night to steal tires off the cars in the parking lot to sell on the black market in his garage.  Tires of course were rationed during the war.  This time, he doesn’t want Glen involved because he’s such a nice kid from a nice family.  (The car the boys are robbing has a toddler in the back seat crying.  This is probably the most heart-wrenching scene of the movie, but it actually happened that parents busy in war plants locked their children in their cars, having no other place to put them and no babysitters. There are no comments made about the baby in the car, we just see it and so the effect and our shock is far more profound.)

Bonita Granville takes Tessa under her wing when her folks kick her out of the house and she gets her a job in a dive. Ultimately, it is up to Kent Smith to put things right, taking Tessa to his in-laws house to live where she will be safe and protected; taking the boys under his wing and being responsible for them when they are paroled for stealing the tires; and helping his wife run a daycare in the small backyard of the company row house.

Things we may wonder about but which are never discussed in this movie: fifteen-year-old Frankie smoking openly in front of the grown-ups and no one seems to mind (cigarettes were rationed too.  Where did he get them?) And the fact that Kent Smith never gets to have a reunion scene with his wife and baby.  It’s all about the teens.

Not every kid can count on a Kent Smith in his life and so the message of Youth in Crisis (1943), an Academy Award-nominated March of Time short subject is quite important in wartime.  More terse and blunt, this interesting documentary carries the same message about the tension and anxiety of children during war and the teens going astray.  We begin with a line of young men stripped to their shorts undergoing examination at the Army induction center.  Most of them look no older than teens themselves.  We are told that many men are being rejected because of mental and emotional problems and the documentary explores what could be long-lasting effects on our society from these young people who are so troubled during the war years.

Teens without supervision are shown flaunting authority, getting in trouble, smoking marijuana, and the girls are portrayed as being the easy prey of servicemen on leave.  There is a mixture of frankness and delicacy in the delivery of the message of sexually transmitted disease and the alarming statistics of the sharp rise in crime since 1941 in burglary, rape, and prostitution.  Crime rates had actually dropped during the Depression.

Latchkey kids are seeing coming home to a house of dirty dishes and no mom.  Women are seen at war plants.  As a remedy, we are shown teen clubs and with a positive message and image of an articulate African-American youth speaking his mind in front of a group of white peers, and a roster of boys letting out their pent-up energy in the gym with the names showing variety of ethnicities.  There’s a lot packed into this short documentary: toddlers needing daycare, rising prices, rationing, race riots, and teens growing up too fast.

What happened to this generation of wartime excitement and angst?  They began smoking early, drinking early, and suffered growing pains like perhaps no other generation before.  Not old enough to fight in the military, they still felt the fallout of the world at war.  They were told they had to do their bit for the war effort, but there was apparently no assigned role, or not enough for them to do.

The documentary, though showing parents at the war factories, particularly women, does not indicate that women workers are to be blamed for the delinquency of the children.  It was still 1943 and moms were still needed the war plant.  But one wonders if, upon the end of the war, when so many women were let go from the factories, even ones who wanted to keep their jobs, their being forced out of the factories was a result of messages in such films as Youth Runs Wild, and Youth in Crisis?  Teens developing too much autonomy for good or ill was a concern during wartime, but it was a necessary evil when our hands were tied fighting a bigger evil.  The 1950s would see a return to what was considered a woman’s traditional place in the home. But the teens?

That did not stop the teenager from becoming a new force in society.  The genie was already out of the bottle and there was no putting it back.  We’ll take up that topic in a future March of Time documentary.

Come back next Thursday when we take up the plight of a child concentration camp survivor in post-war Berlin with Montgomery Clift in The Search (1948).

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

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Caftan Woman said...

Vanessa Brown, eh!

I don't stop to consider the teenager very often. I guess I was just so happy to get out of those years. It's a tough time and war makes it even tougher. It seems from these films that those with the ability to do something were at least aware and spreading the message. The teen of the day is the adult of tomorrow. That thought shouldn't make us shudder.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

The teen characters in the movie are a little bit exasperating with dumb choices they make, but the teens seen in the March of Time doco are really kind of haunting.

Todd Mason said...

YOUTH RUNS WILD is still something I'll want to see, as the last of the RKO Val Lewton Unit films I haven't watched (I imagine it might be even less satisfying than THE GHOST SHIP, but that's OK). MLLE. FIFI I've recorded recently off TCM, after having owned, eventually, the Lewton box. (Why they didn't simply add those two, inasmuch as they are crime dramas after a fashion, at least, and so is THE SEVENTH VICTIM and a couple of the others, is a good question.)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Todd. YOUTH RUNS WILD is a bit muddy, so perhaps they didn't include it in the box because of quality. They may not consider it worth restoring. Still, for the subject matter and the names attached to it, I agree that it's worth including in a Lewton collection.

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