The 1940 exploitation shocker Mad Youth (later re-released as Girls of the Underworld) is another delightfully lurid little movie from the wonderful Girls Gone Bad: The Delinquent Dames Collection boxed set.
This one deals with some of the great social evils of the 1940s - male prostitution, white slavery and jitterbugging. Lucy Morgan is a middle-aged woman with a teenaged daughter. After years of being trapped in a loveless marriage Lucy is now divorced and she’s decided she wants to have the things she missed out on. Mostly what she wants is good-looking young men in her bed. She starts hiring male escorts. The latest escort sent out by the agency is the Count DeHoven (of course it goes without saying that he isn’t a real count but that’s all part of the fantasy that the agency sells). He’s happy wining and dining her but he haughtily informs her that if she requires any additional services she’ll have to pay extra.
While Mrs Morgan is out on the town with her gigolo her daughter Marian is indulging an equally pernicious vice - jitterbugging. She invites her friends over and pretty soon jitterbugging leads inevitably to strip poker. But while Marian and her friends are mostly just having innocent fun they will soon pay the price for the shameful neglect displayed by their parents. When Marian’s friend Helen gets into trouble from her grandmother fir sneaking out at night she decides she’s had enough. She’s going to run off and get married. She’s met a man through a matrimonial agency but she has an unpleasant surprise in store for her. He’s actually a while slaver! And when Helen writes to Marian inviting her to come and stay for a few days Mrs Morgan is happy to get her daughter out of the way, since the daughter and the gigolo had been getting way too friendly for her liking. This will give Mrs Morgan the chance to have the Count all to herself. But her selfish lusts will indirectly lead Marian into the clutches of the white slavery ring, and the hapless teenager finds herself imprisoned in a brothel.
At this point the plot takes a slightly unexpected turn as the Count turns out not to be quite the sort of man we’d taken him to be. But will Marian be saved from the white slavers before she suffers a Fate Worse Than Death?
This is a fairly typical example of the classical exploitation movie made, distributed and exhibited outside the boundaries of the Hollywood studio system and the rules of the Hollywood Production Code. In this case it’s from Willis Kent Productions who made some of the better known examples of the genre. They generally promise more lurid delights than they actually deliver. It’s what David Friedman, one of the greats of the exploitation movie business, terms “selling the sizzle rather than the steak.” What makes this one slightly unusual is that you do get some actual steak - the content really is fairly salacious. It’s also a little more polished than is usually the case with these movies.
It has the padding provided by a series of variety acts that was such a common feature of these movies. As soon as the characters walk into a night club you know you’re going to be treated to some fairly bizarre routines. It has the square-up that was one of the essential ingredients of the exploitation film. The square-up was the earnest moral message, usually in the firm of a title card at the beginning of the movie, explaining that what you are about to see may be shocking but the producers are bringing you the movie as a public service to expose a dangerous social evil! This then justifies the film-maker in presenting an hour or so of scandalous titillation and throughly enjoyable sin. In this one the square-up comes in the form of a couple of speeches delivered in a wonderfully pompous manner. It turn out it’s all the fault of the parents!
There’s no actual nudity, but there is the obligatory scene of the girls in the brothel lounging about in sexy lingerie. The print included in this set does seem to be a little short of the stated running time so it may have been cut. Of course the nature of these films meant that often there was no definitive cut - there were different versions for exhibition in states with differing censorship regimes so there may have been a “hot” version that is now lost.
The acting is of the standard you expect in such low-budget features. Willy Castello (who plays the Count) was something of a fixture in Willis Kent exploitation flicks. Mary Ainslee is reasonably good as Marian and Betty Compson is entertainingly lecherous as Mrs Morgan.
Mad Youth is more entertaining than most exploitation movies of its kind. The jitterbugging sequences are rather fun and it’s reasonably fast-paced, and the final shot of the movie gives it an unexpected kick. It goes without saying that movies of this type are going to be viewed mainly for their appeal as camp, and Mad Youth doesn’t disappoint in that area. Along with Dorothy Davenport’s The Road to Ruin it’s a fine introduction to this enjoyably sleazy genre of American film.