Thursday, 11 April 2013

Youth Runs Wild (1944)

Youth Runs Wild was a 1944 product of Val Lewton’s legendary B-movie unit at RKO, but if you’re expecting it to be like his horror movies you’re going to be disappointed.

When we think of juvenile delinquent movies we naturally think of the 1950s, but in fact they were being made as early as the 1930s, Dorothy Davenport’s 1934 The Road To Ruin being an outstanding early example. The Road To Ruin was an exploitation movie, made outside the studio system and not subject to the Production Code, and it was therefore able to be fairly racy with drugs, booze and even nudity being featured. Youth Runs Wild on the other hand was a product of the studio system, and it’s very much blander.

Frankie Hauser (Glen Vernon) is 15 years old. He lives with his parents and his older sister Mary, whose husband Danny has gone off to war. Frankie is in love with the girl next door, Sarah. She’s an older woman, being 16 years old. The Hausers are an ordinary decent family.

Frankie had never been any problem to his parents, not until recently. Now he’s been playing truant from school. Both Mary and his parents are inclined to suspect that Sarah has been a bad influence on him, and this suspicion grows much stronger when Frankie finds himself hauled before a Juvenile Court. Frankie is now forbidden to see Sarah. Danny, now returned to the US after being wounded, is assigned parole of Frankie and his two youthful partners in crime.

Sarah has her own problems. Her parents are only interested in partying and as far as they’re concerned she’s just in the way.

Both Frankie and Sarah have been seeing quite a lot of Larry Duncan (Lawrence Tierney) and his girlfriend Toddy (Bonita Granville). Larry always seem to have lots of money, and this makes Frankie feel very inadequate. Frankie’s problem is that he is still just a kid, and he’s in too much of a hurry to grow up. Watching people like his brother-in-law Danny go off to war makes him feel even more of a kid. With the US war effort in full swing Frankie feels he is missing out, that kids only a few years older than him are in uniform and getting the respect that goes along with that.

The movie limps along to a painfully predictable ending, with an even more painful epilogue of government propaganda about the ways juvenile delinquency is being solved. The movie mostly takes the line that everything is the parents’ fault, although rather disturbingly it seems to imply that the government can and will fix everything.

The problem with this movie is that Hollywood had not yet invented the teenager, producers were not yet aiming movies specifically at the teen market, and teen subcultures   had not yet been recognised. As a result the movie lacks the focus on the clothes, the style, the music of teenagers that 50s juvenile delinquent movies have. It comes across as a movie aimed at the parents, intended as a stern warning of the dangers of neglecting their kids. Socially conscious movies with a message are almost always cringe-inducing and this particular movie is a prime example of that tendency. The screenplay is unbelievably clumsy and heavy-handed.

Mark Robson directed a couple of notable pictures for Lewton in the 40s, but this movie lacks the style of the Lewton horror films. The B-movie budget is painfully apparent and the story does not offer the opportunities for hiding the modest budget by the use of low-key lighting. The result is a movie that looks as dull as the story it is telling.

The acting is uniformly unimpressive, but given the blandness of the script, the terrible dialogue the actors had to work with and the heavy-handed message incorporated into virtually every scene, you really have to feel sorry for the cast. There really wasn’t much they could do. Even Lawrence Tierney seems unusually dull - Larry is just not a bad enough villain to give Tierney anything to sink his teeth into.

Youth Runs Wild remains no more than a curiosity in Val Lewton’s filmography. It lacks the camp value that makes 1950s juvenile delinquent movies so much fun and it’s painfully earnest. It’s a movie that wants to be an exploitation movie but everybody involved in making it was much too timid to go that route. It’s interesting to see a 1944 movie grappling with a phenomenon that was only just starting to attract attention, and also grappling with the stresses that the war imposed on people on the home front, but sitting through this movie is quite a chore, even with a running time of just 67 minutes. If nothing else, it proves that even Val Lewton could make a bad movie.

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