So Young So Bad: Reform School Girls In The 1950s

By • Mar 9th, 2010 • Category: Condemned, Updates, Writings

“The Story of a Teen-Age Fire-Bomb! Look out! She’s set to explode!” (The Green Eyed Blonde, 1957)

With the making of my new short film, Condemned, I found myself watching and re-watching many Women-In-Prison (WIP) films. Recently catching up with a curious 1957 picture, The Green Eyed Blonde, I was inspired to write about the “Reform School Girls” subgenre – an offshoot of the WIP that was extremely popular in the 1950s.

From the 1920s to the 1970s the WIP genre evolved from ideas of reform to ideas of revolution. The 1950s, sort of a mid-cycle, stressed the depravity and desperation of the institution. The reformatory film offers a great example of the WIP’s reactionary spirit and saturates the inherent conflicts between the genre’s subversive nature and the industry’s need for a conservative resolution.

The American Reformatory film dates back at least to Cecil B. DeMille’s final silent, The Godless Girl (1929). DeMille ironically followed the story of Jesus (The King of Kings, 1927) with this story of an atheist girl. In his book ‘Cecil B. DeMille’, Charles Higham recounts that the film, under the guise of an exposé, set out to reveal: “flogging (still lawful in fifteen states), solitary confinement, stringing up by the thumbs, piercing under the fingernails, shackles, water cures, ice-packed blankets, semi-starvation, dirt and exposure in semi-hygienic conditions, and in four states tracking by bloodhound if the unfortunate victim of all this torture should manage to escape.” DeMille’s resistance to sound proved a mistake. The Godless Girl was unsuccessful.

The reformatory girl had some representation throughout the 1930s and 1940s, however, the primary participant in juvenile delinquency was male. Evolving from the Depression, this breed of delinquent talked fast, talked tough, but was hardly the menace to society – as embodied by The Dead End Kids at Warners, the Little Tough Guys at Universal, and their later incarnations at Mongoram (an independent “Poverty Row” studio).

The 1950s saw a boom in juvenile delinquency – boys generally committed more violent crimes; girls were detained for moral crimes. Mass hysteria possessed the US as psychologists attempted to understand the causes of this phenomenon. Were comic books to blame? Was it Elvis’ hip-shaking? Whatever the cause, a main reason for the sudden interest in teenage delinquency was the rise of the American teenager as a consumer, his newfound financial freedom and access to cars.

Today most of Hollywood’s product sets teenagers as the target audience. In the 1950s a declining Hollywood still attempted to produce family entertainment. The only ones to fully capitalize on the teenage market were the independents – the exploitation industry – blasting drive-in screens with tales of teenage monsters, teenage romance, rock’n’roll, and delinquents. Exploiting not just teenage interests but the mere essence of being a teenager.

Warner Bros. released John Cromewell’s Caged in 1950. The Eleanor Parker starrer has long been hailed as the film that defined the Women In Prison genre. It took the loose ends from previous representations of caged women and formed them into a replicable formula. The same year a picture that similarly defined the Reformatory subgenre came out – So Young So Bad. Successful at the time of release, it unjustly fell into obscurity since.

Both films were written by women who extensively researched the subject – Virginia Kellogg spent two months incarcerated as a special inmate for Caged; Jean Rouverol visited numerous reform schools to script So Young So Bad. The resulting films are so similar in their themes and imagery that unless Kellogg and Rouverol exchanged notes, the resemblance may suggest an emotional truth – the honest depiction of the depravity of being imprisoned.

The reform school film was a natural progression from the WIP’s of the past that treated women as “girls” and governed adults like kindergarden children. Prison life for women was no longer the dormitory-like institution portrayed in films like Ladies They Talk About (1933) or Convicted Woman (1940) – which the New York Times compared to a “Madison Avenue tearoom”. Prison and reform school alike were dreary and depressing.

Paul Henreid stars as Dr. Jason in So Young So Bad, a psychiatrist who enters the reformatory to encounter a “human wall” – an institution that values discipline over reform. The iconic evil matrons involve themselves in beatings, the clipping of girls’ hair and the killing of animals (all features in common with Caged). The cast of girls, headlined by Anne Francis, Anne Jackson, and Rita Moreno, are so youthful and unglamorous that the cruelty they experience bring with it great discomfort. A disturbing feeling resonates with the viewer despite the film’s unconvincing happy ending (possibly a matter of commercial necessity). The later blacklisting of director, Bernard Vohaus, and screenwriter, Jean Rouverol, may suggest a more complex social commentary against tyranny and fascism.

Brutal, iconic, hose scene in 'So Young So Bad'

Male delinquency could be “legitimately” exploited in its urban habitat for it had a violent nature. Female delinquency was primarily viewed as sexual – a challenge to censorship – the reform school allowed for a way to exploit female juvenile delinquency by containing it, avoiding the visual representation of their crimes.

The majority of 1950s Reformatory films practiced in pure, rather non-inventive, exploitation. American International Picture’s Reform School Girl (1957) added male delinquency to the mix for a perfect date movie from which we learn that “Alcatraz to reform school, they all have a stool pigeon.” Mamie Van Doren starred in Untamed Youth (1957) and Girls Town (1959), combining reformatory with the teenage musical. Untamed Youth was particularly ambitious, attempting to capitalize on the scenery (prison farm), rock ‘n’ roll (Eddie Cochran) and even Calypso – A beat Hollywood (with the exception of Robert Mitchum) never got right. As evidence to this wonderful excess of exploitation, the poster for Untamed Youth promises at least 4 different plot lines and character description with more depth than the film itself.

One of the more interesting reformatory films was The Green Eyed Blonde (1957), the only non-Doris Day film produced by Martin Melcher, her husband. Certainly a curious project for blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who’s credited for Roman Holiday (1953), Spartacus (1960) and Exodus (1960) among others. Trumbo left his name off The Green Eyed Blonde, instead he gave full writing credit to Sally Stubblefield, who originally approached him with the idea to set a film in a girl’s reformatory.

Released by Warner Bros., The Green Eyed Blonde attempted to shape stereotypes developed within an independent genre to make a “safer” mainstream product, resulting in a confused film. The opening theme song replaces rock ‘n’ roll with a mellow, nostalgic ballad by Cornelius Gunter of The Platters and The Coasters (hit play below to listen). The song claims it to be “the story of the green eyed blonde,” (Susan Oliver) but she’s only a supporting character in the story of an unwedded brunette (a less exploitable prospect).

Play The Green Eyed Blonde theme

The Green Eyed Blonde opens with the admittance of Betsy Abel (Linda Plowman) to the reformatory. She bore a baby out of marriage and refuses to point out who the father is. She completely rejects the baby’s existence. When the other girls find out Betsy’s drunken mother intends to give it up for adoption, they kidnap the baby and raise him in their dorm room. The girls can’t resist they maternal instincts, through which they also reform. The matrons are tough and unlikeable, but not sadistic.

The reformatory concept doesn’t lend itself easily to mainstream exploitation for its ingrained subversive criticism of society’s mores and institutions. More polished than that of So Young So Bad, the cast of girls still looks youthful enough to cause genuine concern. Betsy is expected to accept her baby in order to reform but it’s also the result of the “crime” she was arrested for to begin with. Similarly to how prostitutes would be prosecuted rather than their pimps, Betsy pays a debt probably owed by her male counterpart and her abusive mother. In attempting to mediate a conservative outlook and a subversive message, The Green Eyed Blonde misses the mark. The inability to make a coherent mainstream product out of the reformatory film makes the case for its demise.

In the 1960s teenage entertainment adopted the “safer” mode. The independent circuit produced countless Beach Party pictures; Hollywood settled for Elvis musicals and teen-soaps such as Delmer Daves’s brilliant, A Summer’s Place (1959). The outlaw took the form of a hippie (The Trip, 1967) or a biker (Wild Angels, 1966) – An individual that can’t possibly be contained within an institution. WIP’s were also scarce during the decade of love, only to come back with a hateful vengeance in the 1970s as an exploitation genre of either male fantasies or feminist revolt. The reformatory film was yesterday’s news, never again to be showcased with the force and vitality of the 1950s – the original teenage revolt.

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