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Over the years, an appreciative cult has continued to flourish around the remarkable flock of moody, minimalist chillers created during the WWII years at RKO under the aegis of producer Val Lewton. In the relatively short time-span from Cat People (1942) to Bedlam (1946), Lewton and his directors were responsible for no less than nine genre classics. The Lewton unit films famously eschewed the marquee monster approach of Universal in favor of using lighting, camerawork and the power of suggestion to create a palpable sense of dread.
The semi-exploitative social commentary film Youth Runs Wild (1944), however, was a bit of an anomaly in Lewton's career. That may be because the subject matter is so far afield from the rest of Lewton's output. Ironically, Lewton had lobbied hard for a non-horror project, and was handed one that the RKO brass hoped would match such sensationalistic past successes as Edward Dmytryk's Hitler's Children (1943) and Behind the Rising Sun (1943). Another reason may be Lewton's own notorious disavowal of the finished work, which the studio heavily doctored after a disastrous test screening. Still, there is much to commend the film, particularly for the perspective it grants on a prevalent social ill of its era.
Inspired by a Look magazine article and mounted under the working title of Are These Our Children?, the scenario dealt with the steady increase of juvenile delinquency in the U.S. caused by the upsurge in parental absenteeism due to the war effort. The drama unfolds as two working-class households are depicted. Mary Hauser (Jean Brooks), a young wife awaiting her wounded husband's return from service, lives with his hard-working parents. Their odd hours mean that she spends nearly as much time parenting her own toddler as she does being a surrogate to her teenage brother-in-law Frankie (Glenn Vernon) who's beginning to have trouble with truancy.
Amongst Frankie's distractions is his new girlfriend, Sarah Taylor (Tessa Brind), whose home life makes Frankie's seem normal by contrast. Her loutish parents (Ben Bard, Elizabeth Russell) keep her pressed into endless household service, and prefer to spend whatever downtime they have partying. These kids are ripe for temptation, which comes in the form of the sleazy young tire bootlegger Larry Duncan (Lawrence Tierney) and his too-easy companion Toddy (Bonita Granville). It isn't long before Frankie is drifting into tire theft, and Sarah moves in with Toddy to begin apprenticeship as a B-girl. When Frankie's brother Danny (Kent Smith) finally arrives home, he pours his energies into bringing some semblance of order to both his family and the community at large.
Lewton began with the best of intentions on Youth Runs Wild, offering a consultancy to Ruth Clifton, an Illinois teenager who instituted a youth center movement in her hometown in response to the problem and inspired others nationwide to do the same. The preproduction ballyhoo, however, only drew the attention of the U.S. State Department, which voiced its own reservations about the subject matter as being detrimental to the nation's security and morale. "Lewton argued that the intent of the film was to draw attention to a national problem and help bring about measures to solve it, which would do the country more good than harm," Edmund G. Bansak wrote in his biography Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career (McFarland & Co.) "RKO decided not to pull the film from active production, but because of its controversial subject matter, Lewton was given more supervision than usual, much to his displeasure."
The studio renamed the project The Dangerous Age for release. After a preview marred by the antics of a loud drunk, a jittery RKO yanked the film back for extensive reworking. An entire subplot involving one teenage boy's murder of his abusive father was dropped completely. The conflicts of the story, and the greater issues that they raised, wound up getting resolved a little too neatly. Lewton's subsequent demand to have his name removed from the picture was denied by RKO. While Youth Runs Wild won't likely find a spot in the upper tier of his legacy, it remains an earnest attempt to address a significant problem that still echoes in society generations later.
Producer: Val Lewton
Director: Mark Robson
Screenplay: John Fante, Herbert Kline, Ardel Wray
Cinematography: John J. Mescall
Film Editing: John Lockert
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Albert S. DAgostino
Music: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Bonita Granville (Toddy), Kent Smith (Danny Hauser), Jean Brooks (Mary Hauser), Glenn Vernon (Frank Hauser), Tessa Brind (Sarah Taylor), Ben Bard (Mr. Taylor).
by Jay S. Steinberg