Saturday, August 14, 2010
“WHAT HAPPENS TO THESE UNGUARDED YOUNGSTERS? Learn the truth in RKO Radio's fearless drama.” Vastly different than anything producer Val Lewton had done before, Youth Runs Wild mixes elements of exploitation, social commentary, and crime drama into an uneasy concoction. Lewton, after guiding along the inventive, soon-to-be influential horror classics Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), wanted a change of pace, and RKO gave it to him with this atypical feature. First titled The Dangerous Age, about children running amok during wartime, the screenplay was ostensibly based on a Look magazine photo essay, "Are These Our Children?,” which appeared in the September 11, 1943, issue. RKO released a "This is America" short subject, Children of Mars (1943), with the same theme in October; it would be highly lauded and be nominated for an Oscar. Youth Runs Wild wasn’t so lucky. The story was topical and with the film’s minimal budget it should have struck a chord with audiences and been at least a modest success. Lewton employed as his technical advisor 18-year-old Ruth Clifton, an Illinois teenager who had founded a youth recreation center in her hometown of Moline. Her work inspired similar movements across the country to combat wartime juvenile delinquency. Monogram studios had a similarly-themed movie released at the same time, Where Are Your Children? (1943), a movie starring Jackie Cooper advertised as “The first drama of Juvenile Delinquency to reach the screen!”
Good intentions came to naught. Reportedly, test screenings went poorly and censorship issues were so strict that the studio re-cut Lewton’s version and renamed it. The film still lost money at the box office. Look was so disgusted with the final product that they severed all ties to the film; the magazine’s name doesn’t appear in the movie credits. Youth Runs Wild remains a curiosity piece amongst Val Lewton’s classic work. He had wanted the studio to remove his name from the release print; they refused.
Initially, Edward Dmytryk was set to direct, but was reassigned to another production, Tender Comrade, starring Ginger Rogers. Mark Robson took the assignment instead. This is the film debut of Tessa Brind, better known later as Vanessa Brown, whose performance was uncertain at best. With the exception of Bonita Granville, Jean Brooks, Lawrence Tierney, the rest of the film's performances were routine. Essaying his first substantial film role, Tierney, soon to become Dillinger on screen, is a standout, seething with seamy charm and malcontent. He hangs around the neighborhood leading local lambs astray. Apparently, before cuts were made by the studio, drugs were a part of that as well. Tierney remembered in an interview that his character peddled drugs, although that factor is missing in prints today.
While not a very good film, Youth Runs Wild is an interesting curio, and worth a look.