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Saturday, 13 April 2013

Child Bride (1938)

Director: Harry J Revier
Stars: Shirley Mills and Bob Bollinger
While many films reviewed in my upcoming book, Huh? An A-Z of Why Classic Bad American Films Were Made, were riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3000, three have particular strong ties to that show. The folk who wrote it saw Monster a-Go Go as the worst picture ever made until they discovered Manos: The Hands of Fate, which promptly took over the title until the 20th anniversary celebration of the show at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con. With almost every major contributor to the show sharing a panel, they were asked if they'd ever passed on anything even worse. Their answer was 1938's Child Bride, which they described as 'Appalachian kiddie porn from the '30s'. They chose not to screen it, even though it wouldn't have been difficult to use a cut version that doesn't include the controversial skinny dipping scene. The film is in the public domain and almost every version available omits that scene, for obvious reasons. Only Alpha Video have it available uncut and while the MST3K description is a little unfair, it's definitely a disturbing film.

It's also a rather unique one in many ways because it doesn't fit well with the only obvious category of films that springs to mind. Back in the thirties, the studio system had control of both production and distribution and, as of 1934, their films were subject to the Production Code, which substantially restricted the content of the pictures they made. To include salacious subject matter in your movie, you had to make it independently and book it into theatres not owned by the studios. Many people enjoyed this creative freedom and made outrageous pictures, often drumming up custom as if they were carnival barkers and then skipping town after the show. While these folk weren't subject to the restrictions of the Production Code, they still had to stay on the right side of local censorship laws, which varied from town to town, so they tended to phrase their stories in educational terms, often with a speaker warning about the dangers of the topic at hand and selling pamphlets decrying it.

And so there were indie pictures about every social ill known to 1930s America: drug use, teenage pregnancy, abortion, prostitution... you name it. In every instance, these films spun melodramatic stories around these topics, occasionally illustrated with nudity, which ended up highlighting in no uncertain terms how dangerous it was not to be an upstanding moral citizen. Thus the films got by whatever local censorship was in place and audiences saw things that they couldn't possibly see in pictures from the major Hollywood studios. One notorious example is 1945's Mom and Dad, which was shot in six days for $63,000 but grossed over $80m, ranking it the third highest grossing film of the 1940s and still one of the most successful films ever made, based on return of investment, up there with The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. Inept in most regards, it had one magic ingredient to draw in the crowds: it included real footage of a baby being born. That's all it took.

Child Bride may appear to fit in that sort of company, especially as it was made by a fly by night producer whose cheques bounced and promises remained unfulfilled, but the more you analyse it the more it's an uneasy fit. Sure, it's a crusading picture, but its particular cause stands up today as valid, perhaps as it didn't need to rely on misinformation. Sure, it has an outrageous story, but it's a believable one for a change, because it plucked an outrageous story from the headlines and didn't need to embellish it. Most anomalous, though, is the fact that its lead actor remained proud of the film and her part in it until the day she died. Reactions like that are so rare with this sort of film that I can't cite another instance. Real actors, not that many real actors were involved in such films, tend to look back with raised eyebrows at such low points in their careers, or just avoid looking back at all. If they had careers, they tended to predate these pictures rather than follow them.

Yet Shirley Mills, who was only twelve at the time she shot Child Bride, remained proud of the film and work in it until her death in 2010. She had every opportunity to avoid remembering this, her feature film debut, but she played up to it and what she felt it had achieved. She was already established on stage, singing and dancing in vaudeville venues as 'Seattle's Shirley Temple' since she was a toddler. She also built a minor career, especially in the forties, as a supporting actress in Hollywood, including a slot as the young daughter of the Joads in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath. Before she retired from the screen at 26, she had made 27 films for directors as well regarded as Michael Curtiz, George Cukor and Alfred Hitchcock. Yet she highlighted Child Bride, saying that, 'I was proud to appear in that film,' and explaining on her website that it took a filmmaker working outside of the system to make a picture that educated the public on a very real issue.
That issue was child marriage, of course, but it hadn't sprung out of nowhere. It was inspired by a real wedding that took place on a dirt road in Hancock County, TN on 19th January, 1937 when Rev Walter Lamb, a Baptist preacher, married Charlie Johns and Eunice Winstead. They had a license, albeit one obtained with false information; Tennessee law prohibited issuing them to girls under twelve, so Johns claimed Winstead was eighteen. Nobody checked. In reality she was nine to his twenty-two. Lamb dismissed criticism on the basis that they'd have got another preacher to marry them if he'd said no. There was no undue influence as they really wanted to wed. It was a shock to Winstead's parents but they gave their approval on the basis that they'd been married under God and they didn't want to risk hellfire for their daughter. Winstead found the concern unfathomable. They remained married until Charlie died at 82 and she gave him nine children.

But the country took notice. After word got out, the story was covered by major newspapers, such as The New York Times, and major magazines, such as Life, who visited the couple in their cabin and published photos which brought home to the American public just how young Eunice Winstead was. Married for less than a month, they had sparked a national debate. It soon became apparent that child brides were far from uncommon, ten states allowing boys to marry at fourteen and girls at twelve, so with opposition building nationwide and states hastily updating their laws, it was all ripe for adaptation to the screen by an enterprising producer. So Frederick Falcon of Falcon Pictures rolled into rural Columbia, CA in 1938 to lease the recreation park for a year so he could shoot Child Bride on location with a few stars and a host of local talent and follow up with a new picture every six weeks. However, Falcon was really Raymond L Friedgen and Falcon Pictures didn't exist.

Naturally the locals, naive to the ways of huckster filmmakers, leapt on board, extending credit all around town and eagerly helping out in any way that they could, building sets and playing extras. Of course all they got out of it was an experience, because 'Frederick Falcon' rolled on out of town again at the end of the two week shoot, never to return, and paid all his bills with rubber cheques. It was an eye opener for Columbia, whose residents unwittingly paid in time, money and effort to be volunteers on a movie being shot in their town. Most of them probably never even saw the finished product, which gradually found its way onto the exploitation circuit under the inevitable collection of alternative titles like Child Brides of the Ozarks or Dust to Dust. At least, in this instance, the film was shot professionally enough and it did get finished. Many rural towns, especially in California, probably have similar stories to tell about films that never even got finished.

I wonder what those townsfolk who did get to see Child Bride thought about it, because it's a heavy handed morality tale, one that somehow stamps its approval on a range of inappropriate behaviour while consistently opposing the institution of child marriage. For instance, it's apparently fine to be an alcoholic wifebeating bootlegger or to kill someone in cold blood in front of already traumatised children, as long as you're against child marriage. Emotional blackmail is fine, thrusting cleavage is fine and giving up your kids to save your own neck is perfectly fine, just no child marriage. This sort of thing starts at the very beginning, as the Coltons, good guys because they read Child Marriage: A Crime, happily dress their twelve year old in a skimpy outfit conveniently ripped up the front to highlight that she doesn't wear underwear. Within the first two minutes, young Jennie sprawls in the pigpen mud and indulges in a water fight with her friend, Freddie Nulty. No exploitation here, right?
The story is instigated by Jennie's teacher, the only one in this fictional community of Thunderhead Mountain, so her class is attended by children of all ages. Miss Carol is a local girl made good, who claims to be a mountain girl even though she wears posh frills and make up and won't leave to be with her boyfriend, the assistant DA, until she's obliterated child marriage in the area. She stirs up enough resentment in the local men for them to robe up and kidnap her by torchlight to be tarred and feathered at somewhere called Spooky Hollow, but she's rescued by Ira Colton before we can see any more of her than her naked back. Colton is an equal opportunity bootlegger, his staff consisting of Angelo the dwarf, Happy the retard and Jake Bolby, the villain of the piece, who of course is one of the riled up torch carriers. Colton has already beaten him up for robbing Angelo, so he mounts a dastardly plan for murderous revenge that, not accidentally, ends up with him landing Jennie as a wife. He's seen her swim naked in the creek, you see, and he's completely smitten.

Now if seeing twelve year olds skinny dipping in the creek is enough to turn a hot blooded man into a murderous paedophile, then we're all in trouble because that's what we get for what feels like a two hour scene. Really it's a few minutes but they're long minutes indeed. The reasoning for it is so that Jennie can explain to Freddie that he can't go skinny dipping with her any more because Miss Carol says it's not OK. So he's stuck on the bank, wondering why he can only kiss her when they're both fully clothed, while she swims around naked. Clearly it's there to get child nudity past local censors, which is possibly the most exploitative thing any exploitation filmmaker can do. Shirley Mills, twelve at the time, really did strip down to the buff and doggy paddle around in the shallows on camera, but she couldn't swim, so the longer shots are of thirteen year old body double Bernice Stobaugh Ray, who looked different enough from Mills that her pubic hair had to be shaved for the scene.

By the time we get to the just as exploitative finalé, we're not sure who we're supposed to root for. Never mind character ambiguity, the good guys are clearly bad guys. Ira Colton, hero of the day on two separate occasions, bootlegs liquor for a living, drinks like a fish and beats his wife. Even Miss Carol, the saintly schoolma'am, conducts her crusade through emotional blackmail and gives up on it the moment she's confronted with a clear example. She wins out in the end, when her boyfriend persuades the governor to sign a law banning child marriage, but can't be bothered to save the girl from being ravaged in the matrimonial bed after being hitched under threat of blackmail. The hero who saves the day in her stead does so in a way that nobody should ever condone. None of this is ever addressed by the plot, so unlike the rest of the dubious educational exploitation pictures of the time, I can't see how they imagined this would get past local censors. In many instances it didn't.

At heart, Child Bride was made for the most classic of all reasons: to make money. Friedgen was a crook who offset his costs by getting the town of Columbia to foot most of the bill. I have no idea if he followed that model on his further films, but it wouldn't surprise me. Director Harry Revier was at the end of his career and probably thankful for a last shot; he never directed again. They cut costs by having their respective ladies play prominent parts: Dorothy Carrol, who plays Jennie's mother, may or may not have been Revier's wife, and Diana Durrell, who plays Miss Carol, may or may not have been Friedgen's fiancée. It's within the bounds of possibility that they were merely mistresses. Only 2'11" Angelo Rossitto is recognisable today, credited as Don Barrett but playing a character with his own name, Angelo the dwarf. His career spanned seven decades, memorable in films like Freaks and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and TV shows like HR Pufnstuf and Baretta.

What makes Child Bride unique amongst its peers is that, to hindsight, it seems to have achieved something. It didn't directly, as by the time it was ready for release in late 1938, the problem had already been taken care of, at least to the satisfaction of the offended public. States had brought in new laws to enforce minimum ages for marriage. While young girls continued to be married, as in some states wives didn't have to go to school, none would be quite so young as Winstead was and occasionally their husbands would be whisked off to jail. Yet the film, unlike every single one of its peers, finds itself to hindsight firmly on the side of justice. Until her death Shirley Mills continued to proclaim how proud she was to be part of a film that helped change the social fabric of her country, thus elevating it in the eyes of posterity. Really it was made for money, a con on a lesser level than The Creeping Terror. Over time it morphed into what it pretended to be, a crusader for justice.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hal, you already reveiwed this movie once in early 2010, why did you bother reveiwing it again ?.

Hal C F Astell said...

Yep, I've reviewed this once before, but in a very different way. First time round was for Cinematic Hell and it was a very jokey review. This time round it's for one of my upcoming books and it's a lot more serious, referencing a lot of background that wasn't available last time.

jnb said...

Did your "background" include the well-researched and well-written article by Paul Holbrook in Filmfax magazine (issue 124, 2010)? If so, do you plan to give Mr. Holbrook credit, both on your site and in your book? Your write-up seems to paraphrase this piece, and it would seem important to credit Paul Holbrook if you got any of your info from his original, in-depth story in Filmfax.

Hal C F Astell said...

Absolutely! Online research threw up Paul Holbrook's article immediately and often, so I tracked down and ordered a copy of that issue of Filmfax Plus to aid my background research for my reworked Child Bride article for Huh? It proved fascinating and invaluable. I'm surprised I didn't mention his article within mine but I'm more than happy to acknowledge my debt to his research here. There is certainly a bibliography at the back of my book, Huh?, that calls out all the reference material I found especially useful, including this one.

Two chapters in particular benefitted from major articles published relatively recently. This was the most apparent because there's so little solid information anywhere else on Child Bride, just the same old facts and misinformation. The other was an article on Terror at Half Day in Scary Monsters magazine, though there were more sources in that instance to rely on.

jnb said...

I'm glad you plan to credit Paul Holbrook for his extensive work on Child Bride. Do you plan to do this as a footnote and/or in the bibliography, or will you mention his name in the text? I ask because, as a writer, I know the sinking feeling when someone paraphrases an in-depth piece you wrote and then relegates you to a footnote. For that reason, if I've drawn heavily on someone's work, I'm eager to credit them in the text. For example: "Paul Holbrook was the first to reveal in Filmfax magazine, through first-hand interviews with Shirley Mills, that..." In this case, the footnote would not be Holbrook's name, but the issue in which his story appeared (Filmfax, issue 124). This gives me an opportunity to credit my research source and encourage readers who like my writing to explore the subject further. This is mandatory in mainstream journalism, especially when we paraphrase, but we're in a brave, new self-published world now where these traditional rules are often broken. Up to you, of course.

Hal C F Astell said...

I don't 'plan to credit Paul Holbrook'. I already have credited Paul Holbrook. Huh? is already published and available at Amazon.

Mostly I credit key source material in the articles themselves, in a similar way to how you suggest. Where I didn't do that, I listed full details in my bibliography:

'In addition to sources cited within the reviews themselves, the following sources were especially useful in writing this book:

...

Paul Holbrook - Making Child Bride in FilmFax Plus (#124; Summer 2010)'