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Wednesday 17 February 2010

Child Bride (1938)

Director: Harry J Revier
Stars: Shirley Mills and Bob Bollinger

I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

I knew that Manos: The Hands of Fate had been referenced by many people in the know as the real worst film of all time, including the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 who had effectively rescued it from cinematic oblivion. However when researching that film I found tantalising snippets about another movie that they declined to screen on their show, one that they once threw out in answer to a convention Q&A question as to whether they had seen anything worse. That movie was 1938's Child Bride, so naturally I had to add it to my Cinematic Hell viewing list. It was a US government funded movie intended to be shown as an educational piece in the Ozarks and other areas of the American deep south where it was seen as acceptable for grown men to marry young girls. And by young, I don't mean seventeen. This is a film that's in the public domain, available on cheap box sets everywhere but is still categorised at Wikipedia under 'films with a pedophile theme'. Be warned.

'Here is a page from the Book of Life...' begins the introduction, just to emphasise how down to earth this purports but utterly fails to be. It tells us that it's based on real 'back yonder' folk living 'deep in the heart of Thunderhead Mountain', so presumably they're all hobbits or trolls or some such. Given what some of the actors look like I wouldn't be too surprised to find some truth in that, even though they don't have round doors and I couldn't get enough of a look at their feet to see how hairy they are. I kept looking out for a balrog but I don't think they had the CGI budget in 1938. That's a real shame because a balrog could have made all the difference for this film.

The introduction also points out that the filmmakers 'aim neither to ridicule nor to defend their mode of living', but have one aim: to abolish the institution of child marriage. In other words, these 'back yonder' folk can do anything they like as long as they like, because it's their right as citizens of the Shire, I mean Thunderhead Mountain, just so long as they don't get up to any of those child marriage shenanigans. That might sound good to begin with but remember that well when you find out what else these 'back yonder' folk get up to. Apparently, for instance, it's OK to be an alcoholic wifebeating bootlegger or to kill people in cold blood in front of already traumatised children as long as you're against child marriage. If only this textbook on ethics could have told us whether or not it's OK to download a Metallica album from the internet we'd be set for life. Perhaps one thing at a time is enough and they were waiting for the sequel to handle peer to peer filesharing.

The central family in the story, the Coltons, apparently don't believe in child marriage either as they own a book called Child Marriage: A Crime that's rather conveniently placed in the frame as we begin. However they have a rather strange approach to demonstrating their opposition: they dress their little twelve year old girl in the skimpiest outfit they possibly can, one conveniently ripped up the front just to highlight that she isn't wearing anything underneath, and let her frolic off to the pigpen in it. She's Jennie Colton and beyond yawning expressively and showing us she doesn't wear any underwear she also gets to sprawl in the mud and indulge in a water fight with her friend Freddie Nulty within the first two minutes of the movie. Are you paying attention? Horseplay with your half naked twelve year old neighbour is fine, just no child marriage.

Fortunately she gets changed before heading out to school with Freddie, because while the Coltons obviously can't afford underwear for little Jennie they can afford a decent outfit for school and another for funerals. Priorities are important in moralistic movies of the thirties, I guess, but it really isn't good when a bad movie gets uncomfortable too and within thirty seconds of the end of the opening credits to boot. Oh, and it gets worse, a lot worse. At least the next uncomfortable scene has less to do with looking up Jennie's short dress and more to do with a pigeon crapping in Alex Cross's textbook. At least this highlights that Thunderhead Mountain must be a really affluent 'back yonder' community, because they have more textbooks than they do in West Phoenix.

Before the pigeon poop incident Freddie's dad gets shot but apparently that's no big deal. It's a through and through so he'll be fine but he's promptly ignored for the rest of the movie anyway. He's apparently only there so that Miss Carol, the uppity schoolteacher, can summon Jennie and Freddie to the front of the class to establish her decency by not bitching them out for being late. She only does that when Freddie can't spell 'milking'. Miss Carol is a local girl made good, claiming to be utterly a mountain girl even though she wears posh frills and make up and practices emotional blackmail on her man Charles, who is now the local assistant district attorney. Yes, he's made good but she won't leave Thunderhead Mountain to be with him because she's devoted her life to changing the local attitude to child marriage and, hey, he'd let her stay if he really loves her. Amazingly that works. Ethics check: emotional blackmail is good, child marriage is bad.

So Miss Carol wanders around trying to instil morality into the local women, telling them that they'll be old at 25 and that they must obey nature's laws, but none of them pay attention. Their menfolk do, but they don't like any of it, so they robe up and kidnap her by torchlight so they can tar and feather her at Spooky Hollow. Now my personal code of exploitation movie ethics says that it's not OK to discover that twelve year old girls don't wear underwear thirty seconds into a movie while it should be compulsory to have cute female teachers tarred and feathered at places called Spooky Hollow, but this movie has it all backwards. The robed menfolk of Thunderhead Mountain get interrupted and stopped before we see any more of Miss Carol than her naked back, but twelve year old Jennie gets her own three hour skinny dipping scene.

Well it feels that long anyway. I told you it was going to get worse, right? Well apparently the best way to persuade dirty old men to stop marrying twelve year old girls is to let them see them naked, swimming around in the buff like this was a naturist movie. At least Jennie won't let Freddie go skinny dipping with her any more because Miss Carol says that's not OK any more. After all, they're not what they used to be and she'd put bad ideas into his head, so while he can carry on kissing her, he can only do it when she has her clothes on. Are you keeping up with these ethics? Twelve year old boys can't go skinny dipping with twelve year old girls but we can watch them for what feels like forever because this is an anti-child marriage movie.

I should point out that we have a villain in this story, who is naturally smitten by Jennie, our prepubescent heroine, after watching her swim naked. He's Jake Bolby and he's her father's partner in his backwoods still business. Ira Colton is a fine upstanding bootlegger, an equal opportunities employer too given that his entire staff seems to consist of Angelo the dwarf, Happy the retard and Jake Bolby the villain of the piece, but Jake is one step too far. After he tosses Happy into the creek and beats up Angelo for his money, Ira beats him up in return and sends him packing. That just leaves the three of them, but they're enough to save Miss Carol, after Angelo hears her screams from the bed he shares with Happy. Remember that one: the mentally handicapped and the physically challenged of the same sex can share a single bed but tarring and feathering teachers is beyond the pale.

Anyway Jake doesn't take kindly to Ira beating him up twice, once for robbing his hired dwarf and then a second time for being one of those robed kidnappers, so he mounts a dastardly plan for revenge. When Ira staggers through town drunk one day, Jake has his buddies plant a seed of distrust in his head, letting him overhear how his wife Flora has been cheating on him with Jake. They know that when he's not being an equal opportunities employer he's an alcoholic wifebeater, you see, so off he goes to his shack to knock his wife senseless and collapse in a drunken stupor on the floor. Jake promptly stabs him to death and even more promptly appears when Flora and her daughter discover the corpse to blackmail her into giving him Jennie as a wife.

This film is something of a nightmare, not just because it peppers its supposedly moral story with exploitative child nudity but because it seems to follow a rather twisted chain of nightmarish logic. You might expect a story with an unabashed moral message to polarise its characters into the good guys and the bad guys, you know, to avoid confusion or something, but it gives up on that entirely about halfway through to paint everyone as bad guys and leave us wondering just who we're supposed to be cheering for. Writer and director Harry J Revier doesn't seem to be sure.

For instance, he establishes the Coltons as good people from moment one. Ira saves the life of Freddie's father who has been shot and left for dead, fights for the honour of his lesser able employees when assaulted by an able bodied man, even saves the damsel in distress when she's abducted by cowardly kidnappers with hidden faces. What a hero! Ah, but no, he's really just an alcoholic who beats his wife. His wife Flora did her part too, but then we find out she did the partner before she got married, spends most of the film showing everyone her cleavage and eventually gives her daughter up to save her own neck. She comes very close to falling out of her rag of a dress on more than a few occasions.

Even Miss Carol, the saintly schoolteacher who puts the moral health of these backwoods hicks before her own marriage and future wellbeing, changes between appearances. She's all righteous and self sacrificing early on but then disappears until the end of the movie, by which time she seems to forget things rather conveniently. She'll do anything she can to stop Jake marrying Jennie but there just isn't anything she can do. Why even try? When her boyfriend finally makes her dream come true by persuading the governor to sign a law banning child marriage, she's happy of course, but can't even be bothered to go save Jennie from being ravaged in the matrimonial bed given that she just got hitched that very same night under threat of blackmail.

By the time we get to the end, there's nobody left to root for, except the dwarf who saves the day in an act of cold blooded murder. From behind. Without warning. While hidden behind a rock. Just because he threw him ruthlessly to the ground earlier on in the story. Wait, we're supposed to be rooting for this guy? Cold blooded murder is fine and dandy but marrying a child when the law says it's OK is not. Yeah, OK. Way to teach us a moral lesson, Harry J Revier. What were you thinking? Why not just make these folks believable people with minor character flaws and then win out at the last moment with the whole changing the law concept? Would that have been difficult? Wow, what went on in your brain? How old was your wife when you got hitched? No wonder this was your last film.

What's most amazing here is not that Harry Revier didn't make any more films, it's that Shirley Mills did. She was twelve years old when she got to strip buck naked for this movie, her film debut, but she was apparently fine with the concept and looks back on the experience as a positive one. Her website talks about the public being horrified by news of grown men marrying girls as young as nine in Appalachia and that the Production Code prohibited Hollywood from addressing the issue. It took an independent filmmaker working outside of the confines of that code to make such a film and take it on the road to educate the public. Mills explains that children were far more innocent in those days than now but it's not clear whether she was talking about the child brides themselves or her appearance in this movie. Whichever, she ends her notes by saying that 'yes, I was proud to appear in that film.'

It certainly got her noticed. Two years later she was the young daughter of the Joad family in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, and she'd work for many of the other great names of the era including Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor and Michael Curtiz. That makes her one of the few names here to have a career in the industry. Most of them had never acted on screen before and never would again, including Bob Bollinger and George Humphreys, who played Freddie and Ira Colton respectively. The same went for Diana Durrell (Miss Carol) or Dorothy Carrol (Flora Colton), even though they had connections. Carrol was the wife of the director, Harry Revier, and Durrell was the fiancée of Raymond Friedgen, the producer.

The only other names that really had careers as actors were Angelo Rossitto and Warner Richmond. Richmond, the villain of the piece here, was usually a good guy and had a long run as such in movies going as far back as 1912 and continuing almost up until his death in 1948. Rossitto, bizarrely credited as Don Barrett but playing a character with his own name, Angelo the dwarf, had a career that spanned seven decades from the tail end of the silent era to the late eighties. You've seen his memorable 2'11" frame many times, I'm sure, whether you remember him best from Freaks, from Pufnstuf or from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. He made 62 movies and I've now seen almost half of them.

The other name worth mentioning is that of Kroger Babb. He was one of the most legendary showmen in exploitation film history, right up there with David Friedman, getting wild exploitation films made then taking them on the road, hawking them like the barker in a medicine show. This was the first film he exhibited, under one of its reissue titles, Dust to Dust, surprisingly far less overt a title than Child Bride or Child Bride of the Ozarks. I'll leave the final word to his wife, Mildred Horn, who wrote his most successful title, Mom and Dad, a morality story about teenage pregnancy that cost $62,000 to make and may have grossed $100m. She called this film, 'the most atrocious thing I ever saw.' Manos: The Hands of Fate is definitely worse, but this is more atrocious. I can totally see why the MST:3K guys didn't screen it.

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