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After a flurry of high profile studio efforts -- Blackboard Jungle, Rebel without a Cause, The Girl Can't Help It -- "juvenile problem" movies laced with Rock 'n' Roll were handed off to the minor league outfits and wildcat independent producers. This created a wave of down-market drive-in epics on the same level as low-budget monster romps of the period. American International and Allied Artists paid the bills with fare like The Cool and the Crazy and Teenage Doll, sleazy tales of gang battles and drug abuse. Roger Corman also hopped this particular gravy train, which soon developed its own corps of acting talent -- John Ashley, Fay Spain, June Kenney, etc. -- most of whom were not welcome in mainstream fare. Director Irvin Kershner got his start with a Warners picture called Stakeout on Dope Street, but the disapproval of rural theater chains limited the content of most of the movies to teen angst, unwanted pregnancies (recommended: Unwed Mother) and good boys gone wrong (The Delinquents, directed by Robert Altman).
Howard Koch and Aubrey Schenck had a good run in the 1950s. Between the two of them they produced for Warner Bros., Allied Artists and United Artists; the Warner Archive Collection has already released their Karloff thriller Frankenstein 1970. Untamed Youth is now considered prime camp Juvenile Delinquency material -- with musical numbers! -- that veers between laughable dramatics and pure 50s exploitation. In the starring position is Mamie Van Doren, a pneumatic platinum blonde with star ambition but little else. We meet her and Lori Nelson (Revenge of the Creature) as they take a break from hitchhiking to skinny-dip in a pond in Cotton Country.
The formulaic story sees show-biz sisters Penny and Jane Lowe (Van Doren and Nelson) arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to a work farm by a female judge, Cecilia Steele (Lurene Tuttle, the sheriff's wife in Psycho). The sexist screenplay makes Judge Cecilia the dupe of Evil cotton grower Russ Tropp (John Russell of John Ford's The Sun Shines Bright). Tropp has secretly married Cecilia to clinch his "setup": her court feeds him cheap labor, which he holds on his honor farm. The mostly juvenile offenders are cheated in Tropp's company store and fed dog food by Tropp's conniving cook, Pinky (Wally Brown).
Penny and Jane are forced to sleep in a dorm with troublesome bunkmates (can you say girl fight?), one bad shower and knotholes through which the boys like to peek. Prisoners both male and female alike are stereotyped, down to the hot ex-stripper, a tall intellectual and a "cute" couple geekier than their hipster pals. Yvonne Lime (Dragstrip Riot) is a creampuff called "Baby" who can't take the rough labor in the blazing sun. Jeanne Carmen (Monster of Piedras Blancas) bartered sexual favors for a cushier job as farmer Tropp's "housemaid", only to be unceremoniously ditched for kissing a farmhand (future Columbia head of Production John Veitch). Margarita (Lucita) is an innocent Mexican-American girl; rock 'n' roll singer Eddie Cochran plays the guitar, or pretends to.
After its sleazy opening Untamed Youth drops the references to nudity and voyeurism, preferring to concentrate on Russ Tropp's caddish behavior. The catalyst for change is Judge Cecilia's son Bob (Don Burnett), who has just returned from the Navy. Bob takes a job with Tropp but soon sides with the prisoners, falling in love with Jane, the sensible Lowe sister. Bob realizes that Tropp is a racketeer when young Baby dies after collapsing in the cotton field, because she was pregnant and too frail to work. Tropp was ignoring the part of the deal that required his laborers to have medical checkups.
Exteriors appear to be a real cotton farm somewhere in Southern California, abetted by stage work on basic sets. The crime angle is reminiscent of the classic film noir Border Incident; screenwriter John C. Higgins started out in the late 1930s concocting "Crime Doesn't Pay" short subjects for MGM. In addition to his cheap convict labor racket, the villain Tropp imports illegal Mexicans (openly called Wetbacks), charging his neighbor farms exorbitant prices for their services.
Curvaceous Penny wears tight sweaters everywhere but the cotton fields and bounces merrily whenever she walks. She regularly interrupts the proceedings with song interludes. Although Penny and Jane claim that they're wholesome entertainers, Penny's dancing is straight from the burlesque stage. She slithers and shimmies on cotton bales; wearing only a slip, she swings her hips like Tempest Storm. Les Baxter provides a very good jazzy soundtrack, but his songs for Miss Van Doren are pretty dire. "Cottonpicker", "Rolling Stone", "Salamander" and "Oobala Baby" are somewhat painful to the ears. In one tune Penny makes good on the promise of the lyric line "Jiggle and wiggle and wriggle and rock!", flipping her various body parts this way and that. Her fellow prisoners form an enthusiastic audience; work farm life is apparently grueling labor under the sun and doggie chow for supper, followed by a hot party every night! Tropp soon puts the moves on Penny, inviting her to the ranch house for an audition and predictably propositioning her up against a wall. If Tropp had a moustache, he'd be twirling it: It's all about trading favors, doll.
Van Doren is unconvincing in almost every scene, leaving Lori Nelson and Don Burnett to carry the show. But don't expect classy dialogue ... Jane and Bob's declarations of love are in the Kerouac groove:
Jane: "I like you."
The adult sex angle is pretty depressing. It takes seventy minutes of misery for Lurene Tuttle's love-blinded Judge to realize that her secret husband Tropp is a total slimeball. Margarita's Spanish language skill helps Don get the lowdown on Tropp's dealings with a sinister Mexican coyote (smuggler). In the rather perfunctory finish the Judge rides to the rescue just as Tropp and the crooked sheriff are about to take Bob and Margarita "for a ride". Tellingly, the only violence occurs when the Mexican smuggler is given a sound beating! Caught red-handed, Tropp just looks irked. In a distinctly retro-feminist move, Judge Cecilia condemns her own poor decisions and decides to quit her job. Yeah, we knew all along that women are too "emotional" to hold down positions of responsibility.
Owing to its "name" cast of 50s JD specialists, Untamed Youth is an interesting curiosity. Good actress Lori Nelson seems to have the most real acting experience. Jeanne Carmen merely looks exotic and pouts. Eddie Cochran has almost no dialogue and mainly fakes playing an acoustic guitar while Les Baxter's electric combo holds forth on the music track. Peaches-and-cream cutie Yvonne Lime spends too much of her time unconscious, having fainted from the heat. As the rotten overseer, John Russell looks disconcertingly like a Marvel Comic villain.
The stultifying finale shows Miss Van Doren getting her TV break performing a simply awful Calypso number. With their profitable studio relationships Aubrey Schenck and Howard W. Koch were doing a fast shuffle between genres around this time. They worked on films noir (Shield for Murder), horror (Pharaoh's Curse, The Black Sleep) and westerns (The Dalton Girls). The fact that Untamed Youth's musical numbers all appear to have been filmed in the same shooting session makes us wonder if the producers pulled tricks on their distributors -- their UA film Bop Girl Goes Calypso is just a string of stage acts much like Van Doren's final Calypso number, and might have been assembled from odds 'n' ends.
Untamed Youth is a strange hybrid, with Van Doren providing the titillation for a fairly tepid tale of youth exploited by nasty adults. In other words, it's a camp holiday. 1
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Untamed Youth is a perfect remastered transfer that flatters Carl Guthrie's able B&W cinematography. The enhanced image (the Archive Website's "full frame" indication is wrong) and beefy audio will make you wince every time another unmotivated "sexy" Van Doren song & dance begins. The movie may be just the thing for viewers seeking out vintage 50s insanity.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Untamed Youth rates:
1. Interestingly, producer Delmer Daves would soon produce for Warners a series of big, glossy color soap opera movies with the likes of Sandra Dee, featuring sleazy teen pregnancies, lascivious parents and moral hypocrisy -- "A" pictures that cleaned up at the box office. The first was A Summer Place.
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